Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The F. N. Collins House - 323 West 88th Street

When Theodore E. Thomson designed the five 20-foot wide rowhouses along West 88th Street for James Carlew late in 1895, he chose a single plan for all of them.  When completed, the homes between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive would be nearly identical--their differences appearing only in the carvings that decorated the stoop newels, the panels between the parlor floor windows, and the bases of the two story bays.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted on December 28 that the cost to construct each house would be approximately $20,000--or about $617,000 today.  The journal noted "specifications will call for all conveniences."

Because James Carlew was in Europe when the plans were completed, the project stalled until his return.  Ground was broken in March 1896 and the row was completed in the summer of 1897.  Like its neighbors, No. 323 rose four stories above a tall English basement.  Clad in brownstone, its double-doored entrance was flanked by fluted Corinthian pilasters which helped uphold a bracketed cornice that ran the width of the house.

The same pilasters appeared in reduced versions along the rounded bay of the second and third floors.  The underside of the bay was decorated with extraordinary carvings of overlapping leaves and berries.  The fluted pilasters made their appearance one more time at the top floor, flanking each window.  The remarkable pressed metal cornice was upheld by a series of small engaged columns; a highly unusual detail.

A stone worker exerted hours of careful labor on the complex carvings below the bowed bay.
On September 16, 1897 The New York Times reported that Carlew had sold No. 323, adding "This is the second house sold by Mr Carlew of the row of five which were completed about three months ago."

The house became home to the Frederick Norris Collins family.  Collins was president of the shipping concern, James Ward & Co.  He and his wife, the former Emily Augusta Cooper, had one daughter, Lydia.  Their summer residence was near Summit, New Jersey where they were members of the Canoe Brook Country Club and the Baltusrol Country Club nearby.  Living with them was Emily's widowed mother.

Emily was visible both in New York society and in political issues during the winter season.  She was a member of the Women's Republican Club and the Women's Auxiliary of Calvary Episcopal Church.  Her name appeared in social columns, as on December 15, 1907 when The New York Times announced that she "has sent out cards for the first Monday of each month during the season."  Another newspaper called those Mondays a "series of informal afternoons."

Earlier that year the family name appeared in newsprint for a less happy reason.  On the morning of May 28 Emily's mother noticed that a desk in her room had been jimmied open.  Investigation revealed that a bar brooch, a pair of earrings and six rings were missing.  The total value was $2,000--more than $55,000 today.  She notified Frederick who quickly suspected the butler.

The following day The Evening Post reported that "John Martin, the negro butler," had been arrested.  "Mr. Collins said that before going on an errand the butler had gone upstairs, and a few minutes after he left the house the robbery was discovered.  None of the other servants had been near the room."

Frederick's cousin, Mildred Louise Collins, was married on February 13, 1915 in the Church of the Transfiguration.  It was, perhaps, a surprising location for the friends of the couple.  Mildred lived in New Haven, Connecticut and the groom, I. Leland Hewes, was from Springfield, Massachusetts.  The reception, therefore, was held in the West 88th Street house.

In 1920 the Federal Government issued an indictment against specific shipping concerns, charging them with price fixing.  Among the executives and agents individually charged was Frederick N. Collins.

As was most often the case with well-heeled couples, the title to No. 323 was in Emily's name.   She sold the house in July 1921 to Lillian B. Smith.

Smith leased the house to operatic coach Florence Mendelson.   A year after moving in she was involved in the formation of the Music Students' League, "sponsored by prominent musicians," according to The Musician in July 1922.  The purpose was to hold "occasional meetings...in consideration of such problems as every music student must have."  The announcement noted "The secretary is Florence Mendelson, who may be addressed at 323 West Eighty-eighth Street, New York."

During the Depression years No. 323 was being operated as a rooming house.  Among the occupants in 1934 was 31-year old taxicab owner Oscar Kates.  At 3:00 a.m. on the day after Christmas that year he pulled his cab into a filling station on West 60th Street.  When the tank was filled, he found he could not shut off the pump.  While he struggled with the pump, the gasoline spilled out and onto the ground.  Somehow it ignited, engulfing Kates in flames.

Taken to The Roosevelt Hospital by another cabbie, his burns were severe enough to require his hospitalization until January 20, 1935.   Upon paying his $197 bill (around $3,600 today), he hired a lawyer and sued.  The jury granted him a $5,000 settlement.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Collins house was never divided into apartments--the fate of so many large Victorian rowhouses.  In 2008 a penthouse level, invisible from the street, was added.  

photographs by the author


  1. The county where I live is in court ordered shelter-in-place so I'm bored and may very well comment every day for the next two weeks. This too will pass.

    Very nice house. The part of today's post that caught my attention was that in 1907 Emily Collins's mother had a negro butler. John Martin must have been exceptional at his job to work his way to the top of the domestic household ladder. I also appreciated that his race was slipped into the newspaper's description of him, something my hometown newspaper regularly did … so you would know immediately if the accused was guilty. And the incriminating evidence was that he went upstairs and then left the house just before the burglary was discovered -- which says nothing of when the burglary occurred. And none of the remaining staff had been near the room in question -- which tells me at least one servant wasn't doing her [most likely female] job. And what would you expect the rest of the staff to say about a room where a burglary has occurred?

    Even if John Martin had been found innocent, good luck finding another job as butler.

    1. Exactly. Newspapers always noted "negro" or "colored," but never would say something like "John Williams, a white man." It was part of the innate racism of the time. And you're right, there was no solid evidence that Martin was the culprit; however that made no difference.

  2. I grew up a few doors down from this building, at 345 W 88, in an apartment allegedly formerly owned by Babe Ruth.