Saturday, September 14, 2019

The 1914 Cedarcliff Apartments - 40-48 St. Nicholas Place

Having learned his trade in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham, George Fred Pelham opened his own office in 1890.   His son, George Fred Pelham, Jr., joined the firm in 1910. 

Pelham's designs for apartment buildings, rowhouses and hotels were impressive; but not especially out of the ordinary.  He routinely turned to the same historic styles being used by any number of New York architects--Renaissance Revival and Gothic Revival, for instance.   But the apartment building project he took on for the Strathcona Construction Co. on St. Nicholas Place in 1913 would stand out.

Filling five building plots, The Cedarcliff was designed following the Parisian "courtyard apartments" scheme.  Interior apartments looked out on a central light court, affording additional light and ventilation.  But it was the Pelham's ornamentation that made the building special.

The relatively unadorned rusticated limestone featured a wide, double-doored entrance flanked by lampposts on pedestals.  Above it, two carved cornucopia spilled fruit on either side of a swagged shield.  The five stories of orange brick above would have been unremarkable were it not for the extraordinary, polychrome terra cotta ornaments that completed the design.

More than two stories tall, the decorations were a blend of Art Nouveau and neo-Baroque styles--the sort of lavish ornament that would soon make its appearance in the motion picture palaces of major cities.

In February 1914, immediately upon the Cedarcliff's completion it was sold, bringing a price of around $200,000--or just over $5 million today.

Apartments in the building ranged from three to four rooms each, and brought rents in 1916 from $33 to $45 per month.  The rent for the larger apartments would be equal to just over $1,000 per month today.  The size of the apartments and the affordable rents were a sign that the Sugar Hill neighborhood was sliding from upper- to middle-class.

Among the early tenants was Helen J. Moses, a registered nurse who worked in the Mount Sinai Dispensary in its Children's Social Service department.  Max M. Kotzen lived in the building in October 1918 when he was appointed a Commissioner of Deeds, a civil service post roughly equivalent to a notary public today.

Brothers Wilfred Whaley and Laurence Alexander Mack lived in the building in 1918, as well.  Laurence was the president of The Underwriter Printing and Publishing Company, publisher of The Weekly Underwriter.  Wilfred was the vice-president of the firm.  Their family's prestigious roots were evidenced in Laurence's memberships in the Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Sons of the Revolution.

When the United States entered World War I, Wilfred Mack joined the Army.  He did not see action, but was appointed to the Division of Finance and Accounts in the Quarter Master's section where he earned the rank of Captain in 1918.

Two other tenants were fighting in the war that year.  R. J Heisler was a member of one of the Army's Field Artillery battalions; and J. C. O'Brien was on the front lines in France.  His family received horrible news in October that year--just one month before the war's end--when he was listed as missing in action.

By 1923 artist Agnes B. Fernbach was living in the Cedarcliff.  Born on June 29, 1879, she had studied under the ground breaking Ernest Haskell and Alphonse Mucha.

Agnes B. Fernbach produced "In Roger Morris Park, in 1921, possibly when living in the Cedarcliff.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Scandal arrived at the Cedarcliff Apartments in 1931 when Thomas L. Cowan, described by The New York Age, as "one of the star agents in the employ of the New York office of the Victory Life Insurance Co.," was arrested for grand larceny.   Despite his impressive work record, questions arose in 1930 and in June he was fired for "alleged mishandling of the company's funds."  Now, after a closer inspection of the books, it was discovered that he had been collecting money for the purchase of company stock, but had "failed to render any accounting for his collections."

The New York Age, which ran the front page article about Cowan's troubles, was among the most influential Black newspapers of its time.  It was evidence of the continuing change in demographics in the Sugar Hill neighborhood.

The newspaper reported on a new social organization formed in the Cedarcliff the following year.  On March 12, 1932 it reported that the "Carleida Social Club held its first tea on Sunday afternoon, March 6, at the home of its president, 48 St. Nicholas place.  H. (Ali Oop) Smith and R. (Concordia) Kirby were among the guests present who mainly composed the club's church friends."  The article said that the highlight of the evening was "the many solos and speeches delivered by a few of the guests, the solo by the secretary was the main surprise, and everyone spent a most enjoyable evening."

A colorful tenant at the  time arrived in the form of Henry "Red" Allen and his family.  The jazz trumpeter and vocalist has been compared to Louis Armstrong.  According to biographer John Chilton, in his Ride, Red, Ride: The Life of Henry "Red" Allen, while living here in 1933 Allen was approached by composer Patrick "Spike" Hughes.  Hughes, says Chilton, "had regularly praised Red's recorded work."  When he arrived in New York for a long visit that year, Hughes "organized a series of recording sessions; among the first musicians that he invited to play on these dates was Red Allen."

Harris and Betty Perry had an apartment in the Cedarcliff in 1938.  Betty was 28-years old and worked as a domestic in the home of William R. Goodheart in Great Neck, Long Island.  At around 10:30 p.m. on Friday evening, January 21, 1938 she was riding in a car driven by Walter Kistler, another Great Neck resident, when it was involved in a three-car collision.

Betty refused medical attention at the scene and asked to be taken back to the Goodheart residence.  There she complained of dizziness and nausea.  She was taken to the Flushing Hospital, where she died of a fractured skull.  Authorities found the entire situation shady--not only because the seriously injured woman initially refused to be treated in a public hospital; but because the accident had never not been reported to authorities.

In 1939 Edward W. Simon had been a letter carrier for 14 years; and he was well known for his lodge activities.  But on February 25, 1939 The New York Age ran a headline reading "Edw. W. Simon Arrested in P.O. Theft" and began its article saying "Fraternal circles are buzzing this week over the arrest of Edward W. Simon, former power of Elkdom and one time exalted ruler of Manhattan Lodge, No. 45."  It was not the first time he had gotten into trouble shady conduct.  Simon's "exalted" status had crumbled when he was suspended from the Elks in 1937 "for refusing to give records to the Grand Lodge concerning the financial and business affairs of the lodge."

Toward the end of 1938 Post Office officials suspected that Simon was "rifling the mails" in search of cash or checks.  Decoy letters were slipped into the mail which would end up on his route.  The ruse worked and on February 14 Simon was arrested by Postal Inspector Dowley.

If Red Allen had given the Cedarcliff a musical reputation, it was enormously enhanced when the building was purchased by Lionel and Gladys Hampton.   Lionel, of course, was an internationally known jazz musician and bandleader, later inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.  And in his 1991 biography, There and Back, Roy Porter notes that in 1948 he "moved into a building owned by Lionel and Gladys Hampton at 48 St. Nicholas Place."

Porter was a jazz drummer who backed legends like Charlie Parker.  A year after moving into the Cedarcliff he organized and went on the road with a large band that included Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Knepper and Art Farmer.  Sadly, that was near the end of his glory days.  In the 1950's drug addition forced him to essentially withdraw from the music scene.

Another notable musician here had nothing to do with jazz.  Edward Margetson, called by The New York Age a "scion of West Indies musicians," operated his studio in his apartment in the early 1950's.  Interestingly, Margetson started his career as an organist and for decades was the organist at the Church of the Crucifixion.  His mother, according to The New York Age, was "considered one of the finest pianists of her time, and his father a skilled choral director on the Island of St. Kitts, British West Indies."

Having studied liturgical, symphonic and chamber music at Columbia University and the recipient of several grants and fellowships; in 1927 Margetson decided to introduce his Harlem neighbors to choral music.  He later explained "They said it couldn't be done...when I became obsessed with the idea that the entire community in which I lived should share the benefits of my musical education.  They said I couldn't interest laymen in joining a choral group, making rehearsals and sacrifices of time for the sheer love of music."

But "they" were wrong.  On December 20, 1952 The New York Age reported "The walls of staid Madison Ave. Presbyterian Church still echoed with the sound of vibrant voices and enthusiastic applause Sunday night" following the 25-year old group's performance.  The 47 members of the chorus included "dressmakers, tailors, clerks, laundrymen, housewives and the like."

In the early 1970's Chink Cunningham and his wife, Evelyn, lived here.  Cunningham ran an after-hours club on 148th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue with a partner, Johnny Walker.  According to Sonda K. Wilson in her Meet Me at the Theresa, "Those in the know understood that it was a numbers and bookmaking place.  Cunningham and Walker admitted a select clientele like Joe Louis, Lana Turner, Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Romare Bearden, and Tallulah Bankhead, who loved to gulp down bourbon."

Cunningham was admitted to the Harkness Pavilion of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in July, 1973.  Two weeks later, on August 7, he checked himself out.  He died the next morning in his apartment in the Cedarcliff.

On January 7, 1975 a tenant called the elevator, only to find a horrifying sight when it arrived.  The body of 50-year old Eric Illidge was on the floor.  He had been shot in the head.  The New York Times reported "The body had been stuffed into two sea bags, one over the head, the other over the feet."

The renaissance of the Sugar Hill neighborhood has resulted in renovated apartments and an updated lobby; although much of George Fred Pelham's interior architectural details survive.  And outside, those remarkable terra cotta decorations still cause pause.

photographs by the author

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