Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Bear Mill Manufacturing Building - 120 Franklin Street

The matching 1901 addition is seen at the left.
Theodore B. Rogers was the nephew of Jacob Rogers, described by the New-York Tribune as "the eccentric millionaire locomotive builder."  In 1881 he commissioned architect Jarvis Morgan Slade to replace the three wooden structures at the northeast corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway with a six-story loft and store building.  

Slade was a likely choice.  On January 29 that year The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that his father, Jarvis Slade, "was a pioneer in this district, and besides acquiring a large interest himself, it was mainly due to his influence that it was so rapidly covered with first-class buildings." The article added that Jarvis Morgan Slade was "well known in the dry goods community."

The building was completed the following year, an edgy industrial take on the neo-Grec style.  Hefty stone piers framed the cast iron elements of the storefronts.  The upper floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Slade had divided the five floors into three sections, defined by brownstone still courses.  Segmental arches and inset rosettes at the fifth floor drew the eye upward, while rough-cut stone bands accentuated the horizontal lines.  A deeply-overhanging bracketed cornice capped the design.

The building filled with dry goods related firms, like importers R. McBrainey and the Artistic Weaving Company.  The latter firm was based in Saxony, Germany where it manufactured apparel labels and ribbons.  It was part of a customs scam uncovered early in 1890 that went to the highest level of the Post Office.

The Postmaster-General, John Wanamaker, shared the same name with the Philadelphia retailer.  On January 29, 1890 The Evening World rhetorically asked "Has 'Honest John Wanamaker'...been "aiding and abetting the 'Trademark' John Wanamaker...in violating the custom laws by conniving at smuggling foreign dry goods through the mails?"  The newspaper said "There are a good many quaking hearts in the Post-Office and the Custom-House, but the employee who gave away the fact that two packages of dress labels bearing the name of the Postmaster-General has been seized as smuggling goods is the most uncomfortable man in the service to-day."

The ribbons, which were to be used as belts for Wanamaker dresss, were from the German Artistic Weaving Company's plant in Germany and were addressed to John Wanamaker in care of Adolph Kluge at the Franklin Street headquarters.  

Had the Postmaster-General been the actual recipient as opposed to a commercial customer, his packages could be sent through the mail like without being subjected to customs; but the attached silk labels clearly contradicted that: "John Wanamaker Costumes, Philadelphia."  

The Evening World said that Kluge who "is evidently of a modest and retiring disposition," appeared to be "very much disturbed over the notoriety into which he had so suddenly sprung on account of his private mail consignment of Mr. Wanamaker's labels."  It appears to have been the end of the German Artistic Weaving Company in New York.  The firm is not listed in the building after the clever scheme was uncovered.

In 1894 a tenant which was decidedly not part of the dry goods industry moved in.  On November 1 The American Enameling Company opened its new showrooms with a splash, auctioning 48,000 pieces of "gray enameled teapots, coffee pots, tea kettles, wash basins, lipped saucepans, dish pans, convex saucepans, Berlin pots, Dresden kettles, &c."

Owner Charles R. Cobbs demolished the abutting tenement at No. 211 West Broadway in 1901 and hired the architectural firm of Schweitzer & Diemer to enlarge his building.  In an early (and unexpected) example of architectural cohesion, the architects perfectly copied Slade's two-decade-old design.  Even the cast iron elements of the storefront were faithfully copied.  The addition melded almost seamlessly with the original structure.



The enlargement may have had to do with the Bernheim & Walter's new lease on the building.   Run by brothers Adolph, Eugene, Charles, the cotton converting firm had been founded by their father.  By now it was described by The Sun as "one of the largest firms of its kind in the city, controlling the Bear Mills Manufacturing Company."  The Bernheims' youngest brother, Otto, was not a partner, but was employed as a clerk.  Nevertheless, according to The Sun, "while not a member of the family firm, [he] had inherited enough money to make himself independent."  The New-York Tribune added "he had a large income and, it is said, a comfortable fortune."

Wealthy young men like Otto quite often lived in upscale bachelor apartments.  In 1904 the 27-year-old moved into the Hotel Sevillia on West 58th Street.   Otto apparently suffered from what today would be diagnosed as clinical depression.  His brothers said "he was of a morose disposition and inclined to fits of prolonged depression."  His mother was abroad in the summer of 1905 had promised to send a cable to him on July 24.  When it did not arrive, he was "very despondent."

The following morning the Otto's barber, Fred Schuppert, arrived at his apartment to shave him.  He found Otto on the floor unconscious with a bullet wound in the head.  The bullet had traveled completely through his head and exited the window.  Bernheimer died within the hour without regaining consciousness.  

His rooms, according to The Sun, contained "the photographs of a number of young women."  One in particular seems to have been a sweetheart.  Several letters on scented, colored stationery were signed "Your ever loving, darling Kitty."

No investigation was launched into the young man's death; although there was one puzzling detail that would raise the eyebrows of forensic detectives today.  The Sun revealed "Although right handed he had apparently shot himself with his left hand, just behind the left temple."  

The Bernheimer brothers reorganized the firm within a year of the disturbing incident.  In 1906 the company was renamed Bear Mill Manufacturing.

The firm experienced a rash of thefts in 1909.  Shipments of raw goods consigned to Bear Mill Manufacturing were disappearing before reaching Franklin Street.   By the beginning of June $50,000 worth of linen had been stolen--a significant $1.42 million today.  Detectives followed up on a hunch by haunting the Hudson River piers where the goods came into the city.

On June 1 a shipment was scheduled to arrive at the New Bedford Steamboat Company pier.  The private investigators watched several young men who were loitering around the pier as a crates were loaded onto delivery wagons.

Sure enough, one of the men approached a clerk and showed him a seemingly authentic order for a case of linen consigned to Bear Mill.  The Sun reported "The clerk delivered to the man a case worth $1,800.  Three others put it on a wagon and drove away."  The four thieves made it only a few blocks before being nabbed.

Bear Mill Manufacturing remained in the building for years.  Charles Bernheim was its president by 1918, when he was elected a trustee of the East River Savings Association as well.

At mid-century the Hood Rubber Products Company occupied the building.   The Massachusetts-based firm was founded in 1896 by Frederic C. and Arthur N. Hood for the manufacture of rubber footwear.  In 1929 it merged with the B. F. Goodrich Company, continuing to manufacture the Hood brand and B. F. Goodrich brand rubber and canvas shoes.



Hood Rubber closed its plants in 1969.  It was not especially long before the transformation of Tribeca as a district of loft homes, trendy restaurants, galleries and shops arrived at the corner of West Broadway and Franklin.  In 1981 the ground floor housed the 211 Bar and Restaurant; and in 1994 the upper floors were converted to a total of ten sprawling residences.

The ground floor saw a succession of tenants.  In 1995 Layla, a restaurant owned by Robert De Niro and Drew Nieporent, opened.  The New York Times said on November 29, "This Middle Eastern fantasy was designed by Christopher Chesnutt with lifelike montages of belly dancers and water-pipe smokers, plus mosaics made of pottery shards."

In 2003 WaterMoon gallery sold Chinese and Tibetan antique furniture, Tibetan carpets, and Chinese porcelains and ceramics from the West Broadway store.  The rare items dated from the Neolithic era to the Ming Dynasty, according to The New York Times journalist Rita Reif on March 10 that year.

Wine bar Vinovino was here in 2009, followed by Centrico, which opened in 2011.   It was not a run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant, Times food columnist Kris Ensminger noting its menu "includes oxtail enchiladas, tuna tostadas and wild mushroom quesadillas."



The structure remains astoundingly intact after nearly 140 years.  Its addition, almost indistinguishable despite being two decades younger that the main building, is remarkable.

photographs by the author

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Irad Hawley House (Salmagundi Club) - 47 Fifth Avenue




photo by Elisa Rolle

Born in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1793, Irad Hawley became a partner in Holmes, Hawley & Co. as a young man.  He fought in the War of 1812 as a captain, and then married Sarah Holmes in 1819.  The couple would have eight children.

In 1839 Hawley diversified into railroad and coal enterprises, becoming a director in the Boston & Providence Railroad, the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad, the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company and president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company.   Hawley focused on these businesses and retired from Holmes, Hawley & Co. in 1841 "with an ample fortune," according to historian Emmons Clark in 1890.


from History of the Seventh Regiment of New York, 1890 (copyright expired)

In 1852 construction was begun on Hawley's imposing brownstone-fronted house at No. 47 Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets.   At nearly 40-feet wide, it engulfed two building plots.  Completed the following year, the house was an aristocratic expression of the Italianate style.  

The sweeping stone stoop was flanked by sturdy Italianate style cast iron fencing that protected the areaway.  The balustraded stoop railings were echoed in the balconies that fronted the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows.  Classic triangular pediments sat above the arched entrance and the parlor openings.  Molded architrave frames embraced the upper story windows.  The Italianate cornice sat upon paired, foliate brackets.

Inside, the mansion was the epitome of current domestic fashion.  Elegant carved mantels adorned the main rooms, and the dining room was decorated in the Gothic Revival style.

Hawley was also interested in education.  He was a director of the Rutgers Female Institute in 1852, and in 1858 headed a group of citizens "in opposition to the expulsion of the Bible from our Public Schools."  

Irad Hawley's health began to fail in 1862.  That year, according to Emmons Clark, "he visited Europe on account of his health."  He would never see his Fifth Avenue mansion again.   Three years later he contracted typhoid fever while in Rome and died there on April 28, 1865 at the age of 73.

The matter of returning Hawley's body was a problem.  The Civil War had ended less than three weeks earlier and transatlantic travel was still in upheaval.  Finally, six months later on October 28, The New York Times reported "The remains of the late Mr. Irad Hawley having arrived from Rome, Italy, funeral services will take place at his late residence, No. 47 5th-av., on Monday the 30th."

Except for a single charitable bequest of $250 to the Congregational Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Hawley's estate was "distributed among the testator's relatives," as reported in The New York Herald.  It was estimated at around $8 million in today's money.

Sarah remained in the Fifth Avenue mansion with two of her grown sons, Daniel Edwin and Elisha Judson, along with Elisha's wife, Anna.  Daniel Edwin Hawley, like his father had been, was interested in educational causes.  He was the treasurer of the First Ward Lord Industrial School, and on January 28, 1870 held the institution's annual meeting in the house.  The Times remarked "It appeared that the children not only were being carefully educated in the various branches, but were taught the use of their needle, so that 250 garments were made by them during the year."

Elisha Judson Hawley was a partner with Daniel G. Rollins in a tea firm, and in 1870 became a member of the Stock Exchange.   He had been administering his father's estate as well, but that year he fell ill.  The Sun reported "his brother Daniel looked over the securities and found that some were missing."  The situation went well beyond "some were missing."  Elisha had skimmed off $236,199.91 from the estate--nearly $4.7 million today.  The newspaper said "It appeared that part of the money had been used in the tea business."

It was the family's dirty secret for some years as Elisha struggled to pay back the missing funds.  In the meantime, the Fifth Avenue house was the scene of his wife's funeral in 1882.  Anna Hawley died in the mansion on May 18 and the service was held in the drawing room two days later.

Elisha's embezzlement caused financial upheaval within the family.  On April 6, 1897, for instance, The Sun reported "Their mother agreed to take a much less income than she was entitled to so as to help make up the deficit."


A respected businessman, Elias Judson Hawley's embezzlement caused shame and financial hardship to his family. from the collection of the Century Association.
It was possibly that situation that had earlier prompted Sarah to sell her home and furnishings.   On May 28, 1892 an notice in the New York Evening Post announced an auction "at the Magnificent Dwelling No. 47 5th Avenue."  Sarah sold out to the bare walls.  The two-day sale included:

Antique and Modern Furniture, Elegant Mirrors and Gas Fixtures, European and Oriental Porcelains, Bronzes, China, Glass, and Plated Ware, Oriental Rugs and Carpets, Paintings and Engravings, Curtains and Draperies.

Artistic Marble Statue by Randolph Rogers--"The Sacrifice of Isaac."  A Library of Choice Books, Superb Rosewood Case-Piano of excellent tone and fine finish, Handsome Costumes and Swords, Mortimer Bird Gun.

Next to go was the mansion proper, sold at auction on February 1, 1893.  It was purchased by William Gray Park, who paid $102,500 for the house, equivalent to about $2.95 million today.

Park and his wife, the former Elizabeth Sweitzer, were relatively recent transplants from Pittsburgh where Park was chairman of the Crucible Steel Company of America.   The couple had four children, Mary, James, Elizabeth and Darragh.

It did not take Elizabeth long to immerse herself in society and charitable causes and on January 31, 1894 The Evening Telegram reported "An entertainment under the auspices of St. Mary's Guild in aid of St. Mary's Free Hospital for children, will be given Thursday afternoon at three o'clock at the home of Mrs. William Gray Park.  A most attractive programme is projected."

Elizabeth's entertainments most often centered around such causes.  On April 3, 1898 The New York Press noted "The unique is sometimes encountered even in these days of exhausted ingenuity, and the sale which was given yesterday at the residence of Mrs. William Gray Park, at No. 47 Fifth avenue, in the interest of the Summer Aid Society was a charming innovation."

At the turn of the century daughter Mary's debut into society was nearing, prompting her mother to give preparatory functions.  On December 24, 1900 The Evening Telegram announced that she "will give a dance for her daughter, Miss Mary Sweitzer Park, on Wednesday night, January 2."  A year later, on January 6, 1901 The World reported that Elizabeth "will give a dinner of twelve covers to-morrow evening.  Mrs. Park's pretty daughter, Miss Mary s. Park, will be a debutante of the season of 1902-03" and added "The big dance her mother gave for her on Wednesday night was one of the smartest young people's functions thus far of the winter."

Not even the size of the Fifth Avenue mansion was enough to hold the amount of guests at Mary's first debut entertainment.  On January 3, 1903 Elizabeth hosted a ball at Sherry's.  The New York Evening Telegram noted "Dr. Harold Barclay will lead the cotillion."  The article added "Mrs. Park will also give a dinner-dance for her daughter on Monday evening, February 23."

The Park summer estate, Ivycroft, was at Old Westbury, Long Island.  In August 1906 burglars broke into the house four times within ten days.  The New York Times reported on September 1, "That the thieves will return Mr. Park is fully convinced."  And so he took measures to thwart further robberies by arming every one of his family and staff.

"William G. Park...and the members of his family now sleep with weapons close at hand, for use in case burglars should again force an entrance to their home," said the article.  And sure enough, they did.  "There was much excitement in the household early yesterday morning, when thieves were discovered in the stable by a groom.  The stablemen fire several shots at the intruders, but they did not hit any of them."

Involved in the incident were the five grooms who lived in the stable and the coachman, Joseph Wilson, whose home was the lodge, or gatehouse, at the entrance gates.  "The stablemen slept with revolvers under their pillows," reported The Times.  "At 1:30 o'clock yesterday morning several burglars broke into the stable through a window and turned on the electric lights."  They fled under a barrage of gunshots from the grooms, "firing at them until their revolvers were empty."

Elizabeth was unnerved not by the presence of so many handguns in her house, but because their home seemed to have been targeted.  "We are ready to meet the burglars if they come again, but it is unpleasant to feel that you have been singled out for their visits."

William Park divided his time between New York and Pittsburgh.  He was in the Pennsylvania home in January 1909 when he suffered a fatal stroke.

Elizabeth appears to have essentially closed the Fifth Avenue mansion after her husband's death.   When daughter Elizabeth, known as Elsie, was married on April 3, 1915 to William H. Reeves, Jr., the ceremony took place at the Long Island residence.

On February 24, 1917 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Salmagundi Club had arranged to buy "the one time residence of the late William G. Park at 47 Fifth avenue."  The organization paid $115,000 for the property, or about two and a quarter million in today's dollars.  It then hired architect Charles W. Buchman to make $20,000 in renovations including a rear two-story to house a gallery and a billiard room.  


In 1928 the mansions of lower Fifth Avenue were being replaced by modern apartment buildings, like the one to the right of the Salmagundi Club.  The original stoop railings of No. 47 are still in place.  from the collection of the new York Public Library

The club was begun in 1871 by a group of artists who assembled on Saturday evenings in the studio of sculptor J. Scott Hartley, the son-in-law of George Inness.  Calling themselves The New York Sketch Club, the artists would discuss each other's works, socialize, and paint or sketch.  


The window pediments, balcony railings and areaway ironwork all survived when photographer Berenice Abbott took this photograph on November 24, 1937.  The stoop railings, however, had already been replaced with solid walls.   from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Little by little other artists would include themselves in the group until by 1880 it was 
incorporated.  Scott Hartley suggested the name "The Salmagundi Sketch Club" as a reference to the varied background of the group.  He was inspired by Washington Irving's papers in which "salmagundi" referred to a stew of many ingredients.


photos via salmagundi.org
Nearly from the start the club was an important showcase for American artists.  Over the years its membership has included George Inness, Howard Chandler Christy, Robert Frederick Blum, William Merritt Chase, Emil Carlsen, Hugh Bolton Jones, Dean Cornwell, Gari Melchers, John Francis Murphy, Frank H. Desch, Guy Wiggins, Childe Hassam, N.C. Wyeth, Louis Comfort Tiffany and on and on.  A few non-visual artists such as John Philip Sousa, Stanford White and Tony Pastor were also members.

photo by dmadeo
The club remains in the house today, carefully preserving both the interiors and exterior.  Sometime after 1937 the stone balcony balustrades and iron fencing were, for some reason, replaced; and the pediments above the parlor floor windows were removed.  Otherwise, the Hawley mansion is the only nearly intact survivor of the pre-Civil War period on lower Fifth Avenue.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The 1904 Clara Court - 503-505 West 111th Street





The extension of the IRT subway to Morningside Heights in 1904 set off a flurry of apartment building construction.  Among the earliest developers to seize the opportunity was Emmanuel Doctor who purchased the two lots at Nos. 503 and 505 West 111th Street--steps away from the rising Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine early that year.

On April 14, 1904 Engineering News reported that architect John Hauser had filed plans for a "6-story brick flat" on the site with a projected cost of $95,000--just over $2.75 million in today's money.  He would be working with an oddly trapezoidal-shaped plot.  It was 82 feet wide along 111th Street but only 54 feet wide at the rear.

Construction proceeded at lightning speed and the building was ready for occupants by Christmas.  Blending Renaissance Revival with Beaux Arts, Hauser designed his building in three layers--known as a tripartite design.  The two-story rusticated stone base sat back from the property line behind an ornate iron fence.  The off-set entrance sat within a handsome porch with columns and balustrades which announced the building's name: Clara Court.


Unwilling to settle for a more expected portico, Hauser created a full porch, adding charm.
Unlike the more reserved base, the three-story middle section was highly decorated.  The red brick contrasted with terra cotta window surrounds, some of which boasted Beaux Arts style cartouches, some with scrolled and festooned keystones, and others with blind balustrades, ornate pilasters and elaborate pediments.  The understated top floor was embellished only with bands of stone.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on December 27 touted Clara Court as a "new elevator apartment house" and stressed that it was "near subway and elevated stations."  There were five apartments per floor and potential residents could choose among suites of four, five or six rooms with bath, including "every improvement."  Rents ranged from $37 to $55 per month, the cheapest and smallest apartments costing the equivalent of $1,020 per month today.

Doctor apparently had no interest in being a landlord and in May 1905 he sold the new building for $165,000, making a tidy profit in the deal.  In the meantime, white collar residents called Clara Court home.  Newlyweds Leonard Valentine Holder and his bride Viola Alida were among the first residents.  They had been married on June 18, 1904.  Holder was a foreign exchange broker with offices at No. 56 Pine Street.

In 1909 Mrs. O. F. Page busied herself with the duties of president of the ungainly named Messiah Branch of the Church of the Messiah of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women.  Also in the building at the time was Henry Despard, his wife and two children.  Despard had founded the marine insurance brokerage firm of Despard & Co. and was secretary of the New York Club.

The Despards, Holders, Pages and their neighbors enjoyed a new amenity that year--telephone service.  It was most likely a centralized switchboard rather than in-apartment service, but was a welcome innovation nevertheless.  It may have been responsible, however, for a rent hike.  The smaller apartments were now 50 cents per month more expensive and the largest went up by $5.

The Holders, who had a summer home on Long Island, had had a rocky start to their marriage.  In 1916 Viola sued for separation, causing The New York Herald to say that the suit "caused interest" among the "society colony" in Garden City.  "Mr. and Mrs. Holder have been active here in social affairs," the article explained.

Viola said in her complaint that Leonard was very jealous and that early on in Clara Court "he accused her of flirting with other men [and] that he came home in November [1905] and asked her if she knew 'one Calahan,' and that on being told that she did not he chased her about the house."

After several instances of physical abuse, Viola left Leonard in September 1915, but several weeks later "was induced by her friends to return to him."  Things went well enough until April 1916 when "he again chased her and then threatened to shoot her."  When he went to look for his revolver she bolted from the apartment never to return.  In her plea for alimony she asserted that Holder earned a $94,000 salary in today's dollars.

There was less drama and more music coming from the apartment of Florence Colell de Montlord in 1916.  The professional pianist had studied under the famous Rudolph Ganz and under Maurice Bastin of the Opera Comique.  She taught pupils in her Clara Court studio at least through 1917.

Prohibition went into effect in January 1920.  It put thousands of workers--brewery and distillery employees, waiters and waitresses, and bottling plant workers, for instance--out of jobs.  But it presented an opportunity to Mary White.  On August 24, 1921 the Brooklyn newspaper The Standard Union reported "A new queen of bootleggers has been discovered, according to Federal Prohibition Chief William F. Kissick...She is Mrs Mary White, 42 years old, of 505 West 111th street."

Mary was involved in bootleg ring headed by Anthony Cassesse.  They worked with five young men ranging from 17- to 25-years old.  The gang serviced a string of road houses and inns on Long Island, providing them with "evergreen alcohol, grain spirits, whiskies and gins," according to the article.  That summer agents posing as liquor dealers arranged to buy 200 cases of whiskey from Cassese for $15,000.

On the afternoon of August 23 Mary headed to the drop off point, as she always did.  Her job was to be there when the delivery arrived and collect the cash.  This time however, when the truck pulled up and the men started unloading the hooch, the agents swooped in.  

The profitability of the bootleg business was evidenced when Cassese was found to have $61,000 in cash on him at the station house--about $856,000 today.  U. S. Attorney Wallace E. J. Collins told reporters that Mary White "is alleged to have thrown bundles of bills into a waste basket nightly from which it would be sorted out and divided."

For the most part, of course, the residents of Clara Court continued to live respectable lives.  Louis D. Phillips, who lived here in 1922, managed the Woolworth store at No. 1484 First Avenue.  For some reason a gang of burglars were obsessed with the safe in the five-and-dime store that year.  In March and again in June the premises were broken into and an attempt had been made to crack the 1,500-pound safe.

But the thieves were seemingly undeterred by failure.  When Phillips went to the store on October 29 he found a scene of devastation.  This time the burglars broke down the office wall, dragged the safe to the stairway and pushed it to the basement.  Nothing happened.  So they used nitroglycerin in an attempt to blow it open.  Again they were foiled.  "The explosion evidently frightened them away," reported the New-York Tribune, "for they left pliers, wire and gloves and a revolver."

Unfortunately for Phillips, while the would-be safe crackers did not make off with any money, they had wrecked the office and the stairs and heavily damaged the case of the safe.

In 1930 the 78-year old widow Mary Collins had an apartment here.  She shared it with her niece, Josephine, and her husband Charles Henry Albrecht, and their 10-year old son, Kenneth.  The Albrecht family would remain until 1940. 

Although Albrecht's occupation was listed as "salesman at a newspaper" at the time, he was destined for larger things.  He eventually became a major printer of color comic books and was the force behind the famous Charles Atlas comic book advertisements for mail-order body building booklets.

Clara Court was the scene of tragedy on January 11, 1937.  Three months earlier 40-year old Bertha Haber had leased a "kitchenette apartment" on the sixth floor where she lived alone.  At around 7:00 that morning the elevator operator, Frank Adams, found her body in the rear courtyard.  Whether she had jumped or fallen was unclear, however the responding doctor pronounced her death as being instantaneous.

The end of the line for Clara Court and its two flanking neighbors seemed evident in 1965 when the Episcopal Diocese of New York purchased it, the building directly behind on 112nd Street, and the corner building facing Amsterdam Avenue.  They were part of a vision to replace eight apartment houses with a modern home for the aged, designed by Philip Johnson.  The residents were evicted in anticipation of demolition.

Before that could happen, however, homeless families moved in.  But this was not a typical situation.  On November 14, 1970 The New York Times wrote "for the last three and a half month the squatters have been tending the buildings--carrying out garbage, making necessary interior repairs and fixing exterior damage.  Daily meetings of the squatters are held at 8 P.M. to determine what must be done the next day to maintain the buildings."

The diocese responded with, perhaps, unexpected kindness.  It earmarked $20,000 for boiler repairs to provide heat and hot water and a spokesperson said "there will be no legal action and no evictions.  We want those living in the building to be comfortable."


The odd shape of the plot resulted a sharp corner angle.
In the meantime, a neighborhood push was underway to save the buildings.  It was successful in preserving three of them, including Clara Court.  Today the building holds 30 cooperative units.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Peter J. Hamill House - 34 Dominick Street


A slight variation in brick color testifies to the addition of the third floor.  The house originally matched the one to the left.

Most of the sprawling Anthony Rogers Farm was inherited by his son-in-law, Leonard Lispenard in 1746.  It became known as the Lispenard Meadows, and while the Lispenard mansion stood at what today is the area of Hudson and Desbrosses Streets, much of the land was marshy and unusable.   In 1811 the Lispenard heirs petitioned the Common Council to drain the land and the same year building plots were first laid out.

By the early 1820's Dominick Street (named for Trinity Church vestryman George Dominick) was laid out, and shortly afterward three builders purchased twelve lots from Robert M. and Sarah B. Livingston (she was the granddaughter of Anthony Lispenard).  Working independently, they erected a long row of twelve Federal-style homes, completed around 1826, on the south side of Dominick Street between what today are Hudson and Varick Streets.

Smith Bloomfield, a mason-builder, was responsible for five of them--Nos. 28 through 36.  Two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond red brick, the 20-foot wide Federal style dwellings were intended for middle-class families.  Two dormers punched through their peaked roofs.  The homes were intended as income properties and Bloomfield chose to lease them rather than sell.

By the late 1830's No. 34 was home to the Frederick D. Priest family.   A veteran of the War of 1812, he and Eliza M. Brooks had been married in Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, the bride's hometown, on July 7, 1817.   Living with them in the Dominick Street house was Eliza's widowed mother, Maria Mallam Brooks.

At the time the city engaged in a practice which today is chilling.  Poverty was a crime punishable by incarceration in the Alms House on Blackwell's Island.  Children were offered for "indenturing," to work in shops, factories or homes.  Simply put it was a form of forced labor with the children receiving only food and shelter in return.

On November 3, 1842 the Priests took advantage of the opportunity by taking in Anna Johnson (or Jansen--the Alms House documents were unsure).  The girl would have been expected to help Eliza with housework and sundry chores.  But after one-and-a-half years, the family sent her back.  Their reason was that she "was not a good child."

On the evening of June 16, 1845, Maria Brooks died here at the age of 75.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.

Within only a few years Benjamin Ellis and his family were renting the house from Bloomfield.  Ellis was active in public and reform causes.  When the City Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was formed in 1842 he had been elected its president, and while living here was an official with the Public Schools.

Like all middle class families, the Ellises employed at least one servant girl who lived in the attic level.  It seems that the roof was leaky in the summer of 1850 and someone set out to patch it from inside.  It nearly ended with the house being burned to the ground.

On August 28 the New York Morning Courier reported "fire was discovered about half past 5 o'cock Monday evening in the dwelling house of Benjamin Ellis No. 34 Dominick street, caused by carelessness in leaving a pail of boiling pitch over a furnace in one of the attic rooms.  The firemen were promptly on the spot, but before they could subdue the flames, the roof of the building was consumed.  One of the female members was slightly burned while attempting to make her escape."  The Evening Post added that in addition to losing its roof, "the building was considerably damaged by water." 

An advertisement appeared in The New York Herald on May 8, 1856 seeking "A Protestant Girl to do the housework of a small family; must be a first rate washer and ironer, and understand plain cooking.  To one competent and willing, good wages will be paid."  There was nothing extraordinary about the ad other than the last condition:  "One without cousins preferred."

In 1866 Smith Bloomfield's estate sold No. 34 to James M. Horton and his wife, Mary.  Earlier that year he had sold his share in a provisions firm to his partners George Dorn and John C. Guffin.  It was an amiable split and in an announcement in newspapers in March he called them "men of integrity."

It appears Horton used the money from the sale to open a new milk business.  On November 22, 1866 The New York Herald reported "James M. Horton is spending $5,300 on the erection of a milk store at 29 Vestry street."  It was not the only construction project he was engaged in at the time.

He raised the attic floor of No. 34 to full height and updated it with an impressive Italianate cornice and brownstone lintel over the doorway in the same style.  The paneled Federal style doors and transom were replaced with up-to-date double doors.


The panels of the doors precisely lined up with the new panels of the side walls.

If the Horton family lived in the remodeled house, it was not for long.  The following year they sold it to John and Jane Taylor who were living here with their adult son, James D. Taylor.  

James had fought in the Civil War in I Company of the New York National Guard.  He may have been living with his parents because of a long-standing medical condition. He died at the age of 24 on January 19, 1872 "after a long and lingering illness."   His funeral was held in the house two days later, well attended by members of his military company.

By 1879 John Dreyer, Jr. and his family had purchased the house.  Dreyer was in the provisions business in Washington Market.  

The house was the scene of a horrific tragedy in the fall of 1881.  The John Loescher family lived a few houses away at No. 40 Dominick Street.  Their son, John, Jr., was 14-years old at the time.  He and Julius Haefner, who was a year younger, had been best friends for years.  The New York Times said that they "were almost inseparable companions."

On the evening of September 21 the boys "quarreled for the first time in their lives" while eating pears.  The argument ended in their pelting one another with the fruit.  Three nights later John Loescher was on Dominick Street near his house when Julius appeared.  According to him, "Haefner suddenly struck him in the mouth."  The Times reported "Loescher had a common jack-knife with a blade two inches long in his hand, and as soon as he felt the blow he plunged the blade into Haefner's body up to the hilt."

John turned and fled while the injured boy staggered to the door of No. 34 in an attempt to get help, but "with a gasp fell dead."  The body was taken to a drugstore at Varick and Broome Street where, in a bizarre coincidence, Julius's mother was just walking out.  "She swooned as she saw the bloody corpse of her son, and was taken home by some of her neighbors."

It did not go well for the teen-aged culprit.  In his cell he explained to a New York Times reporter "I was mad when I did it and I didn't mean to to it."  While the journalist was still there the "crying and moaning" of a man could be heard.  John recognized that it was his father.  When John Sr. entered the cell, he told his son, "I would give $10,000 if it was you instead of that boy."  The Times concluded "Then the heart-broken man left the place, and the cell-door was closed again on the young murderer."

Veronica Dreyer was the victim of a thief who snatched her purse in December 1885.  It contained only a small amount of money; but her screams for help were enough to result in James Maloney's arrest.  In court on December 23 he wanted to explain his story to the judge, "but objected to being sworn," according to the New York Herald.  

Surprisingly, he was allowed to speak without being sworn in.  He said he had not intended to steal the purse, but only "to take it and hand it to her, to show how carelessly she was carrying it."   The judge was not convinced and Maloney was sentenced to two and a half years in Sing Sing Prison.

The family remained in the house until the estate of Catherine Dreyer sold it in 1909.  In 1915 it was home to Charles A. Peacock, a partner with his brother William in the fruit business, W. H. Peacock & Co., at No. 97 Water Street.

The house was sold again in 1923 to politician Peter J. Hamill and his wife the former Matilda Van Axen.  The couple had two children.

A Tammany Democrat, Hamill had been a member of the New York State Assembly since 1916.   Two years after moving into the Dominick Street house he was elected the Tammany Hall leader of the First Assembly District.  It was a sign that he was a rising star within the party.

It seems that the Hamills rented a room in the house to Edward Schramm in 1929.   By now the once quiet residential street was seeing the demolition of the old Federal houses and the rise of massive factory buildings in their place.  One such building was being erected at the corner of Dominick and Hudson Street that year.

The 52-year old Schramm was walking under the sidewalk scaffolding at the site on May 3, 1929 when it collapsed.  He was taken "severely injured" to St. Vincent's Hospital.  Two other pedestrians were slightly injured.

Later that year, on December 5, the State Democratic minority leader Maurice Bloch died from an embolism.  Two weeks later the Buffalo Courier Express called Hamill the "leading contender for the toga left by Bloch."  And, indeed, before the year was out Hamill was chosen the Democratic leader in the State Assembly.

Hamill's stellar rise came to an abrupt and unexpected end.  In the first week of January he suffered a severe appendicitis attack in the house and was rushed into surgery.  He never recovered from the operation and died in the hospital on January 13, 1930 at the age of 44.  His children, Mary and Peter, Jr., were just four- and two-years-old respectively.

The esteem with which Hamill was held within the political community was exemplified by Mayor James J. Walker's personally choosing the pall bearers for his funeral.  Among the 2,000 mourners in St. Alphonsus' Church on January 17 was Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Members of the St. Patrick's Cathedral choir sang the mass.  The chaplain of the United States Military Academy at West Point officiated, helped by the chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Monsignor Thomas G. Carroll and, according to the Buffalo Courier-Express, "more than twenty priests."

The following week the Buffalo-Courier Express reported that Matilda Hamill had been "appointed supervisor of investigators for the new crime prevention bureau of the police department."  Her annual salary, $4,500, would be equal to about $67,700 today.


Every window shade in Matilda Hamill's house was pulled to precisely the same level.  photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services. 

Matilda Hamill remained in the Dominick Street house until 1963.  Quite remarkably, as the neighborhood had filled with mammoth industrial structures, the south side of the block around No. 34 survived.

In 2012 No. 34 was nominated for landmark designation.  It was not a prospect well received by its owner, Robert Neborak.  He complained before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on March 27 that designation would force him to "bear the entire financial brunt" of preserving a building that did not warrant landmark status to begin with.   He said No. 34 "is not a notable architectural example of anything other than a well-maintained old building."

Neborak's arguments were unsuccessful and the 186-year old house was deemed an individual landmark.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The John Achelis House - 16 West 69th Street




In 1895 developer William E. Diller constructed two mirror-image homes at Nos. 18 and 20 West 69th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  He was apparently well pleased with the project, for the following year he erected an identical pair at Nos. 14 and 16.

Faced in brownstone at the basement and parlor levels, the four-story and basement homes featured dog-legged stoops which led to the double-doored entrances.  The upper floors were clad in red brick and trimmed in stone.  At the second floor a three-sided bay was decorated with Renaissance-inspired carved panels and a handsome stone balustrade.  

An egg-and-dart cornice with a frieze of carved vines and flowers separated the third and fourth floors.  The egg-and-dart motif was carried on in the architrave frames of the openings.


The pair of identical houses to the right, now painted white, were erected a year before Nos. 14 and 16.
Each of the 25-foot wide houses cost Diller $40,000 to construct, just under $1.25 million in today's money.  On May 1, 1897 the Real Estate Record & Guide announced that he had sold No. 16, saying "This is one of two houses just completed."  The article noted it boasted a "smoking-room, butler's pantry, bathroom and laundry extension."  The buyer was Fannie F. Morris, who paid Diller $80,000, garnering the developer a 100 percent profit on the property.  

Among Fannie's live-in servants in 1900 was 18-year old Jessie Winning.  Bicycles were a wildly popular fad at the time, but they were also very expensive.  So Jessie must have prudently saved her money to purchase hers.  She was riding on Central Park West on the evening of April 1 that year when she was involved in a horrible accident.

A party of four were headed downtown to the fashionable Sherry's restaurant in a coach.  A milk wagon was parked by the curb and the coachman attempted to go around it.  The New-York Tribune reported that Jessie "was knocked from her wheel and run over" by the coach.  "The wheels passed over Miss Winning's left leg and stomach."  She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital and George Fitzer, the coach driver, was arrested.  He insisted that Jennie had "rode under the horses' feet."  (The four dinner goers left the scene and continued on to Sherry's.)


Schellenger's dramatic stoop design includes balustrades, paneled wing walls, and a heavily-carved, scrolled console. 
Fannie Morris remained in the house until February 1903 when she sold it to John Achelis and his wife, the former Emmy Boeckler.  The couple had five children: sons Thomas, Johnfritz, and George Theodore, and daughters Emma and Dorothea.

Achelis was the junior partner in the dry goods commission firm of Frederick Vietor & Achelis, at the corner of Leonard and Church Streets.  The New-York Tribune said of it "There is no firm in the drygoods district that stands in higher estimation or rests upon a firmer basis."  It had been founded in 1825 by Charles Graebe.  Three years later it became Grabe & Vietor when John's grandfather, Frederick, was taken into the business.  By now the firm had branches in Bremen, Chemnitz, Paris and Lyon and did a staggering business.  Its 1897 sales were reported at $15 million--more in the neighborhood of $468 million today.

The New-York Tribune described John Achelis as "a popular man in the clubs of the city, and goes a great deal into society."  The family's summer home was Invermara in Sea Bright, New Jersey.  And like other wealthy families, the Achelises spent time abroad.  John was apparently too tied up with business to accompany his family in the spring of 1905.  Among the passengers who boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm II on April 23 that year were "Mrs. John Achelis, Miss Achelis, Miss Dorothea Achelis, Thomas Achelis and Master George Achelis."

On January 21, 1905 John and Emmy announced Emma's engagement to Gardiner Hope Miller.   In reporting the event The Daily Standard Union noted "Though Miss Achelis made her debut in Manhattan, her childhood was spent on the Heights [i.e. Brooklyn Heights], where she has many warm friends."  A year later, on January 14, 1906, the newspaper revisited Emma's engagement, saying the wedding would take place "some time in the spring."  

Emma's mother would not see her daughter married.  Four weeks later, on February 13, Emmy died "suddenly," as worded by The New York Herald.

Rather surprisingly, although it was delayed, Emma's wedding took place on September 19 at Invermara, just six months into the mourning period.  The New-York Tribune mentioned that "owing to the recent death of Mrs. Achelis [it] was rather quiet," and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said it "was thus simple in the extreme."

The bride's brother, Thomas, was attending Yale at the time, studying architecture.  He joined the Yale Dramatic Association by his senior year when he played the lead in Revizor which was staged in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria.  In the audience was theatrical producer and manager Daniel Frohman.  "He pronounced Achelis the best amateur he had ever seen, and this opinion was general, judging from the applause the young man received," reported The New York Times on April 21, 1908.  Frohman offered Thomas "an important part in one of his companies for next season."

That a career on the stage was not what John Achelis intended for his son goes without saying.  One can imagine the somber father-to-son discussions that took place in the smoking room or study of the 69th Street house.  The New York Times no doubt anticipated this, saying "The chance of his adopting the stage as a profession is remote."  As it turned out Thomas surprised almost everyone and apparently disappointed his father when he turned to acting.

In March 1910 Achelis hired the architectural firm of D'Oench & Yost to make what the Record & Guide said were "extensive alterations" to No. 16.  The updating included new, modern toilets, removing some interior walls, and enlarging the rear extension.


In 1913 John Achelis owned a Stearns-Knight car which would have been similar to this model.  LIFE magazine, 1913 (copyright expired)
Most likely to shield his family's name from the taint of the theater, Thomas Achelis took the stage name of Paul Gordon.  But it was his given name that appeared in the newspapers when his engagement to Margery Maude, daughter of famous British actor Cyril Maude was announced on December 23, 1915.  The New-York Tribune reported "The marriage will link one of England's best known theatrical families with one of New York's foremost business houses."  Apparently John's displeasure at his son's career choice had not abated and he had nothing to do with the announcement.  It was Thomas's brother, Johnfritz, who officially informed society.

Johnfritz, who graduated from Yale in 1913, may very well have given his father concerns as well.  While still in school, according to The Sun, "He appeared in several plays."  Instead, however, he joined the military and by the time of his marriage to Louise Musgrove on November 2, 1918, had reached the rank of lieutenant in the Field Artillery.  After serving six months on the French front, Johnfritz apparently wasted no time in proposing.  On November 10 The Sun reporting that "News reached this city last week of the marriage in Anniston, Ala."

Like his brothers, George attended Yale.  He was a senior there when his engagement to Grace Parker was announced on May 6, 1919.  Grace was the daughter of Professor Horatio Parker, head of the university's School of Music.  George graduated in June and the wedding took place on November 29.  The Sun reported "After their wedding trip he and his bride will make their home in Woodmere [Long Island]."

Heartache was in Grace's future.  Her father, who had written the music for her wedding, died on December 18, less than three weeks after giving her away.  Then, four months later on April 25, 1920, her 23-year old husband George died after a brief illness.

Grace moved from the couple's Woodmere residence to No. 16 West 69th Street, with her father-in-law and Dorothea.  She was no doubt a great help to John when he had to cope with a social event far outside of his comfort zone--Dorothea's introduction to society.  On January 1, 1922 The New York Herald announced he would host a dinner at Sherry's for her, followed by a theater party.  Helping the debutante receive her 40 guests that evening was her sister, Emma.

On June 28, 1923 the New York Evening Post reported on Grace's engagement to G. Herbert Semler.  "Mr. Achelis died three years ago, and since then Mrs. Achelis has made her home with her father-in-law, John Achelis, in town at 16 West Sixty-sixth Street, and at his country place in Seabright, N.J.," said the article.  The wedding took place on October 6 that year at Invermara.

Whether John ever reconciled with Thomas is unclear.  The actor's marriage had not lasted and he later married actress Ann Mason.  Around 1926 the couple moved to Florence because of Thomas's ill health.  He died there in May 1929.

John Achelis remained in the 69th Street house with Dorothea.  They appeared in society columns as they sailed to Europe together and as Dorothea entertained in Seabright.


Dorothea was snapped by paparazzi in 1930.  New York Evening Post November 8, 1930

They were at Invermara on May 26, 1932 when the 80-year old died.  Surprisingly, less than two months later, on July 9, The New York Sun reported "Miss Dorothy Achelis, who sailed for Europe last evening on the Bremen, was the guest of honor at a farewell dinner given prior to the sailing by a group of friends at the Starlight Roof Garden of the Waldorf-Astoria."  Later that year, on December 13, an auction was held in the 69th Street house of the furnishings and artwork.


Taken around the time of the renovation of No. 16, the stoop next door is still intact.  via the NYC Department of  Records & Information Services
The subsequent owners initiated a renovation, completed in 1940, which resulted in apartments and furnished rooms.  There are 14 residential units in the house today.  Yet the exterior is amazingly intact, little changed since the Achelis family lived here for three decades.



photographs by the author