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

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