In 1903 the opening of the IRT subway, which would make the neighborhood near the rising Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine more easily accessible, was just a year away. Among the developers who scrambled to take advantage of the opportunity was Max Liebeskind who hired architect George Fred Pelham to design an apartment building at Nos. 507-511 West 111th Street. On May 30 that year the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the proposed building would house "four families on a floor" and listed the construction costs at $70,000--or just over $2 million today.
The Blennerhasset was ready for occupancy the following spring. Pelham's six-story structure borrowed from a variety of styles--Beaux Arts, Baroque and Italian Renaissance. A columned entrance portico crowned by a balustraded balcony more than made up for the otherwise sparsely decorated two-story base. The building's name was prominently carved into the entablature.
|Delicate stone garlands drape the door and window frames within the portico and a remarkable foliate carving with a face supports the sill.
An advertisement in The Sun on April 10, 1904 boasted that the apartments were "Handsomely appointed and contain every new and modern device; mail chute. All-night elevator service." Potential residents could choose from apartments of four to seven "large light rooms with shower baths." Rents ranged from $480 to $900 per year, or around $2,200 a month for the most expensive apartments.
|Photographed in 1908, the building wore a distinctive rooftop balustrade and parapet. Apartment Houses of the Metropolis (copyright expired)
Perhaps the first tenant to move into his new building was Max Liebeskind, himself. And like him, the other residents would be for the most part well educated professionals. There was one family, however, which was less upstanding.
On May 12, 1905 the New York Morning Telegraph exposed a scam, saying "Up at 507 West 111th street, in the fashionable Blennerhasset, Superintendent William Meyer five months ago leased a $75 seven-room flat to Miss J. A. Sturgis." According to the article, when Meyer asked the young woman for references, she replied, "We are very high class folk. My brother is former Fire Commissioner Sturgis. He is coming here to live with us; also his son. Reference! The very idea! I should say that we need no further reference than the fact that my brother was the Commissioner."
Indeed former Fire Commissioner Thomas Sturgis held a sterling reputation. Meyer apologized and before long the woman's family moved in--two sisters, an elderly woman, a "gray-haired, slender man of 50" who was introduced as Commissioner Sturgis, and his son.
After the second month of not paying rent, Miss Sturgis explained "Since my brother got out of the Fire Department his affairs have been badly tangled, and we are waiting for a settlement from his lawyer." But three months later Meyer began to become nervous as the past due rent now topped $6,000 in today's money. Word somehow got to Commissioner Sturgis who was indignant. Saying that the tenants were not related to him he told reporters "Well, I would like to get hold of that chap and make an example of him...I feel very sorry for the poor janitor who stood good for my name. He deserves a better fate."
|There were four apartments per floor, of various sizes. Apartment Houses of the Metropolis (copyright expired)
The more respectable tenants at the time included Aaron L. Dotey, a teacher in the Dewitt Clinton High School on West 102nd Street; and Dr. Jesse Fleet Sammis, who graduated from Princeton in 1902 and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1906.
Walter F. Goodnough, president of the American Wire Form Company, lived in The Blennerhasset in 1909. On April 19 that year the city was pummeled by a violent thunderstorm which caused damage to buildings and injuries to pedestrians. One of them was Goodnough who attempted to cross Broadway at 111th Street when he was hit by a streetcar. The New York Press explained "He could not see the car approaching in the rain. He was knocked down and severely bruised."
In the fall of 1913 the neighborhood was plagued with a rash of daytime burglaries. The New-York Tribune said the crooks "have been making higher the present high cost of living for apartment house dwellers, and incidentally reaping a rich harvest in furs, jewelry and women's clothing for themselves." Among those victimized were Hazel Mora and Gertrude Ott who lived in The Blennerhasset. They were among the lucky few who got their stolen jewelry back.
|Sometime before World War I the balustrade was removed from the cornice. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Bloom's scheme was ingenious. When he was sent to an apartment building to pick up laundry, he took along an accomplice who would take the stairs to the basement. Bloom then asked the elevator boy to let him off on a particular floor, would ring all the bells until he was sure he found one that was unoccupied, and use a jimmy to break in. Once inside, he gathered jewelry and other valuables into a bundle and sent it to the basement on the dumbwaiter. With that task done, he proceeded to pick up the laundry.
In the early years after World War I cigar maker Louis Cohen leased an apartment on the sixth floor. It appears that the bulk of his income did not come from the cigar business, however. According to the New-York Tribune a letter arrived at the desk of Police Inspector Cornelius Cahalane early in 1921 "saying that gambling was going on in the apartment of Cohen." On the night of January 5 he launched a raid.
The officers broke in the door where Cohen, "two other men and six fashionably gowned women" were "sitting around a table upon which were a large number of racing charts and other papers relating to horseraces." The Long Island Daily Press reported, "The women began screaming as the door broke and when the detectives rushed in they rushed, shrieking, for the windows. The women were intercepted but were not consoled. They begged the detectives not to 'tell their husbands.'"
Cohen and his cohorts did not go easily. "Several pieces of furniture were smashed in the fight," said the detectives, and according to the Long Island Daily Press "So much noise was made, in fact, that when the patrol wagon arrived almost 300 persons were gathered outside the house, including many of the apartment house tenants." The group was charged with "maintaining a gambling house, vagrancy and disorderly conduct."
When Beatrice Dale separated from her husband, she and her nine-year old daughter, Beatrice, moved into the apartment of her mother, Fannie Kenny. Beatrice, who was 29, seems to have been moving on with her life and in 1925 was romantically involved with another man.
But when she went to a nightclub on Saturday night November 7, 1925 with a different suitor, her boyfriend found out and was enraged. Two days later he "upbraided" her for her infidelity, according to The New York Sun, "and she grieved over it." So upset was she that she drank poison.
Little Beatrice was just arriving home from school when the ambulance crew were examining her mother's body. "The child was led aside and not told of Mrs. Dale's death until later," said The Sun.
In November 1934 Bessie Scheffer's name appeared in newspapers for gambling on the horses. But, unlike Louis Cohen, her betting was legitimate. She had bought a ticket in the Army and Navy Veterans Sweepstakes, which was run in Manchester, England. Her ticket was on Pip Emma, an outside contender. On November 24 she received word that she had won the $30,000 first prize, worth more than half a million in today's dollars. It was an enormous windfall for the stenographer, who told reporters at a luncheon for winners on December 2 that she would use the money "to send her son and daughter through college."
By the 1960's the neighborhood around The Blennerhasset had sorely declined. On September 30, 1964 The New York Times architecture columnist Ada Louise Huxtable referred to Morningside Heights as "600 acres of trouble, ranging from the deteriorating surroundings of a galaxy of educational institutions long known as the Acropolis of America, to the most sordid slums." The following year the Morningside General Neighborhood Renewal Plan was approved by the city, which would displace 8,000 families and raze scores of residential structures, including The Blennerhasset.
In 1967 a Certificate of Eviction was filed by the landlord. But the residents banded together to fight. After a long and difficult battle, they won and The Blennerhasset survived.
Prominent in the fight were residents Bruce Bailey and his wife, Nellie Hester. By the early 1970's he was working with residents in Harlem and Washington Heights as well. Bailey's work in organizing tenants was not appreciated by developers and landlords. According to his wife, he "received threats over the years" and once had been beaten by two thugs.
On June 21, 1989 he left The Blennerhasset to drive to a tenants' meeting on West 125th Street. He did not return home that night and Nellie filed a missing persons report. The following evening at 5:30 a passerby discovered four large plastic bags. Inside were the decapitated torso, two arms without hands and two legs without feet. Nellie Hester identified her husband by a birthmark and a scar on his right knee. Detectives had a broad field from which to find suspects. Times journalist H. Eric Semler commented on June 21, "As head of the Columbia Tenants Union he assisted thousands of tenants and often drew the wrath of landlords, drug dealers and even some of his closest colleagues."
In the years since that tragedy The Blennerhasset has been renovated and in 1999 facade repairs were made. Today it is as dignified as it was in 1908 when Apartment Houses of the Metropolis called it one of New York's "high-class houses."
photographs by the author