Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Luther Halsey Smith House - 412 West 154th Street

By the time developer William H. Lake began construction of three homes on West 154th Street and five more around the corner on St. Nicholas Avenue, the neighborhood was quickly filling with upscale residences.   His architect, Henri Fouchaux, filed plans in August 1898 for the 20-foot wide homes, each estimated to cost $15,000, or about $468,000 today.

Fouchaux designed all eight of the houses in the popular Beaux Arts style.  The three 154th Street homes were designed in an A-B-A configuration.  No. 412, the western most, was like its neighbors a restrained example of the often gushy style.  Three stories tall above an English basement, it was clad in limestone and featured an angled bay at the second floor, supported by ornate stone brackets.

Fouchaux stepped away from the French motif by embellishing the newels of the dog-legged stoop and the spandrel panels of the second floor bay with Renaissance-inspired carvings.  Above the understated third floor was a bracketed pressed metal cornice.

In 1900 Lake sold all eight of the completed houses to Charles Hibbard.   The ambitious real estate operator seems to have been over-optimistic, for he lost six of the houses in foreclosure in 1902.   At the time of the auction on March 29 he owed the bank $16,690 and back taxes of $600--or about $550,000 today.

No. 412 soon became home to Luther Halsey Smith.  Born in Pittsburgh in 1842, he had run a "plate manufacturing" business there before moving to New York in 1900.  He and his wife, the former Anna Mitchell Gardner, had five children, all adults by now.

In May 1909 the 67-year-old suffered "an attack of paralysis," as worded by The New York Herald--what would be called a stroke today.   On November 4, 1910 he died in the house of a second, massive stroke.

No. 412 changed hands several times over the next decade.  In the years following World War I it was owned by Joseph Fleischman, who was leasing it to Mary Gardner Smith.  In May 1921 he hired architect Charles Sheres to make $7,000 in interior alterations.  The plans were vague and may have been merely updating to the plumbing and other modernization.

The unmarried Mary Gardner Smith was active in clubs and charities.  She sat on the Board of Managers of the Florence Crittenton Home, an organization founded in 1883 "to aid and encourage destitute, homeless, and depraved women who wish to seek reformation," and was a member of the Daughters of Pennsylvania, the Riverside Park Protection League and the New York City Federation of Women's Clubs.  In 1921 she was appointed a delegate to the State Convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Mary had moved on before 1923 when the house was being leased by the Legal Fraternity of Gamma Eta Gamma as the Chapter House of its Fordham University branch.   Some members lived in the chapter house, including William O. Hubertson and Russell H. Corcoran, both of whom passed the bar exams later that year.

By the end of the decade the residence had once again changed hands.  It was home to spiritualist preacher Syrenus Heylieger, who claimed to be a member of the General Assembly of Spiritualists.  The New York Age, saying that "Mr. Heylinger hails from the 'sunny isle' of Bermuda," noted on November 12, 1932, that he "admitted that he conducted spiritualistic seances to augment his unstipulated salary."

Heylieger's unstipulated salary was enough that he could afford a chauffeur and in 1929 he hired Albert Hodge, one of his followers, at a salary of $35 per week.  Hodge's wife had recently died and on February 1 the spiritualist offered to handle the funeral arrangements.  Hodge gave him $147 for the undertaker's fees.  According to him, Heylieger told him shortly thereafter than he needed another $560.  When Mrs. Hodge's $502 insurance benefits arrived, Hodge signed the check over to Heylieger.

Hodge held the chauffeur's job until the summer of 1930.  He was shocked in the summer of 1932 to receive a bill from the undertake for $287.  He had Heylieger arrested for grand larceny.  In court the spiritualist denied ever receiving the $147.  Instead he claimed he had paid Mrs. Hodge's medical bills and the cost of a nurse; and following her death had bought flowers (a bleeding heart), paid for the shroud, dresses for the two children, $65 in rent and bought a new suit for the now-revolting Hodge.  The New York Age said "Heylienger prefaced and concluded all of his statements with 'If I remember well.'"

The once-gracious home continued to see various tenants and uses.  Another minister, William A. Campbell, lived here in April 1936 when he filed for bankruptcy, listing nearly $29,000 in liabilities and no assets.  

And in the mid-1940's Almot Products Company, a wig maker, operated from the house.  An advertisement in the Pittsburgh Courier on March 1, 1947 entitled "Human Hair / Hair is Woman's Glory and Success" offered "hair fascinators," like the popular Page Boy style ("Once you try our Page Boy you will never buy elsewhere"), or the V-Roll.  "New York is the style center of the world.  Nearly every girl in New York wears a V-Roll," said the ad.  The wigs cost $3.50 by mail order, about $40 today.

The house was unofficially divided into apartments by the late 1960's.  Twenty-seven-year-old James Mueller occupied a two-room apartment in the winter of 1971 when on February 6 seven detectives armed with search warrants forced their way in.  They found a "narcotics factory" where Mueller and a 20-year old woman, Cheryl Cherry were "cutting the heroin...and already had packed some of it in 900 glassine bags," according to The New York Times.

An official renovation to apartments came in 1977.  A duplex now engulfed the basement and first floor, with one apartment on the second and four one-room apartments on the third.

The revival of the neighborhood was evidenced when Marie Brown, proprietor of Marie Brown Associates, moved her office here around 1990.  The African-American Writer's Survival Handbook said of her in 1991 "she has been a major force in the publishing industry for more than 20 years."

Henri Fouchaux's limestone-faced row looks much as it did in 1899.
Despite its sometimes rocky history, the 120-year old structure is little changed outwardly from the time when Luther Halsey Smith's carriage waited by the curb.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment