In 1897 developer Mary Cahill was erecting two nearly identical rows of houses on Convent Avenue--Nos.408 through 418, and Nos. 420 through 430. They were separated by West 148th Street. Designed by architect John Hauser, the residences were a happy marriage of the Renaissance and Romanesque Revival styles. The two anchor homes on the corners were, of course, the most desirable with windows on three sides (an ample service alley behind the houses provided an unusual amount of light and ventilation to the rear).
Despite its Convent Avenue address, the entrance of No. 420 was situated squarely on 148th Street above a dog-legged stoop. A mirror image of No. 418, the basement and first floor levels were faced in rough-cut limestone. Hauser carried the material the full height of the Convent Avenue elevation. The upper floors were clad in beige brick and the pressed metal cornice was decorated with foliate-filled panels.
No. 420 became home to Walter H. Tappan and his wife, Jennie. The couple had married on April 15, 1895 and had a one-year old child, Herrick Ogden at the time the house was completed. In March 1902 a second child was born, Eleanor House Tappan.
Tappan was a banker and a director in the Vergennes Realty Co. Jennie involved herself in social activities and was a member of the Washington Heights Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She hosted an afternoon reception for its members on November 16, 1914. On its page titled "Society and Its Charities" the New York Herald noted "There will be a musical programme and historical papers will be read."
The following year Jennie was elected a vice-president of the Washington Heights Day Nursery. The organization not only made it possible for women to work, but found them jobs as domestic servants. The New York Times mentioned on December 15, 1915 "The Day Nursery now has a membership of more than 200, and during the past year has taken care of 10,000 children."
Following the Tappans at No. 420 was the family of William Joseph McGinley. He and his wife, Mary Ann, had seven children: Paul J., William V., Aaron M., Helena (better known as Helen), Frances, Florence and Mary.
Unlike Jennie Tappan, Mary Ann's interest were in business. She bought and sold real estate. William was Supreme Secretary of the Knights of Columbus.
His was a significant post, evidenced when Madison Square Garden hosted 6,500 wounded or convalescent veterans at the circus on April 13, 1919. The Sun reported "One of the biggest and gayest detachments was chaperoned from General Hospital No. 1 on Gun Hill road by the Knights of Columbus...On the trip to the Garden the long string of cars rolled down Convent avenue, where it was reviewed by Supreme Secretary William J. McGinley and other K. of C. officials from the McGinley home at 420 Convent avenue."
Her father's elevated position provided little Helena a rare opportunity on September 10 that year. The entire city turned out to see war hero General John J. Pershing lead his troops down Fifth Avenue. The parade briefly stopped in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral where Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes and Cardinal Mercier, "the hero priest of Belgium," would greet the general. Before the troops arrived, Helen presented the cardinal with a bouquet of roses.
"He accepted them graciously and, indicating a cluster of American beauties the girl held in her arms, inquired: 'And the other flowers, tell me, now, who are they for?'" reported the New-York Tribune.
"They are for General Pershing, Your Eminence," she replied.
Earlier that year the Knights of Columbus offered to commission a portrait of General Pershing to be presented to the French Government. A letter arrived on April 21 from artist Gustave Klammerich, a German artist who had fought in the war. "I desire to paint the portrait of Gen. Pershing," he wrote, "and assure you of a good job as I have admiration for the soldiers of America and their commander."
William McGinley was succinct in his response. He told reporters "the portrait is going to be made by an American artist."
It was not the last gift to France initiated by the Knights of Columbus and spearheaded by McGinley. In 1920 50,000 of the 100,000 Knights who had served in World War I contributed to fund a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette to replace the statue of Frederick the Great in Metz. McGinley said that the K. of C. "had the happy thought that the dethroned statue might be replaced with a statue that would combine French and American tradition."
|Interestingly, Hauser made one of the limestone gateposts higher than the other, following the rise of the steps.|
Not long afterward it appears the McGinley family relocated to New Haven, Connecticut. Their former home was being operated as a rooming house by 1924 when Jane Forestall was living here. She was fined $10 for driving without a license in July that year; The New York Telegram adding she "is said to be a Belgium actress."
The motion picture industry was fast moving to the West Coast in the 1920's, but the Famous Players-Lasky studio was still in Astoria, Queens when "talkies" began replacing silent movies. It was a change not welcomed by all employees.
One of them was Ernest DeValera, who rented a room at No. 420 in 1928. The studio had asked the police for extra protection "as the result of complaints made that the work of installing new equipment for 'taking-movies' has been threatened with interference," reported the Daily Star on August 29.
The policeman who had been on duty the previous night noticed DeValera drive by the building. Then again. And again, until he had circled the property five times. "While he was questioning him, the patrolman said, DeValera became abusive and used boisterous language," reported the Daily Star. He was charged with disorderly conduct.
A most disturbing incident occurred just outside the house on February 25, 1937. Albert Victor lived nearby on West 141st Street and made his living as a "rag picker." That morning he noticed a cardboard box on the sidewalk in front of No. 420, and stopped to open it. He was horrified to find a dead infant inside. The New York Post described it as "a stillborn white girl baby wrapped in cheesecloth. The body had been there only a few hours, physicians say."
Alicia Lawrence had leased the rooming house for many years when it was placed on the market in August 1943. She purchased the property and initiated a renovation, completed in 1949, that resulted in a doctor's office in the basement, two furnished rooms on the first floor, three on the second and four furnished rooms on the third. The Certificate of Occupancy noted "Doctor to reside on premises."
That was Dr. Eric Thompson, a dentist who lived and operated his practice practice here at least through 1973.
|Surprisingly, much of John Hauser's elements--including the delicate carvings over the basement stairs, survive. photos via DouglasElliman.com|
photographs by the author