|Its brownstone facade now painted, the house resolutely survives between apartment buildings.|
Real estate developer George J. Hamilton erected rows of high-stooped houses on the Upper West Side in the mid-1880's. In 1885 he handed the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson a new project with a somewhat surprising twist. His row of four four-story row houses on the south side of West 69th Street would be anchored by a "brick flat and store" at the corner of Columbus Avenue.
The group was completed in July 1886. Thom & Wilson is known for its ornamental facades and creative takes on historic styles. For the western-most house, No. 108 West 69th Street, the designers took the sometimes mundane Renaissance Revival style a step above. The openings of the basement level sat within blind horseshoe arches and a frieze of rosettes ran below the parlor windows. They were echoed in the panels of the unusual and splendid Aesthetic style stoop railings.
|The pierced panels of the stoop railing include rosettes in full relief.|
Hamilton did not sell the houses, choosing rather to lease them. No. 108 became home to Hannah Wise whose rent would equal about $4,500 per month today. Hannah renewed her three-year lease with Hamilton in February 1891; but problems were looming for her landlord. On February 21 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that two of his four-house rows had been lost in foreclosure, including Nos. 102 through 108 West 69th Street.
It appears the new owner, Henry Hughes, allowed Hannah to stay through the term of her new lease. In 1898 he and his wife, Margaret, moved into the house. They had three grown daughters. Hughes also had a son, Joseph, by an earlier marriage. Another son, Henry, Jr. was deceased.
Hughes had been born in Ireland in 1830. In 1871 he was elected alderman. The New-York Tribune said of him "He was well known in Tammany Hall circles as 'Honest' Henry Hughes, and as the man without an enemy." It was not politics, but real estate, which garnered Hughes his fortune.
He was also, as noted by The Horse Review in 1901, "a well-known horseman" and "because of his interest in good horses Mayor Gilroy made him a Speedway Commissioner." The magazine called him "one of the most popular trotting horse owners in New York." Although his position as Commissioner entitled him to "$7,500 for extra services," he never accepted the money, a considerable $229,000 in today's terms.
On January 6, 1899 Hughes hosted a card party for several respected friends, one which would end in tragedy and death. About ten minutes after midnight Isaac I. Stillings (described by The Evening Star as "an old and highly respected citizen of New York) and real estate broker Thomas O'Connel left the house together. They walked to Central Park West to catch the electric trolley car. At the corner of 69th Street O'Connel raised his umbrella to signal the conductor of the northbound car. He testified later the conductor was irritated and impatient.
"He put his head over the dashboard and said, 'Come on, if you are coming.' He said, 'Hurry up, come on, if you are coming.'"
O'Connel rushed to the trolley followed closely by Stillings. The conductor continued to bark "Come on, if you are coming." Distracted by the conductor, Stillings was intent on crossing the southbound tracks to get to the car and did not notice the approaching trolley. The following day The Evening Star reported that the 64-year-old had been "run down and instantly killed."
Henry Hughes was greatly affected by news of his friend's death. His health began to fail and he never recovered. He contracted pneumonia in 1901 and died in the house on March 13.
His estate topped $500,000, more in the neighborhood of $15.2 million today. The will left one quarter to Margaret, and the rest to be divided equally among the children. But Joseph was not at all happy with the distribution. He sued in March 1902 to have the will overturned, insisting that it "was procured by means of fraud and circumvention and undue influence practiced on the testator by his wife and some person or persons unknown."
Joseph was the lucky beneficiary of a mysterious incident two years later. In the fall of 1904 James Whelihan claimed that he opened an old trunk in his home on Staten Island and discovered a more recent will made by Hughes. This one gave Margaret one-third, Joseph Hughes one-third, and the other third was to be divided among the daughters. Although the circumstances of the discovery were bizarre at best, and the question of why Hughes would so heavily favor his son over his daughters was unanswered, the initial will was overturned.
On July 3, 1906 Margaret Hughes sold No. 108 to E. Francis Hillenbrand and his wife, Gertrude. The couple paid the equivalent of of $865,000 today. Hillenbrand was president of the Grainsborough Realty Co. and Gertrude served as its treasurer. The firm managed several apartment houses on the Upper West Side, including The Helena on Amsterdam Avenue, The Gainsborough on Riverside Drive, and The Gertrude on West 83rd Street.
The Hillenbrands' purchase of the property was the beginning of a rapid turnover in owners. They traded it to James F. Nicholson in 1907, who lost it in foreclosure in 1911. It was purchased by J. McCullough in 1911, who resold it weeks later to J. W. Sayre.
Sayre leased it to the widowed Mrs. Henry Reneike who operated the property as a boarding house. Her daughter, Henriette Eugenie shared her rooms. Mrs. Reneike had barely opened for business before misfortune struck. In August Victoria W. Miller took a room. According to the New York Herald she "was prepossessing and refined, and about thirty-eight years old." She told Mrs. Reneike that she came from Catskill, New York, but said nothing else about her background. She moved in with only a suitcase.
After living in the house about three weeks, Victoria locked her door and sealed the cracks and crevices with paper. She then undressed, turned on the gas, and laid on the bed to await death. She left Mrs. Reneike a note that read:
I am sorry for the trouble I am giving you, but it is a necessity. Kindly send my dress suit case to the Catskills, care of Miss Becker.
It appears that Mrs. Romeike turned a blind eye to the comings and goings of a male guest in the room of Alfreda Vetter the following year. The New York Herald called her "a pretty young woman" who was responsible for domestic problems between Albert Eckert Chandler and his wife. The newspaper summed up the issue saying "she was occupying an apartment at No. 108 West Sixty-ninth street, and gayeties in that house led to the granting of the divorce."
Henriette Eugenie Romeike was married to Harry Eugene Mowen in St. Stephen's Church on March 26, 1913. It is unclear how much longer her mother continued to operate the boarding house.
Residents in the ensuing years included Charles H. Mayer, a retired liquor dealer, here in 1915. Lester Quigley went off to the Plattsburg Military Training Camp as a private that year. He was still listed there on April 5, 1916 when L. Quigley, presumably his father, fired off a one-line letter to Senator James A. O'Gorman in Washington D.C.:
Urge most emphatically the passage of section 56 of the Senate military bill providing for Federal reserve; protest earnestly against defeat of this section.
William and Helen Heilweil moved into rooms here following their marriage in March 1920. William managed a restaurant and Helen, who had worked for a carnival, began working there following the marriage.
Then, on September 3, 1922 William came home to find "his trunk ransacked and his personal belongings taken, a note left by his wife stating: 'I am gone. No need to look for me,'" according to testimony later.
About two weeks later he received a letter postmarked Detroit, September 13, that read "Just a line to let you know that I'm O.K. as I promised, but think it best that this should be the last. You may think that what I did seemed mean, but we were both unhappy and you will soon forget me, brace up, give yourself plenty of work, hope you feel better."
However William discovered that his wife was not in Michigan, but was living with another man on West 52nd Street. He sued for divorce and after a sensational hearing was awarded a rather unusual decision. William was not obligated to pay alimony to Helen. The judge decided "Not he, but his wife, was the deserter."
Marie Vahjen purchased the house in February 1924 and continued to operate it as a rooming house. She would retain possession for nearly two decades.
Among her tenants in 1937 were Harry and Lillian Frenchman. Harry had been a highly successful real estate operator in California; but the Great Depression wiped out his fortune. Now in New York he had found work as a salesman for a razor blade company.
Like Helen Heilweil had done, he disappeared in October that year. Then, on October 26 Lillian received a letter from her husband that read "When you receive this I will be dead in the Paramount Hotel. I can't make a go of it any more."
Lillian rushed to the hotel where Frenchman was found dead in his room. The New York Evening Post reported "a bottle that had contained a powerful poison" was near the body.
Marie Vehjen still owned and lived in the house in 1940 when she operated the Mava Realty Corp. from the address. It was sold in 1955 to the 108 West 69th Street Corp. for $42,000, or around $394,000 today.
It was not until 1974 that the property was officially converted to apartments, two per floor. While Thom & Wilson's 1886 interiors have been stripped out, other than a coat of gray paint, the exterior is essentially unchanged. The only survivor of the row, it is squeezed between 20th century apartment houses.
photographs by the author