Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Edward B. Marks House - 53 East 65th Street

In 1875 developer Hugh Blesson erected a row of seven high-stooped houses on the north side of East 65th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues.   Prolific architect John G. Prague designed the narrow houses (each was just 17 feet wide) in the currently popular neo-Grec style.  Four stories tall above the high English basement, their openings were fully framed, with bracketed sills and substantial decorative lintels.  Deeply-overhanging galvanized iron cornices crowned the design.

No. 53 East 65th Street saw a succession of owners before the turn of the century.  Lost in foreclosure in 1886, it was sold at auction in April that year for $20,250 (about $558,000 today).  The sale notice that the purchase included the "gas fixtures, mirrors, &c."

The buyer was Thomas McPherson who sold it two years later for $29,000, making a handsome profit.  The house was turned over several more times before Edward B. Marks purchased it in April 1902.  Unlike his predecessors, Marks intended to stay.

Born in 1865 in Troy, New York, Edward Marks was a song-writer who founded the Edward B. Marks Music Company in 1894.  Among his early commercial hits were "Hot times in the Old Town Tonight" and "Sweet Rosie O'Grady."  Marks published the first song written by Irving Berlin, and the first by Jerome Kern.

He had married the former Miriam Chuck on December 15, 1897.  The couple would have three children, Phyllis Miriam, Herbert East, and Edward B. Marks, Jr.

Exactly a year after moving into No. 53 Marks hired architect Lewis Colt Albro to make alterations.  The plans filed are obscure; however the changes most likely had to do with interior updating.

The Marks family's summer home was at Arverne-by-the-Sea on the Rockaway Peninsula.  The property owners there enacted a strict set of rules to ensure the community's fashionable tone was maintained.  So in January 1904 when it was announced that the Halcyon Casino Company intended to improve its boardwalk property with a bowling alley and carousel, "and to run them in defiance of the restrictions," according to the New-York Tribune, the cottage owners took action.  Edward B. Marks was among those who "decided to make a legal fight."

The management of the casino fought back against the injunction by erecting signs on the boardwalk prohibiting passage onto the "private property."  And when the community simply began construction of a second boardwalk that would circumvent the casino, the managers played what the New-York Tribune called its "strongest card."

On June 28 the newspaper reported "On Sunday the residents of Arverne were horror-stricken to see a dozen or more negroes sitting in willow rocking chairs on the boardwalk in front of the Halcyon Casino Company's building.  They were guests of President William F. Kemble of the company.  They had basket luncheons provided, it was said, by their host, and were served with ice cream by men in the employ of the company."

The community restrictions banned the sale of anything to Blacks; but, as the New-York Tribune pointed out, "he can remain a jolly host (gratis to the guest) just so long as he likes and the company's funds hold out."  Marks and his neighbors had been trumped.  

It may have been this incident that prompted Marks to relocate the family's summer residence to Great Neck, Long Island.  Their home "Cherry Lawn" there included amenities like a tennis court.

In July 1913 Marks brought Lewis Colt Albro back to make additional renovations on the 65th Street house--this time more significant.  The plans called for the equivalent of $131,000 today in remodeling.  The stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the former basement level within a columned portico.  It supported a striking copper-clad bay at the former parlor level.  Then, a month after the plans were filed, the Record & Guide noted the house "is being altered into small apartments."

If that was the initial plan, the renovations fell short of that, at least for a while.  The family continued to live in the remodeled house.  The children of the song writer and publisher were exposed to the cultural advantages of Manhattan.  In his 2005 autobiography Still Counting: Achievements and Follies of a Nonagenarian, Edward B. Marks, Jr. recalled:

My mother took me to children's theater performances, to the Museum of Natural History, to the zoo, and once, on the subway, to Coney Island.  when I was six or seven, she took me to a matinee to see Sarah Bernhardt perform on one of her farewell tours.

He noted that his parents gave roulette parties on Saturday nights and that they "enjoyed musical comedies and operettas, especially if my father was publishing the music, and they periodically went to the Metropolitan Opera."

In 1920, after Phyllis married and Herbert went away to college, the Marks family moved into an apartment at 99th Street and West End Avenue.  Edward retained possession of the East 65th Street and once again had renovations done.  The house was converted to bachelor apartments with a doctor's office on the first floor.  The Department of Buildings warned that cooking in more than two of the apartments "will render this building liable to immediate vacation."

Obstetrician L. A. Wing initially took the doctor's office.  Among the upstairs tenants was Louigi Criscuolo, the former plenipotentiary of Montenegro in the United States.  While here he founded the Committee for Montenegrin Independence, using the address as its headquarters.  Criscuolo remained here at least through 1925.

When No. 53 was sold in May 1927 The Sun described it as a "five-story and basement apartment house."  It brought $69,350, or just about $1 million today.

Among the residents in 1936 was the widowed Hazel Short, who shared her apartment with her sister, Mildred Messingham.  Hazel's 21-year old daughter attended Columbia University.  That spring both Hazel and Mildred found themselves in legal trouble.

On May 28 the New York Post plastered a photograph of Hazel on its front page under a headline "Widow Accused of Forging $150,000 Check Gives Up."  

Press photographers captured Hazel arriving at court.  New York Post, May 28, 1936
Hazel surrendered at the East 51st Street police station on charges of adding zeroes to a $150 check, creating a $150,000 note.

The Evening Post described her as "attractive and smartly dressed."  Hazel, understandably, was not eager to have her photograph snapped by the reporters.  "Mrs. Short held the brim of a picture hat over her face," said the article, "but an appeal to vanity finally led her to post for pictures."  The reporters pointed out mug shots on the wall and warned "that such a picture of her would be printed in newspapers if she did not permit a more desirable one to be taken."

Mildred accompanied her sister to court, but it was not entirely for moral support.  After Hazel pleaded not guilty and paid her $2,500 bail, the women went off to Yorkville Court where Mildred was "to be arraigned on disorderly conduct charges."  The Los Angeles bank president who filed charges against Hazel, George M. Wallace, had come to town for to file the action.  The Post explained "This charge, filed by the Hotel Barclay, grew out of a disturbance in Mr. Wallace's room there."

An advertisement in the New York Post on September 17, 1938 offered available apartments, "one from $55."  That least expensive rent would equal about $980 per month in today's money.  The ad noted that one of the available apartments had a fireplace.

No. 53 would undergo three more alterations.  In 1950 it was converted to two apartments per floor, in 1993 to just three units, and in 1999 it was returned to a single family residence with four bedrooms and five baths.

photograph by the author

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