Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The George Youle House - 170 Lexington Avenue

The entrance to No. 170, originally atop a high stoop, matched that of its neighbor to the right--as did the stone facade.

George and Elizabeth Youle moved their family into the middle house of a row of three newly-completed Italianate brownstone residences on the west side of Lexington Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets in the early 1850's.   Identical, each was three stories tall above an English basement.  Their entrances were capped by arched pediments which rested on foliate brackets.  Most likely the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows opened onto cast iron balconies.  The sills of the upper floor windows sat on stone brackets and the second story openings wore prominent lintel cornices.

Youle had inherited a sizable fortune from his father, also named George.   The extent of his wealth would be evidenced in 1858 when he sold the State the plot of land on Lexington Avenue and 35th Street as the site of the State Arsenal.  In January 1859 The New York Herald remarked "The lot...was purchased of George Youle, for the enormous sum of $25,900."  (That price would equal about $815,000 today.)

The Youles' daughters were both married; Euretta to Samuel F. Halsey and Mary to Henry H. Houghton.  Tragically, the Youles would see both of them die young.  Euretta died on March 17, 1854, her funeral being held in her 7th Street house three days later.  But when Mary died at the age of 31 "after a long and painful illness which she bore with great patience," according to the New-York Tribune, the funeral was held in her parent's Lexington Avenue house.

It was not uncommon for even wealthy families to rent rooms in their homes.  On November 18, 1857 the Youles advertised:

To Let--From the First of December, the second floor of a first class house on Lexington avenue, consisting of front and back room and bedroom, with privilege to cook and wash in the kitchen; the best of reference required and given.  Apply at 158 Lexington avenue, between Thirty and Thirty-first streets.

It is interesting that the prospective tenant (who turned out to be Robert Martin, an engraver) was not offered board and a seat at the Youle's table, but only kitchen privileges.

Only three months after Martin moved in there would be another funeral in the parlor.  Elizabeth Youle had not been well for some time and she died on February 4, 1858 at the age of 73.

George lived on until the spring of 1864.  On April 19 his estate sold "the valuable property known as No. 158 Lexington" at auction.

In 1866 the house received its new address of No. 170 Lexington Avenue.  By the late 1870's it was home to the Charles F. Blodgett family.  Blodgett was secretary of the Williamburgh Gas Light Company.  The family's summer residence was in Newport. 

On April 21, 1880 daughter Viola and a friend, Annie Willetts headed to a society art fair at Madison Square Garden.  With proper Victorian decorum, they were escorted by a gentleman, the Blodgetts' next door neighbor at No. 172, F. L. Lehman.   Although just 29-years old, Annie was a widow.  Her deceased husband, Samuel Willets, according to The Times, was the "grandson of the millionaire of that name."  Just as they approached the ticket office at the Madison Avenue entrance, disaster struck.

Inside, according to The New York Times “A pianoforte was playing a lively waltz, and among the dancers were persons well known in New-York society.”  Suddenly a roof truss gave way, causing the roof to collapse and the Madison Avenue wall to give way.  The Times reported "Mrs. Willetts turned and ran to the street, but before she could clear the sidewalk she was caught by the falling wall and buried in the debris."

The New York Evening Express was indelicate in reporting on Annie's death, saying "She was crushed to a shapeless mass."  Her body was one of 22 retrieved from the ruins.  The newspaper said that Viola, "was knocked down by the falling bricks and timbers.  She suffered internal injuries, but is out of danger.  She was taken home."

Charles Blodgett died around 1881.  Viola's wedding on June 11, 1884 in St. Mark's Church in the Bowery was a social event.  The groom was James Armstrong Renwick, nephew of eminent architect James Renwick, Jr.  The New York Times remarked "The church was crowded, but there was no formal reception, although a few intimate friends assembled after the ceremony at the residence of the bride's mother, No. 170 Lexington-avenue, to congratulate the wedded couple."

By 1891 the house was home to William H. Kirkland and his wife.  Kirkland was a dealer in mantels on Union Square.  His prominence in the business was reflected in April 1892 when the building industry met at the Building Trades' Club on East 23rd Street to form committees to cooperate with the Grant Monument Association.  Kirkland was among the three men appointed to represent the Tile, Grate and Mantels dealers.

Like almost every wife of well-to-do businessmen, Mrs. Kirkland involved herself in charitable causes.  Each year, for instance, she donated "15 picture books" to The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

After Hoffman Miller purchased No. 170 in 1897, it was operated as a boarding house.   Among his tenants in 1900 was Professor D. Litten.  That fall advertisements began appearing in regional newspapers advising that he was in town.  Typical was the announcement in the Watertown Daily Times on September 17, 1900 which said in part:

Clairvoyance--Prof. D. Litten, New York's greatest trance medium, can be consulted till the end of the week.  Don't fail to see him when in doubt or trouble.  He will set you right.  This is your last opportunity for this season to consult a medium of national reputation...Prof. Litten's permanent home is 170 Lexington avenue, New York city.

A reading for ladies cost 50 cents, for men $1 (about $30 today).  The problem for Litten was that he was a respected academic instructor and whoever was scamming the public was guilty of what today would be called identity theft.  On January 8, 1901 The Evening Telegram printed a letter from the irate professor:

An article which appeared in the Evening Telegram about a clairvoyant who has been swindling people in Plainfield, N. J., and who called himself Professor Litten, of New York, has been the source of a great deal of annoyance to me.  Will you kindly state in your paper that I am not that person, and that some rogue evidently assumed my name.

Although Lexington Avenue was becoming increasingly commercial by now, like D. Litten the boarders in No. 170 remained respectable and financially comfortable.  William Hentz lived here in the summer of 1908 when he was invited by William Shanks for a July 4th afternoon on Manhasset Bay in Shanks's boat, the Tasstine.  Joining them was Harry E. Gerlock.

The men noticed that the gas tank had been leaking all day, but were not overly concerned.  At one point they changed from their street clothes to their bathing suits.  Afternoon turned to evening and one of the men struck a match to light a lantern.  The gasoline ignited and the fire spread so quickly there was no hope of extinguishing it.  Hentz and his friends jumped into the water and swam to shore where they watched the launch burn to the waterline along with their clothes and money.

Frederick Theodore Miersch had lived in the building until a few months earlier.  Both in Dresden, he was an accomplished violinist and had been the soloist for the New York Symphony Orchestra and was now first violinist for the Metropolitan Opera House.  He moved out following his marriage to the wealthy widow Sarah A. McBurney in May 1908.

Newspapers made quite a fuss over the difference in the age of the bride an groom.  Sarah was 65 and had "inherited a considerable fortune from her husband," Thomas McBurney, according to the New York Herald.  The newspaper remarked that Miersch "is a quarter of a century her junior."   

By 1937 things had declined and the owners of No. 170 were slapped with a "multiple dwelling violation."  An alteration in 1946 resulted in new plumbing and an official conversion to apartments, one per floor.  The stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the former basement level.  Perhaps to make the former entrance look more like the window it now was, the pediment was removed.

The house (center) lost its stoop, but overall retained much of its original detailing.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services
In a bizarre remodeling sometime later the brownstone cladding was removed and a veneer of clapboards was applied to the underlying brick.  The double hung four-over-four windows were replaced with colonial-appearing small-paned sashes.  The result of the unlikely project is that for decades passersby have assumed that the house is one of the few surviving wooden structures in Manhattan.

photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The exposed brick between the basement and first floor windows is puzzling as are the ungainly two-story shutters at the same level.  Nevertheless house masquerading as a wooden rarity is a delightful surprise.

photographs by the author

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