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 Achelis family around the time they moved in.  photograph courtesy of Jake W. Benson

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."

Cousins Hope and Dorothea pose on the stoop--"Dottie" in a very grown-up hat.  
 photograph courtesy of Jake W. Benson

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


  1. Minor correction. Grace Parker Achelis's second husband was George Herbert Semler, not Semier. He was the brother of her sister Isabel's husband, Ralph Semler.

  2. Excellent article Tom, you've done a great job!

  3. Wow! I have a pic for you of Dorothea “Dottie” and Emma’s daughter Hope taken on that stoop.

    1. I'd love to see it. If you can send an image to the email address at the above left, that would be great.

  4. Hey thanks, Jake sent this to me. There's one thing left out: Grace Achelis had a child on 12/5/20, my mom, Joan Achelis. I guess she spent time in this home before Grace remarried George Semler in'23. Grace had 3 more kids but always raised my mom as part of the family. My Uncle Peter Semler recently died, google "Peter Semler" and you can read about him and more on the Semlers.

    -George V.A. (Achelis) Hamilton
    Greenwich, CT

    1. Thanks for the additional information. A fascinating family!

    2. We used to drive down from Boston I think in the late 60's. Is it possible my uncle Edward Grey Lorimer occupied the second floor of 16 West 69th back then?