Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The George Schumann House - 29 West 88th Street

Developers Ryan & Rawnsley hired architects Thom & Wilson to design a row of five houses on West 88th Street in 1888.  They intended the speculative residences to catch the attention of financially-comfortable families.  And they would.

Thom & Wilson filed plans on March 23, 1888 for five brownstone-fronted dwellings stretching from No. 25 to 33 West 88th Street, between Eighth Avenue (later renamed Central Park West) and Columbus Avenue.  The plans projected the cost of each house at $20,000--in the neighborhood of $515,000 in 2019.

Completed in the spring of 1889, the row was an over-the-top medley of Renaissance Revival ornamentation.  The facades were a visual overload of textures and shapes--arches, rusticated and fluted pilasters, intricate carvings, angled bays and dog-legged stoops.  Nos. 25, 29 and 33 were identical; while Nos. 27 and 31 were near twins.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide was impressed.  On June 22, 1889 it declared "The passer-by on the north side of 88th street, a few hundred feet west of the Central Park, cannot fail to notice a group of five stately-looking private residences."  The Guide noted the "considerable carved work in floral and figure designs," and then described the interiors.

On the parlor floors were "reception, drawing and dining rooms, flanked by a butler's pantry, with a private stairway leading to the culinary department.  The entrance to each house is barred by three massive mahogany doors--storm, vestibule and hall--with windows of beveled glass."  Built-in furniture on this level included "handsome mirrors and hat stands" in the foyers, and a "handsome bouffe" in the dining rooms.

While the parlor floor was trimmed in mahogany, the second and third floors were in oak.  The two bedrooms on the second floor were "laid out en salon."  The Guide said "The saloons are larger than usual, and one finds oneself surrounded on all sides by mirrors, with a profusion of closets and an attractive toilet-stand."  A bathroom to the rear of this floor "has a cosy and rich appearance, and has a porcelain tub and a French bowl."  The third floor was similar to the second, and every room included a fireplace.

The stair hall was illuminated by a stained glass skylight.  Ryan & Rawnsley provided the latest in appliances in the basement service level.  "The 'Defiance' range, porcelain washtubs and other necessities complete the domestic arrangements on this floor."

On one afternoon, November 15, 1889, Ryan & Rawnsley sold two of the 20-foot wide homes.  Charles W. Schumann, Jr. purchased No. 27 and his brother, George Henry Schumann bought the house next door at No. 29.  The price of each was $32,500; or about $915,000 today.

Charles moved into the middle house, with the columned portico, and George into No. 29 to its left.
Along with a third brother, William, the Schumanns were partners in Charles Schumann's Sons, an upscale jewelry store founded by their father, Charles William Schumann.  It had long been located in the Mortimer Building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street.  In his 1891 book Art and Gems, Schumann described his opulent store.  "Messrs. Schumann's Sons carry at all times a superb stock of diamonds, watches and jewelry...They cater to the very best class of trade and carry none but strictly fine goods.  They number a large proportion of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families of New York among their regular customers."

George and his wife, Emma, had two daughters, Carrie W. and Marguerite Grace Louise, and a son, George H., Jr.  Moving into No. 29 with the family was Charles, Sr.  

The lavish carvings at parlor level include a child's head peering from a half-shell above an elaborate floral arrangement; additional children's faces in the panels below; and a fantastic lion above the doorway.  Close inspection reveals two other children's faces at the base of the door surround, one partly visible to the left.
Emma made a change to the domestic staff in 1894.  Her advertisement in The New York Herald on November 2o sought a "Competent Protestant cook to assist with laundry work.  German preferred."

Charles W. Schumann, Sr., died of heart disease in the 88th Street house on November 4, 1902.  The New York Herald noted "He was seventy-eight years old and had been ill about a week.  He leaves three sons."  The sons took over the operation of the store.  Although William was disabled, needing a wheelchair, he played a role in the business for several years.

The high-end tenor of the store was evidenced following a brazen mid-day burglary on Sunday, November 12, 1905.  Although the interior of the store was in full view of passersby, the crooks had broken in the front door and made off with silverware valued at $10,000, or about $294,000 today.  Luckily they were unable to get into the vault, described by the New-York Tribune as "being the strongest vault in the city."  In it were jewelry and silverware valued at around $14.7 million by today's standards.

At the time of the theft the Schumann girls were in their late teens.  Three months later, on February 25, 1906 The New York Herald reported that Emma "gave a large reception on Friday last to introduce her daughters, the Misses Carrie and Margaret [sic] Schumann."  Later, said the article, "an informal dance was given."

Following the uptown migration of the other jewelry stores, art galleries and similar retailers, the Schumann brothers began construction of an Art Nouveau-style building at No. 716 Fifth Avenue in 1910.  

George and Emma celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on March 9 that year with a dinner party.  Four days later The New York Herald mentioned "On Thursday they left New York to spend a few days in Washington and Baltimore."

Each of the carved panels between the third floor windows is different.

George died at the age of 56 in the 88th Street house on October 22, 1912.  His funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.  His estate was left entirely to Emma.

The New York Times made special mention of the Schumann artworks, noting "Among the paintings were the 'Russian Wedding Feast' and 'Choosing the Bride,' by Makowsky.  In fact, Emma inherited only half of the "A Boyar Wedding Feast," as it is best known today.  Charles and George had chipped in equally on the painting when it was sold in 1885.  Their $15,000 bid was reportedly higher than Alexander III of Russia cared to spend.

Emma inherited half the value of "The Boyar Wedding Feast."  Whether it hung in No. 27 or in No. 29 is unknown.  image via Google Cultural Institute

The family lived on in the house and at a tea held during the first week of April 1914 Emma announced the engagement Marguerite to Harry Simpson Roberts.

During World War I George, Jr. was part of the American ambulance corps that drove into the heat of battle to remove the injured.  A letter to his mother written from the French front which arrived in June 1918 gave a hint of the horrors of warfare.  In part it said:

Our division with the 131st French division has lost between 70 and 80 percent of the strength and is now going on a much earned rest.  When we found we could not handle all the injured they sent in ten more Fords, but as fast as they came the Germans broke them up with shellfire...Every one in the section is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Four of them had to be sent away to rest...I am pretty fine, although my throat and lungs are still sore from being gassed.

Emma Schumann sold her home of more than three decades in September 1920.  The buyer, John Lucas, resold it in April 1922 to Jane Ferguson.  Whether she lived in the house is unclear; however in 1941 it was converted to three furnished apartments in the basement, two apartments each on the first and second floors, an apartment and a furnished room on the third, and five furnished rooms on the fifth floor.

That configuration lasted until 1968 when the house was returned to a single-family residence with a doctor's office in the basement.

By 2002 the property was owned by Dr. Melanie Katzman and her husband, Russell Edward Makowsky.  (Noticing the coincidence of Makowsky's surname and that of the Russian artist whose works once hung in the house is unavoidable.)  A clinical psychologist, Dr. Katzman's impressive resume includes several books and articles and the founding of Katzman Consulting, an adviser to public and private companies.

Other than replacement windows, there is little exterior change evident in No. 29 since the Schumann family moved in 120 years ago.

photographs by the author

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