Saturday, November 30, 2019

The 1834 Survivor at 149 West 10th Street

Myndert Van Schaick was seemingly destined for a life of politics.  He was born on September 2, 1782 in Albany, where his grandfather Sybrant Van Schaick, had been mayor from 1756 to 1761.  In 1815 he married Elizabeth Hone, niece of New York City Mayor Philip Hone.  An apparent multi-tasker, in 1832 he was a member of the New York State Assembly, an Alderman in New York City, and the Treasurer of New York City's Board of Health during that year's terrifying cholera epidemic.

On January 1, 1833 he began his term as a New York State senator.  As if he did not have enough on his plate, he dabbled in real estate development as well, erecting full rows of houses in the expanding Greenwich Village district.  That year he began construction of eleven brick-faced homes on Amos Street between Waverley Place and Greenwich Avenue.  Completed in 1834, they were intended for middle-class families.

No. 53 Amos Street (which would obtain the new address of 149 West 10th Street in 1857), like its identical neighbors, was two-and-a-half stories tall.  Its Flemish bond brick was trimmed in brownstone and its stone stoop held handsome Federal-style railings with noticeable new Greek Revival influences.  

Van Schaick's tenants had a scare in the fall of 1846.  The Evening Post reported on October 2 that "a fire broke out yesterday afternoon at two o'clock at No. 53 Amos street, but was subdued with little damage."

In the 1850's Van Schaick modernized the house, raising the sloped roof and removing the dormers.  The resultant squat attic floor was typical of the Greek Revival style and made the space more usable.  The entrance was updated as well, with delicate rope moldings and an ample transom, also elements of Greek Revival.  It was possibly during this renovation that the simple brownstone lintels received pressed metal cornices.  (The architect was perhaps a bit carried away in designing the slightly out-of-proportion cornice over the doorway.)

The additional third floor space may have been done to accommodate additional occupants.  No. 149 was apparently being operated as a boarding house at the time, its tenants earning modest salaries.  Among them were delivery wagon driver Delancey Kennedy, and A. B. Rich, a customs clerk.

There were a surprising number of young women living in the house at the time, quite possibly Irish immigrants, looking for work.  On April 23, 1851 an advertisement in The New York Herald read:

Wanted--A situation by a respectable young woman, as Chambermaid, and to assist with the washing; is a good laundress; or is willing to do general housework for a small family; or would do chamberwork and waiting.

The term "waiting" referred to serving in the dining room, or in the parlor when the lady of the house had guests.  A "waitress" was expected to be more presentable in appearance and demeanor than the unseen servants.

The following year, in July 1852, three of the women shared the costs of an ad:

Wanted--By three respectable young girls, situations; one as Cook, Washer and Ironer; can give five years' city reference.  Two more want to do chamberwork, and washing and ironing; or chamberwork and plain sewing; or chamberwork and waiting; or one is willing to travel with a lady.

Three months later another tenant sought work.  Calling herself a "respectable Protestant young woman," she said she "is a first rate washer and ironer.  Has no objection to do the fine washing, or is willing to go as laundress, or to take charge of a child."

By the mid-1870's it seems that No. 149 was again a private residence.  It was home to James Muir and his wife.  It appears that his widowed sister-in-law, Isabella Farmer Ross, also lived here.  Her funeral was held in the parlor following her death on June 9, 1876.

By 1891 the Isaac Edisheimer family lived in the West 10th Street house.  Edisheimer was a vinegar manufacturer, one who meticulously watched his books.  That sharp awareness of his accounts resulted in a teen-aged employee being arrested. 

Samuel Pett was just 17-years old and was hired as a clerk.  He was responsible for collecting money from clients.  But on June 1, 1891 The Press reported that he "was held for trial at the Jefferson Market Court yesterday, charged with collecting and using for his own benefit $3.79 of his employer's money."  The embezzled funds would equal just over $100 today.

Before long journalist Joseph S. Tunison was living here.  He briefly acquired a roommate in the 1890's in the form of author Lafcacio Hearn who was visiting the city.  According to Hearn's biographer, Elizabeth Stevenson, in her 1961 The Grass Lark: A Study of Lafcadio Hearn, the writer was having a difficult time finding a room in Greenwich Village.  "Tunison said gruffly: come in with me.  And Hearn did.  He remained with Tunison at 149 West Tenth Street for the rest of his time in New York City."

It was a seemingly awkward relationship.  Stevenson writes "Lafcadio thought that Joe loved him as he loved Joe;" but Tunison refuted that following Lafcadio's death.   In a letter dated 1906 he wrote "I never pretended to be friend.  I was merely one to whom he resorted when all the rest cast him out."

Lafcadio was best known for his books on Japan, sometimes writing under the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo.  Mostly forgotten today, he was described by Andrei Codrescu in The Paris Review on July 2, 2019 as "one of America's best-known writers, one of a stellar company that included Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson."  Joseph S. Tunison left New York to become editor of the Dayton, Ohio Journal.

The house was owned by Frederick Warnecke by the turn of the century.   It was the scene of a wedding on December 19, 1900.  The New York Herald announced "Miss Lena Baumgartner, niece of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Warnecke, was married to Mr. Charles McCordell...last evening at the home of her aunt and uncle."  The Warnecke's little daughter, Nellie, was the flower girl and their son, Charles, was an usher.

The Warnecke family rented at least one room in the house.  Law student James P. Curren was here in the winter of 1903-04 when he could no longer handle his pressures.  On February 26, 1904 The New York Times reported that the 37-year-old "was found dead in a furnished room at 149 West Tenth Street yesterday afternoon.  According to the police, the man committed suicide by inhaling illuminating gas."  

At the time table or desk lamps were fueled by gas from the wall sconces by connecting them with a rubber tube.  Curren was found on the floor with the tubing in his mouth and the gas turned fully on.  "A blanket covered his head to prevent the gas from escaping," said the article.

Frederick Warnecke died in the house later that year, on December 30, 1904, at the age of 58.  His funeral was held in the parlor, where his niece had been married, on January 3, 1905.

On July 17, 1906 The New York Press reported that Mrs. Warnecke had sold the house, adding "It will be altered for business purposes."  But if that was the intention of the new owner, it never came to pass.

The house had another celebrated tenant in 1930 and 1931.  American comp0ser, lyricist and librettist, Marcus Samuel Blitzstein (known professionally as Marc Blitzstein) had shown remarkable talent at an early age.  At 7-years old he performed a Mozart piano concerto and he made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was 21.

The tenants at the time Blitzstein lived here were struggling under the hard times of the Great Depression.  Among them was John Stuart, a newspaperman who had been out of work for a while in the winter of 1931.   On February 23 the Communist newspaper Daily Worker spat that "the capitalist press, which tells us every day that prosperity is just around the corner...had no use for its 45-year old slave."  Like James Curren had done nearly three decades earlier, he "committed suicide with gas at 149 West 10th street, New York City.  He left a note saying it was 'the only way out.'"

In 1940 No. 149 had successfully ignored the 20th century crowding in around it. photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services 
Interestingly, tenants Levier Thompson and Lewis Thompson were listed as signers of Communist Party petitions for state and city elections at least from 1936 through 1940.

The increasing desirability of quaint 19th century Village houses was evidenced when No. 149 was sold in 2004 for $3.1 million.  Renovations completed in 2008 returned it to a single family home with an apartment in the basement.  It was placed on the market in 2011 for just under $11 million.

It is the best preserved of the survivors of the 1834 row; a charming relic.

photographs by the author

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Edwin Booth Statue - Gramercy Park

photo by Beyond My Ken

A year after famed Shakespearan actor Edwin Booth died, his biographer, William Winter, wrote:

Early in the morning, Friday, June 9, 1893, the Players assembled at their Club House, No. 16 Gramercy Park, New York, to attend the funeral of Edwin Booth.  The assembly was numerous.  A large company congregated in the street, and all those spectators uncovered their heads as the hearse passed.

The group had been understandably moved.  Booth had not only founded the club and was its first president, but he had presented to them the handsome house which still serves as its clubhouse today.  And it was there, in his private apartment, that he had died.

The shame that his brother, John Wilkes Booth, had brought to the family name by assassinating the President of the United States was never a stain on Edwin Booth's reputation.  He was considered the preeminent Shakespearean actor of his day and built the magnificent marble Booth's Theatre on West 23rd Street in which to stage Shakespearean plays.

Booth's Theatre, on the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, was a marvel.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Only weeks after Booth's death a movement had started to erect a memorial.  The famous actor Joseph Jefferson said in The New York Dramatic Mirror on January 13, 1894, "The Booth statue must be the finest of all the statues in Central Park.  It must be made by an American sculptor.  I should favor a submission of competitive designs."

But Jefferson also urged patience.  The country was reeling from the Financial Panic of 1893, a devastating economic depression that brought on the collapse of railroads and banks.  The newspaper wrote "He approves thoroughly of the decision to defer this active beginning of the work of raising funds until the times improve."

The chair which Edmond T. Quinn included in his statue of Booth may well have been inspired by this cabinet card of the actor costumed for his role as Hamlet.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
More eager to collect donations was a group of unscrupulous scam artists who devised a sham "Edwin Booth Statue Fund" and began holding benefits.  On August 31, 1895 The New York Dramatic Mirror cautioned its readers not to be too quick to donate to the fund.   It called the origins of the fund "mysterious" and warned it would possibly rob the true movement of dignity and"threaten to stultify a serious future effort to erect a Booth statue under proper conditions." 

The Players were, indeed, patient.  It was not until April 17, 1906 that The New York Times announced "A movement which will doubtless assume National importance was started yesterday at a meeting of the Players' Club, at 16 Gramercy Park, for the erection of a monumental memorial to Edwin Booth."  In the 13 years since Booth's death $30,000 had been donated to the project--a tidy $865,000 in today's money with which to start.

Although plans as to the final form of the memorial were indefinite, the club had firmly decided that it should be placed in Gramercy Park "so as to face the Players' Club, of which Edwin Booth was the founder, and to look in fact upon the very windows behind which the great tragedian breathed his last."

An anonymous competition was held to decide the final design of the memorial.  The committee of judges remarked that they kept in mind "the two-fold necessity for simple dignity of treatment resulting alike from the size of Gramercy Park and the character of the man."  With that in mind, any large grouping of figures or any "elaboration of the architectural setting" were rejected.  The winning sculptor was Edmond T. Quinn, who coincidentally or not, was a Players' member.

The statue was unveiled on November 13, 1918, Booth's birthday.  Quinn had depicted the actor at the age of 35 in his role as Hamlet, just rising from a chair.  Arts & Decoration magazine pointed out that "What invests this act with extraordinary importance is this--that it is the first statue erected in this country to an Actor."  (Technically, William Shakespeare, whose statue stood in Central Park, could be defined as an actor; but the memorial remembered him as a playwright.)

The article wrote "The statue, of dull green bronze, on a dull green stone pedestal [designed by architect Edwin S. Dodge], stands in the centre of the Park, looking south--as all portrait-statues should look--in order to always have the face in the sunlight."  The writer was especially impressed with Quinn's faithful representation of Booth.  "From the primary and fundamentally necessary standpoint of truth, it is one of the best portrait statues ever erected in this country."

The unveiling was attended by luminaries in the fields of acting, architecture and literature.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The front of the pedestal was inscribed merely:


and the rear held the inscription:

Erected 1918
by Members of
The Players
in Loving Memory of
the Founder
of the Club

The statue was unveiled by Booth's grandson, Edwin Booth Grossman.  Booth's daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, and his grandson were also present.  The committee responsible for the project represented some of the most recognizable names in the arts--famous actors John Drew and Otis Skinner, producer Daniel Frohman, and architects John Russell Pope and Richard Howland Hunt among them.

Booth's grandson, Edwin Booth Grossman, is second from left.  The three men on the right are actor John Drew (with the cane) sculptor Edmond T. Quinn and architect Edwin S. Dodge.  from the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1919 (copyright expired)
Following the dedication Arts & Decoration commented "The next thing to do now, and soon, is to open the gates of Gramercy Park to the public on every Sunday and holiday, from 1 to 5 p.m., so that everyone can at least pass through the Park and enjoy the statue."  The writer feared that the statue should not be "hidden under a bushel" nor "screened behind a fence a hundred feet away."  The journalist would not get his wish.

from the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1919 (copyright expired)

On November 13, 1933, Booth's 100th birthday, members of The Players joined members of his family in planting a sycamore sapling in the park near the statue.  The New York Times reported on November 14 "A sycamore was chosen because as a boy Edwin Booth played under a gigantic sycamore which still stands at Tudor Hall, his birthplace near Belaire, Md."

That birthday was, of course, a special one; but every year The Players paid homage to the actor at the statue, most often by laying a wreath.  Among the actors participating in a wreath laying in 1943 were Uta Hagen, Paul Robeson and Jose Ferrer.

photograph by the author
Despite one writer's protest in 1918, the gates of Gramercy Park have always been locked to anyone other than residents of the enclave.  And so the Edwin Booth statue can be seen only by peering through the sturdy iron bars, frustratingly close but unapproachable.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The 1868 E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. Building - 43-45 White Street

In 1836, at the young age of 24 Enoch Redington Mudge became manager of the lavish Astor House Hotel.  Four years later he opened his own hotel, the St. Charles Hotel, in New Orleans, "amassing a fortune," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer decades later.  Mudge's son, Charles, was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Before the end of the war the Mudge family had moved north and Enoch partnered with Joseph D. Sawyer to form the drygoods business E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. 

In 1866 Mudge purchased the two small structures at Nos. 43 and 45 White Street and commenced work on a new building.  Designed in the newly-popular French Second Empire style, its cast iron base supported four floors faced in stone and a stylish mansard.  Construction would not technically be completed before 1868; but E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. had moved in well before then.

While construction went on around them, E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. moved in in September 1866.  New-York Tribune, October 3, 1866 (copyright expired)

E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. was a commission merchant for several mills.  An advertisement in The Chronicle on July 6, 1867 touted "Cotton Flannels For the Season of 1867":

The situation of the trade is specially invited to the new production for the season of 1867, sample cases of which are now ready for inspection at our store, 43 and 45 White street.

E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. established its headquarters in Boston.  There Mudge moved his family into a mansion on Beacon Street and purchased a 100-acre summer estate in Swampscott, Massachusetts.  The New-York Tribune, on August 6, 1874, called it the "finest estate in town."

Mudge donated a striking Romanesque Revival style church to the nearby town of Lynn, Massachusetts in memory of Charles.  Construction began in 1880 and the cornerstone laid in May 1881.  But Mudge would not see its completion.  Three months later, on October 3, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Mudge, "a leading commission merchant in cotton and woolen goods, and head of the firm of E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co., of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, died of apoplexy at his summer residence in Swampscott, Massachusetts."  He was 69-years old.  His funeral was held in St. Stephen's Church, still under construction.

St. Stephen's Church was completed three months after the funeral service.  The striking building was designed by Ware & Van Brunt.

Upon Mudge's death the firm was liquidated.  In March 1882 the Mudge heirs sold the White Street building to the estate of James C. Ayer.  It was a costly transaction, the $183,750 sale price equal to more than $4.6 million today.

Around the turn of the century commission merchants Hesslein & Co. were leasing the building.  The firm listed itself as "importers, general commission, trading, exporting, importing and mercantile and manufacturing textiles."  It would remain in the building for decades.

The eye-catching decorative elements included carved swags above the top floor.  The abused mansard still holds two round-eyed dormers.
The Ayer estate still owned the building in 1939 when it modernized the cast iron storefront with a stucco surface.  The renovated store and the floor above was leased to the textile firm The Central Processing Corporation the following year.   

A tax photo from around 1940 shows the renovated storefront, but a still intact mansard.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.

At mid-century a variety of tenants filled the building, including Mae Marie, Inc., apparel makers, and the New York Sun Transporters, Inc.

The Tribeca renaissance caught up with the E. R. Mudge, Sawyer & Co. building in 2003 when renovations were begun to convert the upper floors to residential use.   In 2009 there were now two apartments per floor and the storefront had been restored, albeit without the elaborate Corinthian capitals which once crowned the columns.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Frederic H. Betts Mansion - 22 East 65th Street

Attorney Frederic Henry Betts was a partner in the firm of Betts, Betts, Sheffield & Betts.  His wealth and social status were reflected in his memberships to some of New York's most exclusive clubs--the Metropolitan, Century, and Grolier Clubs among them.  He and his wife, the former Mary Louise Hollbrook (who went by her middle name), were well known among Manhattan society.  Their summer estate was at Ardsley-on-Hudson.  

In March 1897 Betts purchased the large property at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue from Archibald D. Russell for just under $1.8 million in today's money.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on March 13 that Betts "will build a residence for his own occupancy."

Betts commissioned society architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design the home.  His choice of architects is not surprising, since until three years earlier Charles Atterbury, Grosvenor's father, had been Betts's partner in Betts, Atterbury, Hyde & Betts.

The cost of construction brought his total outlay including land to the equivalent of just under $3 million today.  Construction progressed with lightning speed and the sumptuous residence was completed within the year.

Atterbury had produced a dignified neo-Georgian style mansion.  It was 25-feet wide on the avenue and stretched 95-feet along 65th Street.  The centered entrance sat within a portico below a grouping of three windows, fronted by a stone loggia.  Each of the second floor windows was enhanced with colorful stained glass transoms.  Atterbury used limestone for the quoins and bandcourses, which contrasted with the red brick, and faced the entire fifth floor in stone.

The couple had three children, Louis F. H., Mary E. (who was already married), and Wyllys Rossiter.  Louis and Wyllys moved into the mansion with their parents.  (Wyllys received his unusual name in honor of his ancestors, early Connecticut Governors George Wyllys and Samuel Wyllys.)

Louise resumed her social routine in the new home.  Every Monday morning during the winter season the Ladies' Singing Class met in the Betts residence.  Louise had organized it several years earlier and the New-York Daily Tribune deemed it "the oldest organization of its kind in New-York society."  On the evening of February 23, 1899 she showed off the group's accomplishments.

The Tribune reported "a very pleasant incident on Thursday evening was the informal reception given Mrs. Frederic L. Betts at her new home, No. 22 East Sixty-fifth-st."  Mary assisted her in receiving the guests, including some of the most recognized names in Manhattan society--like Mrs. Charles T. Barney, the William D. Sloanes, the Edward J. Berwinds, the Townsend Burdens, the Koernochans and the Schieffelins.  The article noted "The musical part of the entertainment was contributed by the members of the Ladies' Singing Class."

Three weeks later, on March 14, Louise experienced a frightful accident.  She was riding down Fifth Avenue in her brougham when a bicyclist, Michael Davay, lost control and ran into the pole of her carriage.  Louise's driver was able to control the frightened horse, but Davay suffered a fractured jaw.

The brougham Mary Betts was riding in was much like the one above.  Davay crashed into the pole at the side of the horse.  original source unknown
The following month, on April 6, 1899, Wyllys married Ada Godfrey.  When the newlyweds returned to New York Louise welcomed them back with a fete.  On December 7, 1899 the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Frederic W. Betts, who passed the summer in Europe, will give a reception at her home, No. 22 East Sixty-fifth-st., on Tuesday afternoon, December 19, in honor of her son and daughter-in-law."  The article noted that the couple "have established themselves for the winter in their new home, No. 63 East Seventy-fourth-st."

While Frederick and Louise sometimes summered in Europe, they most often spent the season at their Long Island estate, Mocomanto, in Southampton Village.  The house sat on Lake Agawam.  Louise had a gondola shipped from Venice in which she would be seen entertaining small groups of four or six on the lake.

Mary Louise Betts and friends in her Venetian gondola.  original source unknown
Louise was also highly involved in the Virginia Day Nursery, often holding its weekly meetings in the 65th Street house.  She opened the home for a sale for the benefit of the organization on Friday afternoon, December 13, 1902, as well.

On November 11, 1905 Frederic Betts died suddenly in the 65th Street house.  In reporting on his death, newspapers remarked on his illustrious career.  The Newburgh Register called him "one of the most prominent lawyers in New York," and said "He had been counsel in patent cases for the Western Union Company, American Bell Telephone Company, Edison Electric Light Company and many others."

Louise received the entire "big estate," as worded by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, with the stipulation that she "is to care for the children."  Saying that Betts was "classed among the millionaire summer residents" of Southampton, the newspaper estimated the value of Mocomanto alone at $200,000--nearly $5.9 million today.

By 1908 Louise had moved into a Park Avenue apartment.  She leased the 65th Street house in August that year to banker James Cunningham Bishop and his wife, Abigail.

Like Mary Louise Betts, Abigail was interesting in honing musical talent.  She organized weekly classes for underprivileged children in the house.  In an unexpectedly democratic move, she included her four of her five daughters in the classes--three who played violin and one the piano.

On February 16, 1911 The New York Herald reported that she had sent out invitations to an upcoming Children's Orchestra concert in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel.  "The concert will be out of the ordinary run of musical entertainments prepared for society," said the article, "as the performers will all be children, prodigies of Mrs. Bishop, and members of her own family."

The article went on "Many women in society provide for the children of the less fortunate tribes in the country in the summer, but in lieu of anything of this sort, Mrs. Bishop has made possible for children of talent whose means do not allow its cultivation a chance for the study of music and for several winters these children have met at her house, No. 22 East Sixty-fifth street and have been trained by Mr. Louis Cornau." 

To anyone who knew the Bishops, their married life seemed tranquil.  Their names repeatedly appeared in society columns for entertainments like the dinner party on October 15, 1912 for Abigail's niece, Laura Merriam and her fiancĂ©, James Freeman Curtis, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.  Two months later a dinner and dance was held in the house for the Bishops' debutante daughters, Mary and Augusta.

But things had been rocky in the Bishop household for several years.  What the guests at the glittering debutante dinner and dance probably did not know was that James had moved out on November 9.  On January 8, 1913 Abigail sued for divorce, naming Mrs. Lelia Gaines Gwathmey as her husband's mistress.  Abigail had given a maid at the Astor Hotel a camera to capture evidence of the dalliance.

The drawn-out hearing was not a pleasant affair.  Bishop denied any misconduct and called his wife's charges "the phantoms of a disordered imagination, induced by the excessive us of alcoholic stimulants for the past several years."  Affidavits signed by three psychiatrists (known as alienists at the time) prompted an all-caps headline in The New York Herald on February 5, 1913:


In what might be seen as a attempt to gain sympathy, Abigail filed for bankruptcy on March 8, 1913, claiming her husband refused to support her and the children.  She told the court that "the only assets she can actually lay her hands on are the furnishings of her house at 22 East Sixty-fifth street, which she estimates to be worth $1,000."

The Sun, however, pointed out that she owned outright $57,000 shares of stock in the Orchard Spring Water Company (about $1.5 million today), and would receive a $20,000 a year income when the divorce was finalized.  Abigail was immediately concerned, however, in the $28,351 she owed her dressmaker, milliner and lawyer.

Things turned physical on the evening of May 22, 1913.  James and his brother, Francis, visited Abigail that night.  The discussion apparently grew heated, for Abigail called her lawyer, James W. Osborne, and said "My husband and his brother are in my home and my husband has said he would kill you, Mr. Osborne."

Osborne and his nephew, also named James, jumped in a taxicab and arrived at the 65th Street house a few minutes later.   Just as they reached the door, Osborne and his brother were leaving.  Word were exchanged and Osborne's nephew and James Bishop began throwing punches.  The battled went from the porch to 65th Street, and "extended over a good part of the intersection of that street and Madison avenue," reported The New York Herald.

The colorful and complex stained glass transoms survive in the second floor windows.
"James C. Bishop and the younger Mr. Osborne were locked so tightly in each other's arms while they hammered with their fists as they rolled over the street that a policeman had difficulty in prying them apart."  Both men were taken away in a patrol wagon and both preferred charges against the other.  The newspaper said "the charges were withdrawn in the Men's Night Court in the presence of Mrs. Bishop, who was highly excited."

Abigail won her case on May 30.  She won custody of their seven-year old daughter, the other four being of the age to choose.  They chose their father.   The judge, Justice Hendrick, noted that Abigail would most likely have to leave her lavish home.

"It appears that this house is rented by the plaintiff at $10,000 a year...It is evident that if the plaintiff is to live in that house in such circumstances as she has been accustomed to it will be an expensive establishment to maintain."

He was apparently correct, for Abigail moved out within a year and a half.  In March 1915 Martina Downing signed a 20-year lease on the house.  The Record & Guide noted "Mrs. Downing will move her business to that location."

Madison Avenue had already become highly commercialized with high-end shops.  The location was perfect for Martina Downing's dress shop.  The designer had created a reputation among fashionable society women.  On August 7 The Record & Guide reported that architect Charles F. Peck had designed the renovations for a store in the Madison Avenue elevation.

Martina, her husband, Mortimer J. Downing, and their 19-year old son, Mortimer, Jr., moved into the house.  They were looking for a new houseman (a catch-all term for someone available to do general duties) in March 1920.  Their ad specified a "steady, reliable, Christian man, with first class references."

Mortimer and Martina worked together in the business, but it was Martina who ran it.  The Woman's Home Companion said in July 1923 that she "makes clothes for smart younger New York and may be trusted as an authority."

Martina Downing designed these summer dinner dresses in 1923.  Women's Home Companion, June 1923
In 1936 the house was purchased by the Oceanic Investing Corp.   Architect C. F. Rosbarg was commissioned to convert the upper floors to apartments.  In doing so, he removed the portico and the loggia.  The renovations, completed in 1937 resulted in three stores on the first floor and two apartments each in the upper stories.

Seams in the brickwork testify to the missing portico.
In 1960 a beauty salon was installed on the second floor for society hairdresser Monsieur Marc.  His high-end clientele was evidenced at a cocktail party he held in the salon on March 26, 1970.  The New York Times began its article saying "The Duchess of Windsor didn't make it--her ship was lake docking.  Neither did Mrs. William S. Paley nor her sister, Mrs. John Hay Whitney.  They were in the Bahamas.  However, their sister, Mrs. James W. Fosburgh, did.  So did young Mrs. Frederic Byers 3d, who is Mrs. Payley's stepdaugher.

"And so did Mrs. Winthrop Rockefeller, wife of the Governor of Arkansas, Mrs. Leland Hayward (who was once Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law), Mrs. Joseph A. Meehan, Mrs. Julien Chaqueneau, Mrs. Lawrence Copley Thaw, Countess Guy de Brantes, Mrs. Palmer Dixon and other regulars who have their hair done at the Monsieur Marc salon."

In 1985, Mimi Sheraton wrote an article in Harper's Bazaar about the society restaurant Le Cirque.  She mentioned "Nancy Reagan is likely to order the [lobster] salad, but when she is at her hairdresser's (Monsieur Marc, 22 East Sixty-fifth Street) and doesn't have time to make it to the restaurant, Sirio sends over a chicken-and-watercress salad."

In the meantime the ground floor shops housed upscale businesses.  Harbour Knits opened in 1982; The Green Thumb, a florist, was here the following year; and the gourmet shop Terra Mare by 1995.  In 2018 contemporary art gallery Kurimanzutto opened.

Although sadly missing its terminal cornice and its elegant entrance porch, the Betts mansion manages to remind the passerby of its elegant past.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The 1898 La Rochelle Apartments - 57 West 75th Street

On June 1, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich had filed plans for a "brick flat" to be erected on the northeast corner of Columbus Avenue and 75th Street.  The owner of the projected building, estimated to cost $275,000 (just under $8.5 million today), was listed as Corydon H. Merriman, of Oakdale, Long Island.

That was, in fact, not quite true.  Merriman was the private secretary of millionaire Christopher Rhinelander Robert and it was Robert's money that was behind the project.  Born in 1829, he was taken into his father's business, Robert & Williams, as a young man.  His father, Christopher Sr., had already amassed a large fortune and had founded Robert College in Constantinople.  The younger Robert's first wife had died about three years after their wedding and in 1875 he married the widowed Julia Remington Morgan.

That year he began construction of a sprawling country home at Oakdale, Long Island (the same location Merriman listed as his address) that abutted William K. Vanderbilt's Idle Hour estate.  It was not a neighborly relationship and when Vanderbilt's expensive hunting dogs repeatedly trespassed onto Robert's estate, Robert set traps.  It led to a "rather excited" confrontation at the Oakdale train station during which "the talk was warm," said The Sun.  Robert ended the verbal duel saying "The traps are on my land, aren't they?  Well, if you keep your dogs at home they won't get caught in them."  The Sun concluded "No more dogs were caught."

Robert's French Huguenot forebears had come to America from the town of La Rochelle and it appears he gave his Oakdale estate that name.  In 1876 he started construction of another mansion in Newport.   Robert was a man of leisure, having retired around the time of his marriage to Julia.  The Sun said that he "spent much of his time in Paris.  He was very fond of horses, and made several tours through France driving a four-in-hand."

It is unclear why Robert disguised his ownership of the Columbus Avenue project; certainly he owned much property in Manhattan and was well-known.  But it may be explained by his nearly reclusive tendencies.  The Sun said "Mr. Robert was a man of many acquaintances but no intimates.  He was well educated and an agreeable talker when he chose, but reticent and fond of solitude." 

Completed late in 1897, Lamb & Rich had produced an 11-story Renaissance Revival style structure of brick and stone with decorative elements in terra cotta.    Like his Long Island estate, Robert christened the apartment building La Rochelle.  The upscale building turned its shoulder to the avenue; its entrance on West 75th Street recessed behind a sumptuous triple-arched pavilion of fluted, banded engaged columns with elegant Scamozzi capitals.  They upheld an entablature emblazoned with the building's name under an arched pediment.  The two-story columns were repeated on the Columbus Avenue side, only slightly disguising the storefronts.

photo via

The third floor was faced in planar stone, its windows framed in Gibbs-like surrounds.  The restrained ornamentation of the upper floors was confined mostly to brick and terra cotta quoining, and brick voussoirs above the end openings.  A projecting stone cornice partially hid the 11th floor, preserving the structure's proportions.

The elevated train ran up Columbus Avenue in 1910.  The World's New York Apartment House Album (copyright expired)

An ad in the New-York Tribune on April 17, 1897 touted La Rochelle as the "finest and most complete house in the city."  It boasted "three elevators with all-night service; electric light and steam heat free; no extra charges; open on all sides; not a dark room or closet in the house."  It included, as well, a "first-class French Restaurant on premises."

The apartments were spacious, just four to a floor.  They included large parlors and dining rooms, and most had three bedrooms.  Servants rooms, interestingly, were in some cases isolated across the hall from the apartment proper.  The rents, ranging from $1,200 to $1,900 per year, would equal between $3,083 to $4,883 per month today.

The World's New York Apartment House Album (copyright expired)

Among the initial tenants were Christopher Rhinelander Robert and his wife, and Corydon Merriman, who now had a second job as manager of  La Rochelle.   Robert's new lavish apartment did not change his often odd behavior and, in fact, his conduct became even more erratic.

On New Year's Day 1898 he and Julia boarded a steamship headed to Paris to visit her three children by her first marriage.  The Sun reported that he "suddenly changed his mind and insisted on returning to his apartments."  The building's janitor later mentioned that Robert "had been especially dejected and peculiar in his actions for the last week."

At around 9:00 the next morning Julia was in the music room when she heard a noise that she feared was a gunshot.  The Sun reported "she was afraid to investigate alone, and sent a hallboy for C. H. Merriman."  Merriman and the janitor forced open the door of Robert's bedroom.  They found the 68-year-old "sitting in a chair, fully dressed; he had shot himself in the right temple, and a 38-calibre revolver lay beside him on the floor."

Robert's brother, Frederick, demanded a full investigation.  His concern may have had as much to do with the scandal of suicide as with the possibility of foul play.  Frederick's attorney, Thomas C. T. Crain, explained to newspapers "In the case of the death of Mr. Robert it appears that those most familiar with the facts desired to keep as many of them from the public as possible."

Frederick tried to cast doubt on the possibility of suicide by pointing attention to the inexpensive revolver.  His lawyer said "Mr. Robert was a man particularly careful about his personal appearance and about the excellent condition and quality of everything he possessed.  I am told that the pistol found on the floor was a cheap affair, and hardly such a one as a man like Robert would be expected to own."  Nevertheless the coroner's jury unanimously deemed Robert's death self-inflicted.

In the meantime, La Rochelle continued to fill with socially visible families, like Elbridge Gerry Snow, Jr., his wife, Frances, and their two children.  The Evening Telegram said of them "Both come of excellent families.  The elder Elbridge Gerry Snow is a cousin of Elbridge T. Gerry, and young Mrs. Snow was Frances Pickett, the daughter of a Montana ranch owner."

The couple repeatedly appeared in the society columns.  On January 3, 1901, for instance, The Evening Telegram announced that Frances "has issued 100 invitations for Saturday, January 12, from four to seven o'clock...The afternoon reception will be followed by dancing at night."  And on January 31 the following year The New York Herald reported that the Gerrys "will give a musical this evening at their residence...followed by an informal dance."

Unknown to any of those guests was that storm clouds had been brewing within the Snow apartment for months.  But they and everyone else in New York would soon be very aware.

Elbridge left the La Rochelle apartment on June 4, 1902, moved in with his parents, and sued Frances for a divorce.  In response, she refused to allow him to see their two children, Elbridge, Jr., who was five-years-old, and four-year old Dorothy.  The Snows' domestic break-up changed from a private matter to a very public one when Elbridge tried to force Frances to share the children.

Newspapers followed the drama as Frances barricaded herself and the children within the apartment.  The Evening Telegram reported on June 25 "Mrs. Snow is believed to be shut up in her apartments...away from the detectives and process servers, who are guarding the house and awaiting a chance to serve the writ.  If Mrs. Snow could leave the State with her children she would be safe from the jurisdiction of the court."  The newspaper said Snow declared that he "could show provocation for leaving his home and also why he believed Mrs. Snow was not a competent person to continue as the children's custodian."

Frances managed to escape to her attorney's office on June 24 by wearing the gray cloak of the children's governess and a heavy veil over her face.  "Even the hallboys are said to have failed to recognize her and she reached her counsel's office safely," said The Telegram.  But she narrowly escaped being served on the way home.

"As she was coming out, however, a process server...walked up and remarked, 'Mrs. Snow, I believe.'"  Frances replied "I never saw you before and climbed quickly into her waiting cab.  "The process server threw the paper at the hansom, but his aim was bad and it slipped off the cab doors to the street without touching Mrs. Snow."

Frances would have to make a heart-rending decision the following year in December when the divorce decree was issued.  The New York Press reported the judge "awarded a child to each parent, leaving the choice with Mrs. Snow."

The Snow divorce was not the only high-profile separation going on within La Rochelle.   Prominent opera figures Emil Fischer, who was about 60-years old and his 30-year old soprano wife, Camille Seygard moved in shortly after their marriage in 1900.  The Morning Telegraph called Fischer "one of the best bassos in the world."

On May 7, 1902 The Evening World reported "It may interest a good many persons in New York to know that Emil Fischer, the ponderous basso, and Camille Seygard, the opera company singer...are no longer husband and wife."  

A cabinet card depicted Fischer in the role of Wotan in Das Rheingold
Madame Seygard, whose off-stage name was Amelia Marie Kate Fischer, had quietly moved out of La Rochelle and secretly obtained a divorce on May 3.  She sailed for Europe that same day. 

Their troubles had started in the fall of 1901 when, according to Madame Seygard, her husband had turned his attentions to Paola Wheinig, whom The Evening World brusquely described as "another singer of less renown, but with apparently more charms for the basso."  With her suspicions aroused, Seygard did not inform her husband that she was returning unexpectedly from a concert tour in January 1902.  

Camille Seygard's domestic bliss was short lived.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
When she arrived at the apartment she found the bedroom door locked.  "Her husband's voice called out that she could not come in," said The Evening World.  But Madame Seygard had her own key.  "When she opened the door she found her husband and the woman."

Domestic strife seemed rampant in La Rochelle.  Another well-heeled couple, William Talbot Perry and his wife, the former Grace Wells, seemed to have the ideal relationship and lifestyle.  The had moved into La Rochelle following their fashionable wedding in London's St. George's Church in 1899.  The Evening World said on March 16, 1903, "They had their automobile, their yacht, their summer home.  It looked like a perpetual honeymoon."

But behind closed doors it was anything but that.  Grace filed for divorce in May 1903 saying "only four months after their marriage he had thrown her to the floor and beaten her with a cane; threatened her with a pistol two months later, and that he applied opprobrious epithets to her while proclaiming his admiration for certain actresses whose photographs he kept."

Among the other well-to-do families in the building at the time was that of attorney Charles O. Maas, who lived on the fifth floor.  The couple, who routinely summered in Europe, would remain in La Rochelle at least through 1911.  But it was the socialite's quick thinking and grit that drew press coverage in 1907.

On the night of February 24 Charles was not at home and Mrs. Maas was sitting in the parlor when, around midnight, she saw flames in the bathroom area reflected in the parlor mirror.  She tried to call the elevator boy, Fritz Taylor, but he could not be found either by the elevator bell or by telephone.  The Evening World reported "Running down the stairs she took charge of the telephone switchboard and called up every occupant of the big house.  It was only a few moments till they were down to the street and standing about in the snow with their arms full of valuables and the clothing they had not yet got into."

As it turned out Fritz had not abandoned his post, but had run to turn in a fire alarm.  The fire was restricted to the Maas apartment, but unfortunately two "valuable paintings" were destroyed in the blaze.

Adolph e. Wupperman, a "dealer in bitters," was in the building in 1918 when he was the victim of an extortion plot.  Andrew W. Work threatened to expose him of an unspecified "criminal act while engaged in business" unless he paid $18,000--a significant $300,000 in today's dollars.  

After Wupperman gave him $50 in marked bills on August 12, the 76-year old extortionist was arrested.  His defense was simple.  The Sun reported "Work protested vigorously, saying he was too old to stand imprisonment."

Wupperman's name appeared in newspapers four years later for a far different reason.  After attending meetings of the local Ku Klux Klan, Wupperman told reporters "that he was impressed" and hosted a Klan meeting in his La Rochelle apartment in the summer of 1922.   Wuppermann said "The discourse was very interesting.  The speaker disclaimed any purpose to sow discord among people of different religions or races, and altogether it seemed to me that it might be a very useful organization."  He told a reporter from The New York Herald in December, "It was so entertaining and instructive that I repeated it on several occasions."  

Sixteen-year old Robert Garrabrants was a handful for his mother.   In February 1925 she demanded to know how he came to have several radios in his room.  He refused to tell her and she wrestled with the issue for hours, then phoned the police to have him arrested.  The radios were traced to a break-in at the the Ansonia Music Shop on Broadway.  Police said Garrabrants confessed to breaking into other nearby radio shops.

Mrs. Garrabrants refused to post bail for her only son, telling the magistrate "that she had tried hard to make him a good boy.  She believed, she said, it would be better for him to be punished mildly now than grow into a criminal," according to The New York Times.

But after he spent four days in the Tombs, Robert's mother felt he had probably learned his lesson and paid a reduced bail of $1,000 to free him.

Two months later the teen was back in custody, charged with the theft of "several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry from the apartment of Mrs. Sadie Small at 221 West Eighty-second Street," according to The Times.   Detectives suspected he was mentally unbalanced, possibly the result of being struck by an automobile a year earlier.  On April 3 The Times reported they had scheduled "an examination to test the mentality" of the 16-year old.
The lobby of La Rochelle has survived beautifully intact.  photo via city realty
Another teen in the building was Burton Tucker.  He was 16-years-old in 1923, living on a Massachusetts farm when  he "wooed his rich aunt, Susan Oliver Tucker," according to a newspaper.  The couple was married in October 1923.  The bride was 44-years-old and Burton's family, understandably, objected to the romance.  But the fact that Susan was three months pregnant no doubt had forced their eventual approval.  The couple moved into commodious apartment in La Rochelle.

Burton enjoyed his new found wealth.  His bride had, according to newspapers, $300,000 in cash (more than $4.4 million today) as well as real estate.  According to the New York Evening Post later, "He was so smart, [Susan] said, that she entrusted all her money to him immediately, though he was only sixteen.  She even followed his lead in playing the stock market--but with poor luck."

Things did not progress smoothly as the years passed.  On May 2, 1935 The Evening Post reported "Mrs. [Susan] Olive Tucker, fifty-eight, giggled today and reported that her unruly young husband, Burton, twenty-eight, has been a good boy since she had him arrested."  Burton had knocked her down in their La Rochelle apartment.

Susan posted bond and the judge cautioned him against physical abuse.  "You have a sweet wife, be a good husband."  But it would not be the last time they appeared in court.

The Tuckers were still living in La Rochelle on May 10, 1937 when the New York Post ran the headline "Cash Ran Out--So Did Husband."  By now, according to Susan, she had become "merely his housekeeper."  Burton had taken up with a younger woman and abandoned Susan and their three children.  Tragically, he had exhausted her entire fortune.  "Today, I'm penniless," she told the court.  "I haven't enough to fee the children tomorrow."

Throughout the coming years La Rochelle would continue to see well-heeled and celebrated tenants.  William Earl Brown, a vocal instructor and author of Vocal Wisdom, lived here until his death on May 16, 1945, for instance.

In 2015 a renovation resulted in seven apartments per floor.  Other than replacement windows and the regrettable loss of the terminal cornice, the exterior of the building with the astounding past survives little changed.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post