Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Charles T. Dillingham House - 320 West 88th Street

The windows of the upper bay were originally curved.

Clarence True was arguably the most prolific architect working on the Upper West Side in the 1880's and '90's.  He notably played with historic styles, often blending them to create whimsical hybrids but always adapting vintage architecture for modern use.  In 1890 he was commissioned by William E. Lanchantin to design five 20-foot wide rowhouses on West 88th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.  Completed in 1891, each of the residences was individual yet they flowed together as a grouping.  In their design True had brought the Elizabeth Renaissance into the 19th century.

Like its neighbors, the center house, No. 320, was faced in brick and brownstone.  It was distinguished by a bay--faceted at the basement and parlor levels and then rounded above--which rose the full height to the attic level.   A complex carved frieze of back-to-back griffins ran along the roofline of the entire row.  The roof was shingled in slate tiles and the single pointed dormer was given a checkerboard motif of brick and tile.

Each of True's houses was individual, but harmonious with its neighbors.  No. 320 is in the center.
On April 2, 1891 Fanny C. and Charles T. Dillingham purchased No. 320 for $22,750--just under $660,000 in today's money.  Dillingham was the principal in the large publishing firm and book store, Charles T. Dillingham & Co.  He was described by The Sun that year as "the leading book jobber in the United States, a smart, active, and energetic business man."

Dillingham had been in the book business since 1870 when he co-founded Lee, Shepard & Dillingham.  Five years later he took over the business.  Until the year before purchasing the 88th Street house he had been perhaps as well noted for a much different enterprise--baseball. 

Winged griffins standing back-to-back form the carved frieze.

Dillingham was a stockholder and director in the New York Amusement Company which owned the New York Baseball Club.  But upheaval within the ranks of the players, exacerbated by a catastrophic losing season in 1890, left the club hemorrhaging cash.  It resulted in what The Sun called "the disastrous baseball war" and in Dillingham's resignation after he "soon became tired of putting his hand in his pocket."

In 1889, a year before its disastrous season, the club it took what today would be the World's Series.  original source unknown
The financial losses in his baseball club investment came at a time of what what Dillingham described as "dull trade, low prices, [and] strong competition."  Only months after moving into his new house, his business failed.

The Sun, December 11, 1892 (copyright expired)
After more than two decades in business, Charles T. Dillingham & Co. held a liquidation sale in December 1892.

The 88th Street house next became home to confectioner Alex E. Cohen and his wife, Catherine.   The couple apparently lived happily here until the summer social season of 1899.  They leased a cottage at Long Branch, New Jersey and on the evening of July 28 they and friends went to "a hop" at the Ocean Hotel.  Apparently unaware of a heart ailment, Catherine overexerted herself.

The New York Press reported "She had danced for some time when she complained of feeling ill.  Almost immediately she fell to the floor, and before physicians could be summoned she was dead."  The newspaper somewhat coldly entitled the article "Finished Waltz: Fell Dead."

Alex Cohen retained ownership of the 89th Street house for a while, but moved out soon after the tragedy.  He leased it to Miles M. O'Brien and his family.

Miles M. O'Brien, History of The Tammany Society, 1901 (copyright expired)

O'Brien's wife was the former Thomasine Leahy.  The couple had four sons, Miles Jr., Jay, Thomas and Tivar.   O'Brien had come from Limerick, Ireland in 1868 at the age of 26.  He obtained a job as a clerk in the H. B. Claflin Company store, working his way up within the organization.  After twenty-five years with Claflin, he went into banking and, after his appointment in 1885, simultaneously served on the Board of Education.  In 1900 he was made president of the Board.

Because of his responsible position and public reputation, O'Brien was no doubt somewhat humiliated when he had to appear in the West Side Court on April 9, 1901 following his son's arrest.  The following day The Morning Telegraph entitled an article "Love Songs Bring Rich Boys to Grief" and detailed how Thomas O'Brien and four friends had been arrested "because they sang a few Spanish love songs under their sweethearts' windows in Riverside Drive."

The article explained "The young men have been in the habit of serenading, and complaints have been made to Capt. Schmittberger, of the West 100th street station, by residents in the district, on the grounds that the singing disturbed them."  After the young Romeos told their story to the judge, he dismissed their cases "on the promise that they would sing no more."

On May 25, 1903 Alex E. Cohen sold the house to real estate operator Mabel Suydam.  She continued to lease it to the O'Briens.

It was Miles O'Brien who came up with the idea of free baths for poor children in the tenement districts.  He also initiated night schools and free lecture courses within the public schools.  Perhaps because of his own humble beginnings, he constantly worked for the underprivileged and was an ardent supporter of the High School of Commerce.  He lobbied for adequate pensions for teachers and, according to the Irish-American Advocate later, "in countless smaller says raised the standard of the city's educational system."

In September 1910 O'Brien became ill.  Three months later, on Christmas Eve, he died in the 89th Street house from intestinal disease.

No. 320 was purchased by Alderman William C. Towen.  As was common at the time, the title was put in the name of his wife, Mary.  Towen's name was often preceded by the title Commodore in the newspapers. He had been Commodore of the Brooklyn Yacht Club (for which he his sloop yacht the Tammany was flagship in the Lipton Cup race in 1908).  The couple's only daughter, Florence Tarbell Towen, had married Vincent Stuyvesant Lippe in April 1909.

The couple's residency would be relatively short-lived.  On March 19, 1912 William Towen died.  Three months later, on June 26, the New-York Tribune reported that Mary had sold No. 320 to Elizabeth A. Cohen.

Elizabeth, who was familiarly known as Eliza, was the wife of Thomas J. Colton, president of Behrman & Colton.  Their only son, Louis, was a director in the firm which Millinery Trade Review said was involved in "the importation and manufacture of artificial flowers and fancy feathers."    

Like his predecessors in the house, Thomas J. Colson was as well a highly visible Tammany Hall associate.  On May 23, 1909 the New-York Tribune had entitled an article "Plums For Tammany" which reported on the "fat commissionerships" formed "to condemn lands for the Askokan dam water supply system for New York."  Included in the list of commissioners was Thomas J. Colton.

A year before the couple purchased No. 320, on July 12, 1911, Mayor William Jay Gaynor had appointed Colton president of the board of the newly formed Board of Inebriety.  

The well-intentioned group was charged with establishing "a hospital and an industrial colony for the care and treatment of inebriates."  It was a bit far-reaching in its powers.  Whenever any "male person" was arrested for intoxication, "the board must be notified by telephone and the name and address of the person arrested noted," explained The New York Times on July 13, 1911.  If a second arrest happened within twelve months, the board had the power to commit the offender to the hospital or colony "for a period of not less than one year nor more than three years."

The Board of Inebrity fell apart in March 1918 after squabbling between its directors and the Mayor and two other city officials resulted in Colton and four other directors walking off the job.  With only two directors left, Gaynor simply dissolved the group.

On April 28, 1920 Elizabeth Colton died.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.  Louis, his wife, and their daughter Mary Elizabeth (known as Betty), continued to live at No. 320 with Thomas.

Betty was introduced to society during the 1924-25 winter season.  On January 20, 1925 The Evening Mail reported that "Mrs. Louis M. Colton will give a luncheon next Saturday at Sherry's for her debutante daughter, Miss Betty Colton."

Thomas J. Colton died on March 9, 1935.  He left an estate of just under $775,000--or about $14.5 million today.  Of that Louis received $5,000 outright and "life estate in $443,557," as reported by the Buffalo Evening News.

The Coltons left 89th Street soon after.  In 1936 Harold Arneson was living here when the New York Post's drama critic Vilas J. Boyle stopped him outside the Longacre Theatre to get his opinion of the new play Howdy Stranger.  She mentioned in her review that "The applause was pretty terrific at the end, but there was a lot of undertoned scoffing."  Apparently one of those scoffers was Arneson, who commented simply "A couple of good gags still don't make a farce comedy."

By the mid-1950's the house had been converted to four apartments.  Rose Raymond lived in one of them from at least 1953 through 1955.  An accomplished pianist, she gave private lessons in her apartment.

There are still four apartments in the residence.  Other than replacement windows and the sad loss of the dormer tiles, it has fared much better than its siblings, all of which have lost their stoops.

photographs by the author

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