Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Patrick J. Walsh House - 76 Edgecombe Avenue

The entrance was originally above a high stone stoop, directly behind the corner light pole.
George J. Hamilton was both an architect and real estate developer.  He worked tirelessly in the Harlem district in the 1880's and '90's erecting flat buildings and rowhouses.  In January 1889 he filed plans to erect twelve residences--18 and 19 feet wide each--along the block front of Edgecombe Avenue between 138th and 139th Streets.  Each was to cost $8,500 to construct--around $239,000 today.  

His Queen Anne style row was completed in the spring of 1890.  Like its neighbors, No. 76 on the southern corner, rose three stories above a high English basement.  The basement and first floor were faced in rough-cut brownstone; the upper floors in red brick.  The rounded corner was topped by a conical "witch's cap" fronting a shallow mansard roof.

Immediately upon completion Hamilton sold the entire group to Nelson Cadmus, including in the deal eight more new houses around the corner on West 139th Street.  Cadmus paid the equivalent of $9.9 million for the 20 dwellings.

On December 8 No. 76 was sold to Patrick J. Walsh, a well-known and successful builder, for $21,400 (just above $600,000 today).  Walsh and his wife, Ellen, moved into the house with their three small children--two daughters and a son.

Tragically, their youngest daughter, Madeline, died in their new home on November 20, 1891.  She was only 8-years old.  Her funeral was held in the parlor four days later.

William J. Walsh was 10-years old when the family moved to Edgecombe Avenue.  He entered business college rather than high school so he would be prepared to work in his father's office.  And after graduating in July 1897, he did so.

But then, caught up in the passionate wave of patriotism that swept the country when the United States entered the Spanish-American War, William sneaked away to enlist in the 71st Regiment.  He kept it a secret from his parents until he was called away to Camp Black.

Before long William was in Cuba fighting.  The New York Herald wrote "Cheerful letters were received from him from Southern camps and from Cuba.  The last was written on the day following the battle about San Juan Hill."  Then the letters stopped.

After several weeks his worried parents began inquiries, first through letters.  A clue came on August 23 when The New York Times listed the names of soldiers arriving in camps from Cuba suffering from illness, including 104 cases of typhoid fever.  But the list simply noted "William J. Walsh, left in Cuba sick."

Frantic, Patrick Walsh (whom The New York Herald commented "has a comfortable home at No. 76 Edgecombe Avenue") set out to find his son.  Hearing that another transport ship, the Roumania, was arriving at Camp Wikoff on Montauk Point, Long Island on September 4, he went there.  Startlingly, The New York Herald reported "he was there when the transport...arrived but there was not an official who could tell him whether his son was aboard."

Unwilling to give up, he began a bed-by-bed search of the infirmaries.  Two days later he found William, "worn down with Cuban fever and dysentery."  Patrick sent for Ellen and they stayed by his bedside every day for a week.  Finally, "by a great deal of perseverance," as worded by The Herald, on September 13 they obtained permission to have him moved to a New York hospital.

The newspaper reported "At his bedside, in a private ward, his father and mother watched day and night."  The teen died on September 19 and his body was removed to the Walsh home.

William's funeral was held in the house on September 22.  The following day The New York Times reported that the 18-year-old had been buried with military honors in Calvary Cemetery.  "A squad of twelve men from Company D under command of First Sergt. Hugh Rainey accompanied the body to the grave."  But the gesture did not lessen his parents' bitterness.  "Although the doctors say he died of fever, Mr. Walsh declares he died of starvation.  Mr. Walsh says his son lay in Camp Wikoff unidentified and improperly attended for many days."

Patrick and Ellen Walsh's enmity towards the military was only worsened three days after the funeral when Ellen received a response to one of her earlier letters from Lt. Colonel Charles Smart.  It said in part:

Dear Madam:  In reply to your letter inquiring relative to William J. are respectfully informed that the records of this office furnish no information being on the subject of his sickness or whereabouts.

By 1920 when Patrick and Ellen Walsh sold the house the neighborhood was rapidly changing from one of fewer private homes to more and more rooming and boarding houses.  The new owner, M. A. Dreyer, commissioned architect S. F. Oppenheim to renovate the property into what the new Certificate of Occupancy bluntly called a "tenement."  It was no doubt at this time that the stoop was removed and the entrance moved to sidewalk level.

Among the new tenants in 1924 was Mrs. William Phillips who operated her small business from her kitchen.  In October that year she placed an advertisement in New York Age that read: "Mrs. William Phillips, formerly of King's Highway, begs to inform the public that she is again opening up her Catering Business at 76 Edgecombe avenue, N.E. Cor. 138th street, and would be pleased to cater to her many friends, and the public in general.  Outside orders especially solicited."

Much more notable than Mrs. Phillips's catering business was the Mwalimu School run by the multi-talented Manet Harrison Fowler.  She had founded the school in 1928 and in 1932 moved it into No. 76, leasing the entire building.   A 1913 graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, she went on to study visual arts at The Chicago Art Institute and music at the Chicago Musical College and American Conservatory of Music.  She was not only a well-known operatic soprano, but a recognized painter.

She formed the Mwalimu School of African Art, otherwise known as the Mwalimu Center for African Culture, to develop African music and creative art.  Among the instructors here was esteemed Black historian Carter G. Woodson.

The warm contrast of brownstone and brick can be seen in this tax photo from about 1940.  via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services.

Harrison had married educator Stephen Hamilton Fowler in 1915.  Both were natives of Fort Worth, Texas.  The couple had five children.  In April 1950 the funeral of 32-year old Stephen, Jr. was held in the house.  The young man had been ill for some time and succumbed to a heart attack.  In reporting on his death the New York Age added that along with his father he "is also survived by his mother, Manet Harrison Fowler, nationally known musician; two sisters, Rosemarie and Manet, two brothers, Carroll and George."

His sister Manet would go on to become the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D in cultural anthropology in the United States.  George became Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights.

While Manet Harrison Fowler would be better known as a moving force in Black culture, Stephen was highly involved participant in both religious and racial equality movements, including the Baptist church, the NAACP and the Harlem YMCA.  On October 24, 1965 he was found dead in his hotel room in Syracuse, New York.  As President Emeritus of the laymen's council of Mt. Olivet Church, he was attending the Empire State Baptist Convention there.  He had suffered a heart attack.  

Manet Harrison Fowler died in February 1976.   

Whatever was left of George J. Hamilton's Victorian interior details have been stripped out for featureless, dry walled apartments.  Outside the red brick has been painted red and the brownstone painted gray.  To save costs when replacing the windows, the owners opted for flat panes on the corners rather than the original rounded glass.  One of the two surviving houses of Hamilton's 1890 row, its charm manages to survive.

photographs by the author


  1. I usually go to the Municipal Archives and take a screenshot of the image using my Mac's "Preview", then heighten the contrast and sharpen the image. So you don't get washed-out photos like the one above. You can also crop out unwanted extraneous details. Don't know what sort of computer you're using.

    Having said that, I always read DiM for its wonderful history. Don't know how you find the time to do all this research, but I love it!

    1. That's normally how I handled those fuzzy photos. Can't make an excuse for this one, though! Glad you enjoy the posts, and thanks for the compliment.