Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Richard Starr Dana House - 338 West 88th Street.

On April 15, 1893 the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson filed plans for seven four-story residences on West 88th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive for developers Livingston & Dunn.  Intended for well-to-do buyers, they would be four stories tall above English basements and cost $20,000 each to construct--in the neighborhood of $576,000 today.

The architects arranged the Renaissance Revival style homes in an unusual A-A-B-C-A-A configuration.  No. 338, the type "C" house, stood out not only because it was the only one of the row without a projecting oriel at the second and third floors (preferring a slightly projecting bay at the basement and parlor levels) but because of its elaborate carved decorations.  Especially striking was the complex design featuring a putto, or small boy, above the entrance.

The carved boy above the what was the entrance steals attention from the charming face peeking from the frieze of the parlor bay.
Both the basement and parlor floors were clad in limestone.  A stone stop led to the entrance.  The banded piers of the bay rose to a Renaissance-inspired frieze below a balustraded pseudo-balcony.  The three upper floors were faced in ironspot Roman brick.  Here, farther away from pedestrian eyes, the decorations were executed in terra cotta.  The long spandrel panel between the second and third floors was no less impressive than its stone counterparts below.

The last of the row to be sold was No. 338.  It was purchased in March 1895 by William Buhler for $38,000, or nearly $1.2 million today.  It is unclear whether Buhler ever lived in the house; but his advertisement in 1898 offering it for lease unfurnished suggests he did not.

He soon sold the residence to retired banker Richard Starr Dana.  Born in New York City on May 22, 1836, his family traced its American roots to 17th century Massachusetts.  He was related to Richard H. Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, and to Charles A. Dana, editor of The Sun.

Dana sailed for China shortly after graduating from Columbia University.  There he became a partner in the banking and commission firm of Russell & Co. and lived in China throughout the 1860's.  While his countrymen were fighting the Civil War he helped fight the Tai-Ping rebellion.  He was made a captain of volunteers and later became a member of "Chinese" Gordon's staff.

Ill health forced his return to New York in 1870.  Now effectively retired, two years later he married Florine Turner and they had two sons, Richard and David.

The Starrs were well known for their entertaining at both their Lenox estate and the 88th Street townhouse.  And Florine was celebrated for her eggnog parties.  The World claimed "No one ever made egg-nog quite as well as Mrs. Dana--a real old-time Southern concoction, which has made Mrs. Dana famous in two continents."

The newspaper commented on her annual eggnog party in Lenox on October 8, 1899.  "Mrs. Dana seems to have a monopoly of this particular form of function...But I fancy it is Mrs. Dana's own charming personality that makes her egg-nog parties such scintillating affairs, for she is the centre of them and holds her guests together over the punch bowl in a wonderfully cheerful way."

Although she was born in Connecticut, this party had a Southern theme.  "To give the affair an even more thoroughly Southern coloring Mrs. Dana prefaced it with a 'coon supper.'  The coons had been hunted by the swells themselves."  And the "swells" wielding the rifles were all female--debutantes and their socialite mothers.  The World explained "It is the latest fad of the society belle to shoot something, and in the Berkshires the game consists of frogs and coons."

Society pages followed the Danas, reporting on their travels and entertainments.  On December 29, 1900 Florine hosted an elaborate luncheon for Richard, Jr., who was home for the holidays from Princeton.  Three weeks later his parents boarded a steamship to Cairo to spend the rest of the winter.

In 1903 Richard Starr Dana's suffered stomach problems which continued for months.  He finally died in the 88th Street house on January 19, 1904 from what The New York Times said was chronic gastritis.  In reporting his death, nearly every newspaper mentioned he was "of the famous Dana family."

By the terms of Dana's will the title of the house was passed to his sons.  They transferred the deed to their mother in June that year.  But it was not Florine's intention to remain here.  The house was sold to Adam K. Luke on September 25, 1905.

Luke's fortune came, for the most part, from the paper industry.   His father, William Luke, had founded the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co., of which Adam was secretary.  He was secretary of the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Co. as well.  He and his wife, the former Irene Mills, had three children, Grace, Rose and Adam, Jr.

At 6:00 on Friday evening, January 7, 1910 Luke's chauffeur, Edward Buchanan, drove him home from his office.  The young driver had exciting plans for his Friday night.  An hour after taking Luke's expensive touring car to the nearby garage and ordering its gas tank to be filled, he returned for it.  But, as explained by The New York Times, "not for the use of the owner."

Buchanan took the automobile on what police termed "a joy ride."  By 4:00 in the morning he had apparently added alcohol to his partying.  At 86th Street and Central Park West a taxi driver "saw the touring car zigzagging down the roadway."  There were two female occupants in the cab and its driver, Louis Wettrauer, tried to get out of the way by pulling to the curb and slowing down.  But, reported The Times, "Instead of keeping to the proper side of the street, the touring car steer directly toward the taxicab."

A devastating accident followed.  "The taxicab was tossed toward the curb and the screaming women within were hurled violently against the window panes, which broke, scattering glass over them.   Wettrauer was hurled over the dashboard of the taxicab to the street."  While the cab driver lay stunned in Central Park West, Buchanan jumped from the twisted touring car, leapt over the Central Park wall and ran.

Luke's costly automobile was totaled.  "Its whole front was wrecked, its top was broken in, the two front wheels had been ripped off, and altogether the machine was fairly well torn apart."  The article said "When Luke heard what had happened to his car he was irate."

Later that year the Luke family left West 88th Street.  In 1913 they purchased Charlton Hall, the Civil War period estate at Irvington-on-Hudson erected by David and Margaret Dows.  They renamed it Devon Hall and by the 1920's lived there permanently.

The Lukes became active within the upstate community around Devon Hall.  from the collection of the Irvington Public Library
In the meantime the No. 338 West 88th Street had become home to attorney Joseph Fettrech, his wife and daughter.  Fettrech was the senior partner in the law form Fettretch, Silkman & Seybel.  

The family spend the summer of 1910 in Westchester County, leasing an estate from the Reynolds family.  On September 30, as reported by the Daily Argus, "The Reynolds mansion...was the scene of a quiet wedding yesterday afternoon at 4 o'clock, when Miss Sarah M. Fettretch...and Arthur M. Knight, of New York, were married."  The article noted "the ceremony was in the large reception room, which was handsomely decorated with a beautiful display of wild asters, palms, hydrangeas and other autumn flowers."

An unspeakable tragedy would happen less than two years later.  For 14 years a hatred of the attorney had simmered within James Conroy.  In 1898 when a family dispute over property ended up in court, Joseph Fettretch had been named "referee in the proceedings to straighten it out," said The Times.  But James Conroy felt he had been cheated and "smelled a plot to wrong him."  Unknown to Fettretch the man's hostility continued to fester until by the summer of 1912 it boiled over as a murderous plot of revenge.

On Tuesday July 22 Conroy entered Fettretch's office on Park Row.  The New York Times reported "It was apparent that he had been drinking [and] the clerks and stenographers kept a close eye on him."  He asked to see Fettrech, but was told he was out of town.  "Very well.  I will call again tomorrow," he said.

And he did.  At 9:30 following morning he entered the ninth floor office and "asked loudly" for Fettretch, as worded by The Times.  The lawyer had not arrived yet, so Conroy waited.  His very presence unnerved the office workers.  "They noticed his unkempt appearance, his soiled paper collar, and his generally sodden look."

Joseph Fettretch arrived at 10:00 and minutes afterward Conroy fired a pistol at point blank range.  The 67-year-old died on the floor of his office.

The upper story decorations were cast in terra cotta.

No. 338 was soon home to another attorney, Assistant District Attorney John F. Joyce and his family.  

The Joyces were looking for two new servants in 1920.  Their want ad  in The New York Herald on November 30 read:  "Cook, also chambermaid-waitress, 2 girls; private family."  Whoever took the cook's position did not work out.  Two months later another ad appeared.  It said simply, "Cook, competent; private family."

By 1927 daughter May had been introduced to society and, as expected of debutantes, she was active in charity functions.  When a bridge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for the benefit of St. Francis Hospital was planned in February that year, newspapers noted "Tickets may be obtained from Miss May V. Joyce at 338 West Eighty-eighth street."

John Joyce's salary in 1933 was $10,000 per year, around $195,000 in today's dollars.  While financially comfortable, he was noticeably less wealthy than his predecessors in the house; a symptom of the slightly less fashionable tenor of the block.  

Although it would not survive many months more, the stoop was still intact when this tax photo was snapped around 1941.  photo via the NYC Department of of Records & Information Services.

Nevertheless, John F. Joyce had firmly established his reputation by now.  That year on December 28 The New York Sun said of him, "He has tried literally thousands of cases, is a trial assistant in General Sessions, and last year established a record by convicting eleven men of first degree murder."  In all, at that point, he had sent dozens of murderers to prison and in 1931 had convicted the four perpetrators of the famous Charles Rosenthal kidnapping.

When the Joyce family moved into the 78th Street house Elizabeth Doris had been their maid for about five years.  She was still with them in 1935, twenty years after they first hired her.   The family was devastated after she left the house on the night of October 30 that year and made it only to the intersection of 86th Street and West End Avenue when she was hit by an automobile and killed.

The house was altered to apartments in 1941, two per floor.  It was at this time that the stoop was removed, the entrance moved to the former basement level, and the original entrance converted to a window.  Unexpectedly, the stoop newels were preserved, a nice historic introduction to the house still today.

photographs by the author

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