Monday, November 25, 2019

The Lost Michael Sampter House - 2138 Fifth Avenue

A handsome wooden fence surrounds the property.  Note the two stone hitching posts.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of  New York 

Michael Sampter and his wife, the former Rachel Byck, were married in their native Germany.  According to a descendant, they immigrated to America when Rachel, who was a pacifist, refused to allow her sons to serve in the German army.  In New York Sampter established a wholesale clothing business through which he garnered a fortune.  

He purchased a large amount of land north of the city in Harlem, then a semi-rural and upscale suburb.  Spreading west from Fifth Avenue and 131st Street, the land presented potential.  Not only was it sparsely dotted with elegant residences surrounded by large gardens and lawns, but the northward expansion of the city promised future development.

The Sampter home sat on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 131st Street.  It was based for the most part on the French Second Empire style, but was highly influenced by the new neo-Grec style, notably in the architrave window surrounds with their incised carvings and bracketed cornices.  An imperious stone stoop led to the entrance, and the third floor took the form of handsome mansard with prominent neo-Grec dormers.

Junior partners in Michael Sampter, Sons & Co. were Michael, Jr. and Arnold Sampter.  Rachel and Michael had three other children, Rudolph, Philip, and Jessie.  As Sampter's fortunes continued to increase he built the Hotel Averne in the summer resort Averne-by-the-Sea on the Rockaway peninsula.

In its July 1885 issue Building, An Architectural Monthly reported that Michael Sampter had commissioned architect A. J. Finkle to design three brownstone-faced houses directly behind his own, on West 131st Street.  Each was to cost $60,000 to build, or just over $1.6 million today.  While Michael retained ownership of the houses for decades, they were intended for three of his married children.

Jennie and her husband, Sigmont Simon, took No. 2 East 131st Street.  Simon had been brought into Sampter's business upon the marriage, prompting its name change to Otto, Sampter & Simon.  The Montana newspaper, the Red Lodge Picket later sarcastically said, "Old Mr. Sampter had taken him into the tailoring industry, and not only given him a partnership, but thrown his daughter, Miss Sampter, in as a bonus."

As Sigmont's prosperity increased, he retired at a very early age.  The business was renamed M. Sampter, Sons & Co.   But now Simon's full-time presence in the house caused major problems which were eventually publicized across the nation.  Early in 1895 Jennie and her two children were back in her parents' house.   

The Red Lodge Picket reported on March 2 "Mr. and Mrs. Sigmont Simon got on famously till Simon quit business and began to live at home."  The article described Jessie as "a model housekeeper" and said "the children delighted his eye, the neighbors could not hold a candle to them in the elegance of their lace curtains and the brightness of the brass balusters that led up their front steps.  When their carriage stopped before the front door, envious necks were craned out from windows in all the region round about."

But now, with no business to oversee, he turned his focus to running the household; the traditional domain of the wife.  He criticized the cook's seasonings and the methods of the children's governess.  The breaking point came when he fired the French maid while Jennie was away on a visit in April 1893.  Upon her return she erupted.

The Daily Morning Journal and Courier explained "The wife wanted absolute charge of the household, with power to hire or discharge servants.  The husband demanded to be recognized as master of the household and head of the family."  

At an impasse, Jennie took the children to the Sampter house, described in court papers as "a large private mansion, with ample rooms and accommodations."  On January 26, 1895 The Evening World wrote "Mrs. Simon became incensed at her husband's interference, and, taking her children, went to her father's house declaring she would not return until Mr. Simon agreed to recognize her supreme authority in domestic affairs."

Jennie had sent Sigmont a note that read:

When you are prepared to allow me the entire control of the household, hire and discharge servants, attend to the ordering and manage everything as supreme head of the household, I will return to you, and not till then.

Simon fired back a reply:

Whenever you are willing to allow me to be the master of my own household, to be the head of my family, a right which I have as the one who supplies money to run the household, I will bury the past and take you back.  Until then we cannot live together.

In January 1895 Sigmont obtained a writ of habeas corpus in Supreme Court for his children, Emil Jacob and Jennett.  "He alleges they are illegally restrained by his wife, Jennie Simon, at the residence of Mrs. Simon's father, 2138 Fifth avenue," said The Evening World.

Jennie Sampter Simon became a figurehead of sorts for the women's movement.  She lost the battle but, in a way, won the war.  The Connecticut newspaper, The Daily Morning Journal and Courier reported on March 28, "Judge McAdam of the Superior court of New York has called attention to an ugly fact which stands in the way of Woman's progress and is a bar to her full emancipation."  The judge's decision read in part:

The wife should obey the reasonable demands of the husband.  Under the old English law the husband's authority was supreme, and he had the right to chastise his wife.  The law is different now, but still the husband's reasonable demands must be obeyed.

And while upholding the law, the judge noted "An intelligent woman should certainly not be subjected in the presence of servants and guests to humiliation and ill treatment by her husband, by the offensive assertion that he is master and she must in all things obey him."

Jennie and Sigmont in divorce court.  The World, October 25, 1895 (copyright expired)

The Morning Journal and Courier reporter added his own opinion to the story.  "Married men are not apt to make 'reasonable demands,' and if they do occasionally make one they are not apt to go to law to get its reasonableness established.  So the wife is in most cases the real judge as to the reasonableness of a demand made by the husband."  He added "Woman is not really free as long as even the 'reasonable demand' idea remains in the law."

And so Jennie did not return.  Sigmont sued for separation claiming abandonment.  In court he complained that his wife and the maid insisted on speaking French in front of him, so he was unaware of what they were saying.  

The court gave Jennie absolute custody of the Emil and Jennett, "considering the tender years of the children, the fact that their mother is surrounded by wealth and luxury and that their father is afflicted with a disease which presumably will grow worse."  (That condition was locomotor ataxia, a motor control disorder, often connected to venereal disease.)  The decision added "They are being educated at a private school, and also have private teachers for music and foreign languages."

Once divorced, Sigmont left No. 2 East 131st Street, moved to Pennsylvania and began to work again.  In its July 1896 issue The Clothier and Furnisher reported "Sigmont Simon, of the late firm of Otto, Sampter & Simon, has established headquarters in Philadelphia" as a representative of a clothing house.

While Jennie's domestic drama played out, her brother Philip was married to Ada Schwartz on May 4, 1893.  The New York Herald reported "Many costly presents were received by the pair, including a completely furnished house at Fifth avenue and 131st street from the groom's father."

The bride and groom.  The New York Herald, May 5, 1893 (copyright expired)

Michael Sampter involved himself in Jewish organizations and charities.  He was a patron of the ball at Carnegie Hall given by the Young Ladies' and Gentlemen's League to benefit the Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids in January 1895, for instance.  The New York Times said "The ball promises to be the most brilliant event in Jewish society this season."

In December that year Sampter sold his "mansion with stable," as described by The New York Times, to Edward Nicholson for $90,000--or about $2.75 million today.  As partial payment he took in return two five-story brick apartment buildings on Eighth Avenue at 113rd Street.  

Michael and Rachel moved down the block to No. 12 West 131st Street.  It was there that Rachel died on November 26, 1897 at the age of 72.

The Fifth Avenue mansion became home to attorney Thomas J. Bannon whose offices were in the Germania Bank Building.  On January 5, 1904 newspapers reported that he had been appointed secretary to Deputy Police Commissioner John F. Cowan at a salary of $2,100.  Equal to about $61,000 today, the income was a supplement to his more rewarding legal practice.

The position was short-lived.  Cowan was gone by July, taking a position in the Sanitary Department, and Bannon resigned by February 1905.  In March 1906 Bannon purchased a house on 114th Street near Second Avenue.  Before long No. 2138 was being operated as a boarding house, run by Charles Fiedler, who was also an auctioneer.

Fidler rented rooms on the first-floor to George Frederick Haeffner and his wife, the former Jeannette Halby, in mid-November 1914.  They had come from Atlantic City in July that year, first living at No. 431 West 34th Street where they paid $6.50 a week rent for themselves and their four children.  But when they moved into No. 2138 the couple came alone.

It was later learned that they had abandoned their sons--Jimmie, Richard, Earl and George--on November 15, just before renting the rooms.  Two were just babies--Earl was 18-months old and his infant brother George was just 2-months--and were the first to be found.  George was discovered in the hallway of a building on East 53rd Street and taken to the New York Foundling Asylum.  Earl was found in front of No. 208 East 47th Street.  He died of bronchial pneumonia on December 10, "induced probably by the exposure in the rain on the night of his abandonment," said The Sun on January 21, 1915.

The older boys survived.  Their parents were tracked down and arrested for abandonment.  In court on January 20, 1915 the 26-year old Jeanette dressed down for the occasion.  The Sun, calling her "thin, small and unimpressive," said she was "dressed in startling contrast to the good but flashy clothes that were found in her room uptown.  A worn brown veil completely covered her head and face until Magistrate Freschi ordered it raised."

Haeffner claimed his wife's poor health prompted them to abandon the children, and Jeanette said "that four children were too much for any woman."  The Sun wrote "Her attitude was one of absolute indifference.  They were boys and could shift for themselves; it was not the kind of life she wanted; they had worn her to a shadow."  The couple faced penalties of seven years in State prison.

Fiedler continued operating the former Sampter mansion as a boarding house into the 1920's.   Then, in 1936 Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed condemnation of the properties along Fifth Avenue from 130th to 131st Street to be used for a playground.  Included in the targeted properties was a similar house, the J. D. Mott mansion on the opposite corner from the Sampler house.

Although there was some public outcry about the demolition of the Mott mansion, oddly enough no one seems to have cared about its neighbor.  Both structures were destroyed and the recreational space, now known as the Courtney Callender Playground, was opened in 1937.

many thanks to reader Phyllis Winchester for suggest this post

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Tom! I'm way behind on my reading but always catch Lost Monday. Great post!