Friday, September 6, 2019

Tattered Beauties - 883-887 St. Nicholas Avenue

photo by Matthew X. Kiernan 

Developer John Kelly purchased the large tract at the southwest corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 154th Street in 1874.  It would be nearly a decade before development in the Sugar Hill district was far enough along that he considered building on the sprawling plot.  In 1883 architect James Stroud designed eleven row houses for Kelly that wrapped the corner--seven of them on West 154th Street and four more at Nos. 881 to 887 St. Nicholas Avenue.

In its May issue that year Building, An Architectural Monthly remarked that the homes would not edge the sidewalk, as might be expected, but would sit aloofly back and above.  "The architect, Mr James Stroud, has designed them on plateaus, giving the pleasing effect of green terraces, with walks of Seyssel Rock asphalt."  The writer described what today we recognized as the Queen Anne style.  "He has introduced colonial features of architecture, such as bow windows, irregular roofs, verandahs and balconies.  There will be ornamental sashes with glacier decorations and rolling Venetian blinds."  (The "glacier decorations" would most likely have been stained glass transoms and the multi-paned upper sashes that still survive at No. 883.)

The seven houses on West 154th Street all survive.

Kelly intended the 21-foot wide homes to be rental properties.  To lure well-heeled tenants, he included upscale interior detailing--like ash and cherry trim--and modern amenities like hot and cold running water.  A "decided improvement on the usual city house is the introduction of windows opening to the outer air, which are at the head of the stairways on each landing," said Bridge.

The writer opined "Just why families are willing to pay $1,800 or $2,000 per annum for a suite of apartments on the eleventh story of an apartment house when they can rent a pleasant residence on its own ground for less than half the money, it is difficult to tell."  Kelly's tenants would expect to pay as much as $2,250 per month in today's dollars.

The four St. Nicholas Avenue houses were arranged in an A-B-B-A configuration.  Nos. 881 (now demolished) and 887 were mirror images.  Their stone staircases from the sidewalk to the "plateau" were on the opposite side of the lot from the stoop.  The entrances were within a slightly projecting bay that rose to an Addams Family-ready mansard cap with a large oval window.

Nos. 883 and 885, also mirror images, were accessed by long, dramatic sets of steps from the street.  To the side of the entrances were three-sided bay window which provided balconies to the second floor.  The full-height mansards were covered in fish-scale patterned slate shingles and united by a sharp triangular pediment.

No. 885 (right) has sadly lost its parlor floor bay window (and a few other architectural elements).

Title to the properties were in the name of Kelly's wife, Mary.  She leased No. 883 to a socially prominent couple--Thomas M. Foote and his wife, the former Julia Jerome.  The couple had two children, Thomas, Jr. and Frances Jerome Foote.

Born in 1841, Foote was a member of the brokerage firm Thompson & Foote and also, for a while, president of the American District Telegraph Company.  He was a member of the exclusive Union Club and the Coney Island Jockey Club.

Julia was the daughter of Addison G. Jerome and cousin of Jennie Jerome.  On September 4, 1874 the Daily British Colonist began an article saying "A New York dispatch gives the following as the price paid by a New York snob for getting his daughter into the English nobility."  The article had to do with Jennie Jerome's marriage to Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill.  It went on to say that Thomas M. Foote was one of three trustees charged with paying "an annuity of $10,000 in gold."  

Given the Footes' sterling reputations within society, it was shocking that in March 1894 Mary Kelly took Thomas to court in an attempt to get back rent.  

Mary had better luck with her tenant at No. 885.  Financier Albert S. Caldwell had started out as a clerk clerk around 1864 and was later one of the founders of the Fifth Avenue Bank.    The Caldwells' daughter, Elizabeth Stockwell Caldwell, married Eustace Hopkins while living here.  The groom was the son of wealthy merchant John M. Hopkins, who had been associated with Alexander T. Stewart.  (Stewart left Hopkins the equivalent of a quarter of a million in today's dollars in his will.)  The Caldwells remained in No. 885 until Albert suddenly died on the night of June 3, 1894.  

The Caldwells were followed by the George B. Watts family, here by 1897.  It must have been a somewhat crowded environment, judging from the listing in The Social Register.  Living here along with Watts and his wife, the former Helen Wood, were daughters Julia and Ethel; a son listed only as "J. Watts;" and George Watts, Jr., his wife and two children, Sabina and James D. Watts.  The family as well had two Black live-in servants, both from the South.  

Helen Watts was active in charitable and social causes.  In 1899 she was the president of the American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless.  She touted the institution in a letter to The New York Times on January 20 that year, saying "No better evidence of the health of our children can be had than the fact that from May 1, 1895 to May 1, 1898 there were 685 different children in our home; and during that time, there were only five deaths."

Bubble-like terra cotta bosses decorate the eyebrows above the arched doorways and blackened bricks create a patterned coarse above.
Helen had decided opinions and in a speech to the "200 enthusiastic women" who attended a meeting of the Female Guardian Society on October 6, 1899, she attacked "the Mormon M0vement."  She opened her speech with a prayer that American homes might be "protected and saved from the horrible black curse with which they have been menaced."

No. 887 was home first to William R. Foster, Jr., the counsel of the Produce Exchange.  He left around 1887, just before scandal ruined his good name.  He handled the Exchange's "gratuity fund," which provided loans for members' mortgages.  In 1888 it was discovered that Foster had been issuing fake mortgages, forging signatures, and embezzling thousands.  Foster disappeared and in the meantime his bitter father spoke to reporters.  "He said that he could not understand how, with a certain inheritance of $500,000, the son could have disgraced himself and the family name for $193,000," recounted The New York Times on September 30, 1888.

He was followed in No. 887 by Louis Rosenbaum and his family.  A German-born leather merchant, Rosenbaum lived here with his wife, Eva, four sons, and two Irish servants.  The family lived here until 1902.

That year Anna T. Kelly sold all eleven of the houses to Moses Bachman, who resold them to Max Marx.  He immediately began selling them off one-by-one.

He sold Nos. 883 and 885 simultaneously--883 to Mary C. Van Cott and 885 to Louis F. Hallen.  Both were real estate developers and had known each other since Hallen was a boy.  Mary, who never married, had helped to raise Hallen, resulting in a near-family relationship.

Interestingly, the Hallen family moved into Mary C. Van Cott's residence, at No. 883, and Hallen continued leasing No. 885 to the Watts family.  They would remain until 1909.

Louis Hallen's wife was the former Mary W. Jones.  They had two daughters and a son, Louis Frederick, who was just two years old when they moved into No. 883.  The family maintained a country home at Stony Brook, Long Island and it was there, in the summer of 1903, that Hallen suddenly died.  His funeral was held in No. 883 on August 5.

The close relationship between Mary C. Van Cott and the Hallens was again evidenced when she now moved into No. 833.  Her presence was no doubt a help in rearing little Louis, as it had been with his father.

Louis was 17-years old when the United States entered World War I.  He joined the Army and fought through the conflict; but took a criminal path upon returning home.  He was convicted of third degree robbery on June 29, 1925 and sent to the State Reformatory in Elmira, New York.  

Mary C. Van Cott died at the age of 80 five months later, on November 19.  Her substantial estate included several large bequests to charitable organizations like the St. Luke's Home for Aged Women and the Home for Old Men and Aged Couples  But one bequest caught the attention of the press.

On December 4 the Buffalo Evening News reported "When Louis Frederick Hallen, 25 years released from the state reformatory...he will find an incentive to better things awaiting him in the form of a legacy."  The New York Times explained that he would receive $20,000 outright (about $286,000 today), and "one-fifth of the residuary estate."   The Buffalo Evening News said simply that Mary "had taken a friendly interest" in him; and The New York Times added "Miss Van Cott helped to bring up the young man's father."

With Mary's death Nos. 883 and 885 soon ceased to be private dwellings.  They were purchased by the Church Temperance Society.  No. 883 was converted to a doctor's office on the first floor, "treatment rooms" on the second, and the superintendent's quarters on the third.

A doctor's office was also installed in the first floor of No. 885, with living quarters for Dr. James Empringham and the offices of the Society on the upper floors.  

On December 3, 1926 the readers of The New York Times were likely shocked when it reported that Empringham had asked Prohibition groups to drop his name from their list of supporters.

"The organization of which I am secretary is for temperance.  It is not for prohibition and never has been in all the fifty years of its existence," he said.  "The Church Temperance Society is made up of total abstainers who, of course, would like to see the traffic in alcohol ended, but we believe in bringing this about by education and moral suasion."

By the mid-1940's the Ethlyn Beauty Salon operated from the former doctor's office at No. 883, run by Ethlyn Smith Carter.  In May 1948 the New York Age reported on its reopening after a remodeling.  "The Ethlyn Beauty Salon not only is equipped to do a first class hairstyling job," it said "but is also furnished to give milady all the modernistic treatments for putting on or taking off excess poundage."

In March 1950 the Ethlyn Beauty Salon offered a "special 30-day treatment" for weight reduction at $27.  The announcement promised that the treatment would reduce "hips, thighs, etc., which helps reduce inches and banish bulges."  

In 1977 Nos. 883 and 885 were converted to the McDonald's Nursery, a day care center for children 2-1/2 years old and up.  Then, around 2010, the combined homes became a bed and breakfast.

A general renovation inside and out is taking place at No. 887 in 2019.
In 2018 a renovation was begun on No. 887 to convert it to a two-family dwelling.  Substantial restoration is being conducted on the facade.  And while all three of the houses show lamentable abuse, each could be rehabilitated to their former charm.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for suggesting this post

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