Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Robert Burnett Smith House - 104 West 74th Street

Developer Michael Brennan and his wife Margaret began construction of four 18-foot wide homes on the south side of West 74th Street, just west of Columbus Avenue, in 1886.  They hired the firm of Thom & Wilson to design the structures.   The architects were prolific in the area; their row houses noteworthy for the exuberance of decorative, sometimes exotic elements.

The row was completed late the following year.  No. 104, like its neighbors, was technically Renaissance Revival in style.  But Thom & Wilson had fancifully embellished it with Gothic and Moorish elements that all but erased the Renaissance background.   The first floor openings sat within Gothic arches.  

At the second floor two windows crowned by elongated drip moldings flanked an excruciatingly charming opening fronted by a half-round platform supported by a twisted column.  Carved Gothic tracery ran below the shallow cornice below the third floor.

The complex parlor transoms, composed of hundreds of tiny glass pieces and "jewels" were almost assuredly by Henry F. Belcher.  
The intricate stained glass transoms above every window of the house were almost undoubtedly executed by Henry F. Belcher.  The highly expensive panels, called Belcher Mosaics, were created by a process for which he held 22 patents.

On December 10, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Brennans had sold No. 104 to Christiana B. Smith for $33,000; or about $900,000 today.  She was the wife of Robert Burnett Smith.   The couple had two children, Bennis and Annie.   Smith was a director in the Pennsylvania Railway Company, the Lehigh Valley Railway, and the Reading Railway.   He had entered the Union Army on May 14, 1861 and saw action in no fewer than nine battles, and was brevetted Captain for gallantry at the Battle of Chapel House, Virginia in 1864.

By 1893 Bennis was working in the general office of the Reading Railway Company, likely through his father's influence.  His thoughts turned to romance that spring; a situation that would cause upheaval in the family, air their differences in the newspapers, and demand appearances in the courts.

Bennis, who as 22 years old, met Nannie M. MacGavock "very informally," as described by The Sun.  The newspaper also said "nothing is known of her antecedents."  According to the reporter's account, "Young Smith became a visitor at Miss Macgavock's flat in Fifty-ninth street.  Finally in the latter part of last May, he went to live with her at 258 West Forty-third street."  His parents, of course, knew nothing about the scandalous arrangement.  The couple was secretly married on July 10.

According to The Sun, "The elder smith was incensed when he heard of the marriage.  He objected that Miss MacGarock was not a fit mate for his son and that she was six years older than the boy and had inveigled him into the marriage."  Two weeks after he had been wed Bennis was whisked away by his father to Boston, then to Montreal.

Nannie waited in the West 43rd Street apartment Bennis had rented for them; then gave up hope.  The New York Herald reported on August 15 that she "was very indignant, and instructed Howe & Hummel to sue him for a separation and maintenance and his father for alienation of her husband's affections."

A week later Nannie was behind bars.  The Sun reported on August 21 "Mrs. Nannie M. Smith, a tall, fashionable dressed blonde... was charged with grand larceny in the Yorkville Police Court yesterday morning."  She had been arrested at around 11:00 a Saturday night at Koster & Bial's Music Hall--not the most reputable place for an unescorted woman.

According to the complainant, named Graham, he had gone to her apartment and "advised her to leave the city."  She said she could not because she had no money.  Graham told police that when he pulled a roll of bills from his pocket, "she snatched it and fled."  The $350 he claimed she stole would be equal to more than $10,000 today.  

Her story was, of course, different.  She said Graham attempted to bribe her with $250 to "criminate" herself so Bennis could get an absolute divorce.  No money changed hands.

Nevertheless, she was jailed.  The Sun reported that she was "furious" and "As she started for her cell she said with flashing eyes: 'If they don't let up on this prosecution tomorrow, I'll tell the whole story they are so anxious to suppress."   And just when it seemed that the episode could get no more dramatic, it did. 

"The prison door had scarcely closed upon Mrs. Smith when her husband, a boy with light brown hair and eyes, rushed into the prison and with tears in his eyes begged Keeper Lynch to let him see her.  'She is my wife,' he said, ' and I have a right to see her.'"  Bennis had escaped from his family in Montreal and made his way back to New York.  

But by now it was Sunday morning and no visitors were allowed on the sabbath.  So he penned a note, assuring Nannie of his "deathless devotion."  He told a reporter "It would kill me if she should get a divorce."  

Newspapers were not impressed with the music hall haunting Nannie.  The Delaware newspaper The Evening Journal reported "Nannie Macgavock, the Tenderloin beauty who ensnared Bennie [sic] T. Smith...into a matrimonial alliance, passed a restless night in her cell in the Yorkville prison and was surly and defiant yesterday morning."  Alas, for Bennis, it seems that his parents (and general opinion) won out and the romance fizzled.

Luckier in love was Annie Foster Smith, Bennis's sister.  Her parents announced her engagement to John Campbell Smith on January 12, 1895.  The wedding took place in the 74th Street house exactly one month later, on February 12.

Within months, on June 6, Robert Burnett Smith died.  His funeral was held in at Christ Church on 71st Street and Broadway four days later.

On September 19, 1900 an auction was held of "the entire contents" of the house.  It became home to art dealer Abraham I. Adler, his wife and two daughters.  Adler was a member of the high-end Fifth Avenue gallery Fishel, Adler & Swartz and a co-founder of the Hebrew Charities Association.

The Adlers spent the summer season of 1906 in Europe.  Abraham entrusted his sister, Mary, who lived nearby, to occasionally check the house.  On August 28 a servant in the house two doors away noticed a man leaving through the roof hatch of the Adler house.  Police who responded "discovered that thieves, who had gained entrance through the roof, had ransacked the Adler house," according to The New York Herald.

It was worse than that.  Another neighbor notified Mary of the break in and, as reported by the New York Press, "She went into the house and found that not only had the house been looted, but the person who had committed the theft had torn down valuable paintings from the wall, had slashed and broken picture frames and portiers, and had wantonly destroyed bric-à-brac valued highly as works of art by their owner, Mr. Adler.  Aside from these depredations rare wines had been stolen from the cellars."  She estimated the value of the stolen items and damage at around $144,000 in today's money.

Love, as it turned out, unmasked the burglar.  Arthur O'Grady had a prison record stretching back several years.  But in 1905 he fell in love with a refined young woman.  The New York Press advised "her attractive manners and girlish face won him at once and caused him to regret his misdeeds.  Keeping his prison record secret from the girl he wished to make his wife, he won her love and they were married."

A few weeks later he made a full confession and promised that he would lead an honest life going forward.  After the initial shock Josephine accepted his promise and vowed to remain with him as long as he kept it.  But then in August 1906, less than a year after their wedding, Arthur began bringing Josephine expensive gifts like cut glass bowls and silverware.

Suspicious, she investigated the address on several pieces of silver and discovered that the Adler house had been recently burglarized.  She notified police and a patrolman named Vane went to the O'Grady flat to inspect the goods.  "When the husband came home [he] placed him under arrest," said the New York Press.  "Mrs. O'Grady said after the hearing she would not live with her husband again, because he had broken his promise to her. 'He did not love me,' she said, 'for had he loved me he would have kept his promise and have led a different life.'"

Abraham Adler died at his home in February 1908 at the age of 52.  The following year in September the house was leased to Dr. Lucius A. Salisbury, who opened his practice here.  He shared the space with Dr. Edward Waitzfelder, a well-known endocrinologist.  

It signaled the end of the line for No. 104 as a private home.  The upper floors were leased as an upscale rooming house.  The well-do-to status of the occupants was evidenced in The New York Herald's column "Southerners in New York" on September 23, 1911.  "Mr. and Mrs. J. Turner Hamlin and their son, Mr. James Hamlin, have arrived from Richmond Va, to make their home in New York and are at No. 104 West Seventy-fourth street.  Mrs. Hamlin is a daughter of General J. Thompson Brown, of Richmond, and a relative of Mrs. William W. Ford, president of the Southern Club, of White Plains."

The respectable nature of the rooming house changed when Charles Zig Shye purchased it in 1922 for $32,000, or about $479,000 today.  The slippery owner also went by the name Charles Zigshye.  In 1928 he sold the property to what the New York Evening Post called "the recently formed Zigan Holding Company."  He was the sole stockholder and borrowed $5,500 against his $17,000 mortgage from his friend, Anthony Fiduccia.  It would prove to be a bad decision on Fiduccia's part.

But before then Charles clashed with law enforcement.  On March 7, 1934 The New York Times reported "Charles Zigshye, 41 years old,...was charged with petit larceny in connection with what was said to be a new racket against coal dealers."  Coal was a costly but necessary commodity in the Depression years; and Shye had concocted a scam by which he could get it for free.

The Times explained that a week earlier "a woman" ordered two tons of "rice coal" to be delivered to No. 104, and paid for it.  Only a week later she ordered a ton of a different kind of coal.  After it had been delivered to the coal bins in the cellar, she told the deliveryman that the earlier coal was not good and ordered him to take it out.  That, of course, was nearly impossible, but the driver started to comply.  Then Shye appeared, saying that he was the responsible party, and refused to let the driver remove either lot of coal or to pay for them.

Shye was leasing a room on the second floor to 26-year old Margaret Rand in 1936.  She did not live there, but ran an unlicensed dance studio in the space.  In May she fired two female employees "because they had not brought enough dance pupils to the place," according to them.  But when they refused to leave the premises, she called the police to remove them.  It was a bad idea.  She was arrested for running an illegal business and the girls were sent home.

Mrs. Henriette Drager roomed here in 1941.  Known as Henny to her friends, she was fond of feeding the pigeons in the back yard.  It was a pastime that infuriated the superintendent of the No. 105 West 73rd Street, whose rear yard abutted that of No. 104 West 74th.  

After he had tried unsuccessfully to prevent her and other neighbors from feeding the birds, he offered her grain to feed the pigeons one afternoon in May.  Henriette was suspicious and did not use it.

Instead, she sneaked into the rear yard of No. 105 and bagged up two pigeon corpses, then marched off to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty with them and the bag of grain.  An autopsy of the birds revealed poisoned grain in their crops. 

Frohlich was arrested and fined $25 in the West Side Court on May 19.  A few days later the ASPCA awarded Henrietta $100 for her deed.

By 1943 Shye had stopped making mortgage payments and the property was foreclosed in September 1944.   Anthony Fiduccia sued to get his $5,500 back.  Shye denied any knowledge of the loan and the case was eventually dismissed.

The house continued to be operated as a rooming house until 1971 when it was converted to two apartments per floor.  Even more astounding than the state of preservation of the building is the fact that every one of the striking mosaic glass transoms survives.

photographs by the author

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