In the first years of the 20th century neo-Gothic style business buildings clad in gleaming terra cotta began popping up across the city. The most notable, of course, was architect C. P. H. Gilbert's masterful Woolworth Building, completed in 1913. That same year a fledgling developer, Edward West Browning, completed what was just his second building. The 30-story World Tower was designed by Buchman & Fox in the same style and materials.
The architects and the developer would soon work together again. On June 6, 1914 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that the estate of William E. Hoe had sold Browning his 25-foot wide home at No. 126 West 73rd Street. The notice added, "Mr. Browning has bought in the last month three other dwellings in the immediate neighborhood."
Later that year real estate operators Earle & Calhoun commented "Investors are beginning to realize that the West Side has become a big apartment house center and are buying private house sites for improvements with such structures." And that was the impetus behind Browning's grabbing up of houses in the area.
On June 20 the Record & Guide announced "Buchman & Fox...are preparing plans for three apartments to be built by Edward W. Browning." In fact the firm was essentially designing just one. Browning's cost saving plan was ingenious. By erecting three identical 13-story buildings the cost of terra cotta molds was reduced by two-thirds, as was, no doubt, the architectural fee. Construction costs of each was projected at $60,000, or just over $1.5 million today.
Among them was the Hotel Nobleton on the site of the Roe house. (The others were on 72nd Streets, Nos. 118 and 42.) In its September 1914 issue The Clay-Worker described the "three Tower apartment hotels" as another innovation by Browning. "The buildings will mark a new era in hotel construction, and testify to Mr. Browning's original ideas with reference to building." And article added "The facades of the buildings will be English gothic, with ornamental terra cotta used throughout."
|Intricate terra cotta tiles incorporate a profusion of Gothic designs. Edward Browning's monogram appears in the central quatrafoil above the second floor.|
Like its identical siblings, the Hotel Nobleton had four suites per floor, "consisting of two rooms, foyer, hall and bath, with parquet floors," said The Clay-Worker. Each floor contained four apartments. The ground floor dining rooms opened onto a courtyard, described by the magazine as "Roman sunken gardens, so that in hot weather guests may eat in the gardens if they desire."
Among the initial residents was the rather peculiar Louis Graveure, who had moved in shortly after the building's completion. In actuality, the actor and baritone was Wilfrid Douthitt. He had made his New York City debut the year before in The Lilac Domino. But when he rented his apartment in the Nobleton Hotel, he did so under the name of Louis Graveure--insisting he was not Wilfrid Douthitt. He claimed that unlike the English-born Douthitt, he was Belgian.
Douthitt launched a new career under his assumed name. On October 7, 1915 a reporter from the New-York Tribune showed up at his door in the Nobleton. "Monsieur Louis Graveure still denies he is Wilfrid Douthitt, the light opera barytone, whom he so greatly resembles," said his article. "He says, moreover, that he exceedingly dislikes the publicity given him. When asked if he would submit to examination by members of 'The Lilac Domino' company, in which Mr. Douthitt was the star, Monsieur Graveure said he would refuse any such proposal."
The singer was scheduled to sing within the month and he now threatened to cancel if the harassment continued. "'I have been made a fool of and don't like it. I am not Wilfrid Douthitt, and I don't see why I should be called upon to prove it. Perhaps, now, I shan't give my song recital in Aeolian Hall after all."
|Wilfird Douhitt aka Louis Graveure. from the collection of the Library of Congress|
An advertisement in the New-York Tribune in September 1921 described the Hotel Nobleton as "The Hotel of Sunshine, Light and Air Accessible, Residential and Quiet." The apartments were leased "handsomely and tastefully furnished" for $65 a month and up--just over $900 a month today.
The hotel was the scene of a heart-pounding incident on January 16, 1921. Around midnight burglars "looted" the apartment Frederick Cowan, as worded by The New York Times. They entered from the roof, but were spotted by a nearby resident, who called the police. "There are burglars on the roof. Send right away. You can catch them."
The Times reported "Reserves and detectives raced to the scene and in a few minutes the block was surrounded." Detectives discovered a clothesline tied to the Nobleton's chimney. It led to the open sixth-floor window of Cowan's apartment. They hid behind the chimney, waiting for the culprits to climb back up the rope.
When 21-year old Luke O'Neill, and then 23-year old William Daly, appeared, carrying a bag of Cowan's valuables, the police leaped out. The Times reported "Daly dropped his bundle and fled toward a skylight, followed by O'Neill, but after three detectives had emptied their pistols the two were captured." The newspaper described "an exciting chase of the roofs of houses on the south side of West Seventy-third Street."
Later that year Morris Curtis rented what The New York Herald described as "an elaborately furnished apartment." Like Louis Graveure, he had more than one name. He also went by Richard Cunningham, Marquis Curtis, and, according to The New York Herald, "half a dozen other names." The police, however, knew him best as "Gimpy." His arrest record stretched back to August 1899 when he was jailed for burglary. He had been released from Sing Sing prison most recently in October.
On June 12, 1922 The New York Times reported that Curtis, "a quiet, pale gray man in the forties," had answered the doorbell the night before to come face-to-face with Inspector John J. Coughlin, head of the detective bureau. The men were already quite familiar with one another. And now Curtis was suspected as having played a part in the robbery of Keith's Royal Theater in the Bronx.
Coughlin had come with three detectives. As the men talked the Inspector looked around the apartment. His eyes "came to rest on two pint bottles of colorless liquid on the mantle-piece," said The Times. "The inspector left his chair, crossed the room and picked up one," assuming it was bootleg gin or vodka. He was wrong--it was nitroglycerin, used for blasting into safes. Unwilling to become a victim himself, Curtis advised him of the contents. "Then he replaced the bottle very, very tenderly beside its companion."
The detectives searched the apartment. The New York Herald reported "In the apartment were found three loaded German Mauser automatic pistols with two extra clips of shells for each gun; a box of detonating caps, a heavy coil of wire such as used with explosives; three bank books" and three law enforcement badges. A grip containing burglars tool was also found.
Curtis was arrested on suspicion of the theater burglary, of possessing explosives in a dwelling house, violating the Sullivan Law (i.e., having an unlicensed firearm), and possessing burglar's tools.
The Hotel Nobleton played a key part in a drama that caught national attention in 1924. Francis Herman Roshek, described by The New York Times as "a well-to-do dry goods merchant," and his wife, Mary, had a 14-year old son, Frank. The couple's marital bliss hit a bump when Francis suspected his wife of having an affair with Wilbert A. Leonard, the night clerk at the Nobleton. Leonard was married as well.
The couple separated and Mary took Frank to their new apartment in--not surprisingly--the Nobleton. Frank was a student at the Collegiate School on West 77th Street. Following the first day of class on September 23, 1924 he failed to come home. Inquiries revealed that he had never showed up at the school. The Times said "investigators attached some significance to a statement by Mrs. Roschek that Franklin had spoken of a hunchback who had accosted him in Riverside Drive."
A nationwide search was launched when no trace of the boy could be found. His father offered a reward for any information.
In fact, perhaps upset with the upheaval in the family, Frank had made his way to Washington D.C. where he got a job in a drugstore. He might have remained missing much longer had he not become ill late in October and telephoned his father to come for him. Francis brought the boy back to their house on West 81st Street. Mary flew into a rage.
She went to court charging her husband with kidnapping; and suing for divorce as well, saying he "beat her on many occasions" and had driven her from the 81st Street house "at the point of a pistol." She said he had been cruel "nearly the entire fifteen years of their marriage." Francis sued as well, pointing out the extramarital affair with Leonard and producing Hotel Nobleton employees and residents who saw Mary and him together.
Frank, in the meantime, was caught between his parents' bitter battle. In an unusual decision, when the divorce was granted Francis got custody of his son, with Mary having "an opportunity to see him occasionally."
Another shady tenant of the Nobleton was Harris C. Willis. He and James Kelbe, who lived in Queens, were arrested on June 5, 1930, charged with operating an unlicensed radio station. These were not innocent ham operators, but sophisticated gangsters bringing illegal liquor into New York Harbor by ship.
The Standard Union reported that the arrest came after weeks of investigation by Federal agents and the Coast Guard. "According to Assistant U.S.. Attorney J. Bertram Wegman, the men are believed to be part of a rum-running syndicate and are thought to have been communicating with ships at sea."
In 1969 a renovation resulted in two apartments and half of two duplexes per floor; reducing the number of apartments but enhancing the desirability of half of them.
In 1998 a restoration of the facade was completed by architects Cutsogerge & Tooman. Buchman & Fox's original plans had not called for adequate steel in the vertical sections between the openings. Forty of the 55 terra cotta panels were reproduced in fiberglass as new steel was installed behind them.
photographs by the author