Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Chas. A. Wimpfheimer House - 18 West 76th Street

In February 1898 developer James Carlew commissioned the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design four upscale residences at Nos. 18 through 24 West 76th Street.  Construction costs for each 25-feet wide, five story homes was around $1.25 million by today's standards.  Their regal Beaux Arts facades would have been equally at home on the more formal Upper East Side.  The following year Carlew put the architects to work extending the row with the three more homes, Nos. 12 through 16.  

The newer homes slipped seamlessly into the row. While the individuals residences were perfectly symmetrical in design, the row was a purposely unbalanced mix--an A-B-B-A-B-A-C configuration.

The aristocratic row bespoke wealth and social position.  No. 18 is to the right of center.
On October 24, 1899 The Sun reported that Carew had sold No. 18.  The name of the buyer was not disclosed until February 2, 1900 when the Record & Guide identified her as "a Mrs. Wempfheimer [sic]."  In fact it was Charles A. Wimpfheimer who paid for the house; but as was common practice at the time, the title had been put in his wife's name.

Wimpfheimer was a partner with his brother Max in the importing firm of A. Wimpfheimer & Bros.  He and his wife, the former Annie Nordinger, had four children, Mildred Rosalie, Clarence E., Harold D. and Jacques D.  Their summer home was in Long Branch, New Jersey where Charles and Annie were visible in society.

On August 20, 1910, for instance, they were guests at a theme dinner at the home of Judge and Mrs. Wilbur A. Heisley.  Spurred by advances through the work of inventors like the Wright Brothers, the world was fascinated with the concept of human flight.  The New-York Tribune reported "Aviation dinners have been popular the last few days" and reported on the Heisley's dinner party.  The article noted "Dirigible balloons were the souvenirs."

Wimpfheimer donated generously to charities.  One newspaper said of him, "He is known by his friends as an exceedingly modest man and a generous giver."  His favorite cause was Mount Sinai Hospital, of which he was a director.  On May 17, 1916 The New York Times mentioned "His contributions to the hospital within the last few years total $230,000.  He recently gave $50,000 toward the new building fund and $50,000 toward the endowment fund."  

On the day before The Times article he had added another $150,000 (more than $3.5 million today) to his gifts by endowing the new department of surgery of the stomach.

With the outbreak of World War I Jacques (known popularly as "Sunny Jack") joined the U. S. Army, becoming a private in the 165th Ambulance Company.  Tragically, many soldiers died not from enemy fire, but from influenza and other diseases.  Jacques never made it overseas, but instead died of pneumonia "after a brief illness" in January 1918 at a military hospital in Hoboken.  He was 19-years-old.  His funeral was held in the 76th Street house on January 25.

Charles Wimpfheimer was a vice-president and board member of the Monmouth Memorial Hospital near the Long Branch summer home.  Two months after Jacque's death ground was broken for an addition to hospital, a $150,000 gift from the Wimpfheimers in memory of their son.  The dedication was held on July 19 the following year; the New-York Tribune noting "The entire cottage colony of Monmouth County attended the ceremonies."

After Mildred graduated from Vassar College, her father donated the Mildred Rosalie Wimpfheimer Nursery School to the school.  It opened on November 1, 1927.

But long before that Charles and Annie had left West 76th Street.  In  May 1919 they purchased the former Samuel Reading Bertron mansion at No. 935 Fifth Avenue and sold No. 18 West 76th Street "to a New York publisher for occupancy," as reported in The Sun.

That publisher was John R. Gregg, president and founder of the John R. Gregg Company at No. 77 Madison Avenue.  Born in Ireland in 1867, his father John Gregg had insisted that he and his four siblings should learn the Pitman system of shorthand.  As John R. Gregg entered the business world he continually honed his shorthand skills and developed his own method, the Gregg Shorthand System.

He introduced his system in a school in Chicago in 1895 and within a year dozens of public schools across America were teaching it.  He and his wife, the former Maida Wasson, moved to New York in 1907.  By the time the couple purchased No. 18 his publishing company was cranking out his own textbooks and the works of Gregg shorthand experts.

It is unclear whether John and Maida Gregg ever moved into the mansion.  If so, they soon leased it to Madame Augusta Öhrström-Renard, the Swedish mezzo-soprano opera singer formerly with the Metropolitan Opera.

Augusta Öhrström-Renard, from the collection of the Swedish Performing Arts Agency
With her singing career over, Augusta turned to teaching future operatic stars like Anna Case.  The 65-year-old underwent an operation at the Post Graduate Hospital on November 6, 1921 and died there that night.

The Greggs retained possession of No. 18 for several more years, leasing it to Mary Sotherham in March 1928 with an option to buy.  

In the years following the devastating stock market crash of 1929 the houses along the row were one-by-one converted to apartments.  In 1939 No. 18 was altered into a rooming house.  Each floor contained furnished rooms and a rooftop addition, unseen from the street, was added.  It contained two furnished rooms.

The owner was looking for a married couple to oversee the property in the summer of 1943.  The ad suggests that other than the free accommodations, the salary was not sufficient for two people to live on.   It sought a couple with "rooming house experience" and stressed that the husband must be employed.

In 1954 a renovation changed No. 18 from a rooming house to an apartment house by squeezing four apartments onto each floor--although the "penthouse" still contained three furnished rooms.

Furnished rooms in general sometimes drew less-than-respectable tenants.  Bernice Quintero lived in one of them in 1958.   In March that year Eastchester police were stymied by a rash of burglaries of upscale residences.  The thieves targeted jewelry and furs--with a noticeable preference to mink--which could be easily fenced.

The ring of six was finally rounded on in April.  Two of them were women.  Vivian Kaminsky was the mother of 21-year old Ira Kaminsky, one of the burglars, and 34-year old Bernice Quintero was the other.  Their jobs were to receive and sell the stolen goods.

Other than replacement windows and entrance doors, from the street little has changed to the house since Charles and Annie Wimpfheimer doled hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy causes in the first decades of the 20th century.

photographs by the author

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