Thursday, October 3, 2019

A Wooden Relic - 512 West 153rd Street

At some point in the last quarter of the 19th century the porch was extended to full width.

In the first years following the end of the Civil War small frame houses began appearing in the Carmansville neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.  The district was named for wealth builder and developer Richard F. Carman who lived on West 153rd Street, not far from John James Audubon's estate, Minniesland, at 156th Street.  Decades later, on October 14, 1922, real estate broker J. Romaine Brown remembered him to the Record & Guide.  "He owned practically all the land on Washington Heights that bore his name.  It covered what are now many square blocks."

Among his projects was a row of wooden three-story houses on West 153rd Street, between the Bloomingdale Road (renamed Broadway) and Tenth Avenue (renamed Amsterdam Avenue).  Three bays and 25-feet wide, the unpretentious homes were sparsely decorated.  Bracketed, wooden cornices and porches in the Italianate style were their few distinguishing architectural features.

The nearest house in the frame retained its original cornice and porch in this 1932 photograph.  No. 512 is toward the far end, next to the two automobiles.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Middle class families moved into the houses.  In the 1880's No. 512 was home to the Birdsall family.  It appears they rented out at least one room.  Frank Burber listed his address here when he was hired by the New York City Police Department in 1888.  He received an annual salary of $1,800--about $49,000 today.

The Birdsalls apparently lived long lives.  In 1889 newspapers announced that Frances Birdsall had "died in the home of her parents."  She was 71 years old.  

Henrietta Bolland lived here by 1892 and ran her dressmaking shop in the house.  Henrietta had a full partner in the business, which went by the name Bolland & Geideman.  The shop was here for about a year.

Henry Hintermeister and his family were next to occupy No. 512.  Hintermeister ran a "designer" business.  The term most likely referred to the relatively recent interior design business.

The Hintermeisters' daughter, Elizabeth, fell victim to a heartless scam artist in 1896.  James C. Hart was arrested in December that year for having stolen $10,000 in diamonds from Mrs. Elizabeth M. De le Barre.   He was soon identified by other victims and was found to have been "mixed up in some scheme to swindle firms in Chicago and Minneapolis," as reported by The Evening Telegram on December 14.  As investigators dug deeper they uncovered more insidious schemes.

The article said "The detective also came upon a number of letters from women who had answered Hart's advertisements for a governess...Hart's scheme was to engage women as governesses to go to California and to swindle them out of as much money as he could get from them."  Among those letters was one from Elizabeth F. Hintermeister.

Unfortunately, Henry Hintermeister's design business did not survive.  On August 25, 1899 The Sun reported that he had declared bankruptcy.  His woefully off-balance books showed liabilities of $21,656 and assets of $140.

John F. Flynn was renting rooms in the house by 1905.  He had been hired by the city on May 1, 1901 as a clerk.   The athletic young man headed up the amateur baseball club The Colonials of Washington Heights.  On May 15, 1905 he announced in The Evening Telegram that the team's schedule still had "Decoration Day and a few later dates open" to play against "teams of like strength."  Flynn's civil service salary in 1907 was $1,500 per year, or about $41,300 in today's terms.

Fireman William J. Lennon was living in No. 512 at least by 1913.  He had been appointed to the department on January 1, 1900.  He and his wife, Emily, had three daughters, Marion, Gladys and Katherine, and a son, John L. Lennon.  The house had earlier been divided into flats, one per floor, and the Lennons occupied "No. 2."  William was by now the captain of Hook & Ladder Company No. 48.

Daughter Katherine had gotten a secretarial job with the city; but problems arose early in 1913 when it was discovered she was underage.  On February 19 the Civil Service Commission resolved that her "name be...removed from the eligible list of Stenographer and appearing that she was under the minimum age prescribed at the time of filing her application (18 years)."  The Commissioner of Public Charities was informed "that her services in his Department should be terminated at once."  (A "typewriter" in 1913 was not only the piece of equipment, but its operator.)

Katherine's brother, John L. Lennon, managed to land a civil service job of his own in 1917, earning a starting salary of $700 (just under $10,000 a year today).  His father's salary with the Fire Department at the time was $2,500; equal to about $59,000 in today's dollars.

At the time the house was owned by an absentee landlord, Emma Meckert, who lived far north in Ossining New York.  She sold it in January 1918 to another real estate operator, Daniel H. Jackson.  One of his tenants, Leon Silver, was wounded in battle in World War I later that year.

John J. Lord lived close by in the apartment house at Nos. 530-534 West 153rd Street.  On May 15, 1918 he, too, was hired by the city as a "general clerk."  His good news of his appointment was outweighed, however, problems with his landlady, Mrs. Marion Martin.

Lord's rent was originally $25 a month.  But Martin began raising the rents.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 21, 1919 "the increases [are] coming rapidly in the last few months."  At the time of the article Lord's rent had increased to $42 a month.  Martin told the Commissioner of Accounts "that she wanted the tenants out, as there were a hundred others who would pay her higher rentals for the apartments."

Lord's solution was simple--he would become his own landlord.  The New-York Tribune reported that Lord "has bought the three family house at 512 West 153d Street, which is in the same block."  Now, said the article, he would "not be subject further to the whims of landlords who see changes for gain."  

John J. Lord moved into one of the apartments and continued renting to the two existing tenants, including the Lennons.  A staunch Roman Catholic, Lord was the Manhattan Secretary to the State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus.  

He and other members of the K. of C. took notice of the announcement of a lecture to be held in Child's Hall in Floral Park in Queens on April 15, 1923.  Dr. John H. Moore was the former pastor of the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and was now a promoter and organizer of the Ku Klux Klan.  That night he "found a large crowd" present, according to The New York Times.  No doubt pleased with the turnout, what he did not know was that it was an unfriendly audience, many of whom were Knights of Columbus members.

If anyone other that Moore had arranged the event, he did not show up.  There was no one on stage to introduce the speaker, and so Patrick F. Scanlon walked onto the stage and announced he would preside.  The Times said "Apparently Dr. Moore thought that Scanlon was a member of the Local Klan."  He was, in fact, the editor of the Brooklyn Tablet and a member of the Knights of Columbus.

Dr. Moore told the assemblage about the Klan.  "He told of its great Americanism, its loyalty to the country's traditions and wound up after a half an hour by telling what the Klan so far had accomplished in this country.  When he sad down there was no applause.  Then Scanlon rose.  He was cheered."

Scanlon excoriated the Klan and denounced Moore for leaving the Baptist Church, "a Christian organization," to joined an "un-Christian and un-American group."

He was followed by John J. Lord.  Dr. Moore decried "Isn't it a little unusual for people to come upon the platform and interfere with a meeting in this way?"  Lord challenged whoever organized the meeting to come on stage.  No one would take responsibility.  Moore left humiliated and a police escorted his vehicle to make sure he was unmolested.

On April 3, 1925 William Lennon was promoted to chief of battalion.  That same year, on September 2, he was recognized for his 25 years of service.  He was presented with "a chest of silver and a horseshoe of flowers," according to The New York Times.  The article mentioned parenthetically "Fourteen years ago at a fire Captain Lennon, while leading his men, fell off a roof and was injured, hence his detail to light duty at headquarters."  In fact, he had not fallen from a roof, but had been crushed by a falling wall.

The Colligan family was renting an apartment from Lord by 1925.  James J. Colligan was 17 years old at the time.  His father bred Irish terriers with a partner.  On February 9 that year O'Connor & Colligan exhibited their dogs in the Combined Terrier Clubs Special Shows in the Squadron A Armory on Park Avenue.  O'Connor & Colligan was officially listed at No. 512 West 153rd Street.  The family was still here in 1932 when James married Dorothy Walker.

In the meantime, John J. Lord's salary was increased to $3,350 per year in 1927; about $48,500 today.  Two years later his department was stained by scandal.  The New York Times reported on June 19, 1929 that charges had been filed against "three attaches of the County Clerk's office [who] in the last four years had conspired to defraud the county out of small sums of money."  Those small sums had by now accumulated to more than $50,000.  John J. Lord's testimony before the grand jury was one of four which led to the indictments.

Rather amazingly, the row of wooden houses were not demolished in the 20th century for an apartment house.  In 1973 No. 512 was officially renovated to one apartment per floor--a configuration which most likely had been in place since around 1900.

The passageway separating No. 512 from its neighbor--originally called a horsewalk--provided access to the rear yards.  It also allowed extra light and ventilation to the interiors.
photographs by the author

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