Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Otto Presspritch House - 411 West 154th Street

In 1874 developer John Kelly acquired the large parcel at the southwest corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 154th Street.  It would be years before the development of the Sugar Hill neighborhood was fully underway; and Kelly waited nearly a decade before hiring architect James Stroud in 1883 to design eleven row houses that wrapped the corner--seven on 154th Street and four others at Nos. 881 to 887 St. Nicholas Avenue.

In May 1883 Building, An Architectural Monthly remarked on the unusual setting.  "The architect, Mr James Stroud, has designed them on plateaus, giving the pleasing effect of green terraces, with walks of Seyssel Rock asphalt."  The writer described what today we recognized as the Queen Anne style.  "He has introduced colonial features of architecture, such as bow windows, irregular roofs, verandahs and balconies.  There will be ornamental sashes with glacier decorations and rolling Venetian blinds."  

A rendering released by Stroud's office reveal that the houses originally had covered porches--called "verandahs" by Building.  Building, An Architectural Monthly, May 1883 (copyright expired)
Each of the 21-foot wide houses had upscale detailing.  Expensive ash and cherry trim and hot and cold running water were expensive, modern amenities.  Building pointed out that at each stairway landing was a window "opening to the outer air," which it deemed "a decided improvement on the usual city house."  

Kelly erected the houses for rental income.  The Building journalist noted "Just why families are willing to pay $1,800 or $2,000 per annum for a suite of apartments on the eleventh story of an apartment house when they can rent a pleasant residence on its own ground for less than half the money, it is difficult to tell."  

The West 154th Street row was designed in an A-A-B-C-B-A-A configuration.  The pairs of "A" houses on either end were near mirror images of one another; the significant differences being in the treatment of the mansard towers.  No. 411 at the western end was, like its neighbors, three stories tall including the full-height mansard.  The openings wore brick lintels with stone keystones and imposts.  The dramatic mansard included a dormer and an oval window within the tower.

The 11-room house became home to the large Presspritch family.  Otto Presspritch and his wife, the former Marie Le Gendre, had been married in 1862.  The New York Times mentioned that Marie "was descended from an old family of New Orleans."  Otto was a cotton broker at the time.  Following the Civil War Presspritch was made Consul to the Russian Government and the couple moved to Liverpool, England, until 1875.

Otto and Marie had two daughters, Marie and Alice, and five sons, Henri, Ernest, Walter, Reginald, and Otto, Jr.  In 1887 Reginald was a freshman at the College of the City of New York, enrolled in its "Classical course;" while his brother, Henri, was studying a Columbia University.

In 1900 the Presspritches were paying $900 per year rent on the house--approximately $2,300 a month in today's terms.  But they would not continued to do so for much longer.  Perhaps because the children were now grown, In 1904 the family left No. 411.  In July that year it was purchased by Albert Pritchett and his wife, Mary Elizabeth.

Pritchett was a manager of the Baltimore-based Keen & Hagerty Mfg. Co. at No. 99 Nassau Street.  His residency in the 154th Street house here was a rocky one.  He troubles started in February 1906 when The Title Insurance Company of New York began foreclosure proceedings against him.  He owed $11,582.28 on his mortgage at the time, nearly $335,000 today.  The situation was grim enough that the house was scheduled to be auctioned on April 5.

Pritchett managed to wriggle out of that situation; but his problems were not over by far.  He attempted to improve his finances by gambling in 1907, but that ended badly.  On September 23 The Sun reported that he appeared in the West Side Court "with his right arm badly cut" and was charged with "being a disorderly person."

As the article explained, "Pritchett said that he had been to 141 West Ninetieth street to play in a poker game on Saturday night to see if he could win back some money he had lost.  He lost more, he said, and made a kick."  When his hosts demanded that he leave, he "got out by going through the glass panel of the door in the vestibule."   The judge was as much surprised by the fact that the poker game had not been raided as he was by Prichett's bad behavior.

Possibly in an effort to avoid another foreclosure, Albert transferred title to the 154th Street house to Mary Elizabeth on February 28, 1908.  Apparently desperate for money, two months later he turned to larceny.  On the afternoon of April 5, 1908 he accompanied a 30-year old woman, Frances Tenney, to the apartment of her friend, Amelia B. Liddy at No. 2337 Broadway.  The two women had been close friends for years so Amelia had no reason to be suspicious.

But as the three were sitting in the living room, Pritchett rose and boldly walked into the bedroom.  According to Amelia, he "went to a dressing table...and took from a drawer $2,650 worth of jewelry."  Included were a diamond and pearl ring, a diamond locket and a "snake pin" set with diamonds."  Pritchett then bolted from the apartment.

"Miss Tenney ran over to me and placed her hand over my mouth that I might make no outcry," Amelia said in her complaint.  "I tried to rise from my chair.  She pushed me back into it and held me there."  

When Pritchett had had sufficient time to escape, Frances ran away too.  It did not take long for authorities to apprehend her; and the following day The New York Herald reported "Police are searching for Albert G. Pritchett of No. 411 West 154th street."

Pritchett appears to have panicked.  When Amelia appeared before a judge the day after the incident, a man identified only as "Sam" entered the courtroom.  The Evening World reported he pleaded with her "to withdraw the complaint against Pritchett."   And when he handed her a chamois bag containing the stolen jewelry, she did just that.  "All I wanted was my jewels back," she said.

The Evening World described the detectives as being "dumbfounded."  Amelia told reporters "He's not a bad sort, anyhow.  He's Miss Tenny's friend.  I hated to have the dear girl arrested, but you know those diamonds are worth $2,700 and that's something."  The article said "Both women are considerate of Pritchett.  He is a married man with a family."

The Pritchetts managed to remain at No. 411 into 1912.  They were followed by Daisy L. Jordan, whose former husband Arthur M. Jordan was the proprietor of the Cedarcliffe Hotel in New Rochelle, New York.   Daisy took him to court in September 1912 claiming he owed $950 in back alimony--nearly $25,500 today.   Daisy Jordan's time here was short and in 1913 electrical engineer Virgil Ellsworth Metcalfe called No. 411 home.

By the Depression years the Sugar Hill neighborhood had significantly changed.  Most of the comfortable 19th century homes were converted to rooming houses, some with shops in the basement levels.  The end of the line for No. 411 as a dwelling came at the beginning of 1938.

In 1924 West 154th Street was still unpaved.  Several of the porches have been lost, as was a portion of the retaining wall.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

On January 24 The New York Sun reported "A stag stronghold, the St. Catherine's Boys Club, has been established in an old four-floor private house at 411 West 154th street, with as many officers as there are in a Mexican army."  Each of the 35 members, ranging from 15 to 22-years old, was at least a director.

The house had been acquired by the Catholic Youth Organization and Rev. Joseph A. Brady of the nearby Church of St. Catherine of Genoa gave the boys a daunting responsibility.  They were told, according to The Sun, "that they could have the house for a clubhouse if they would furnish it."  The article note "they have furnished the house partly with articles from members' homes, and are ready to make merry and make money."

To make money the boys organized their own "employment agency" to obtain after-school jobs like dog walkers, window washers, errand runners and "carriage-wheelers."  They also published an eight-page newspaper, the Armchair.

The boys were also responsible for the maintenance of the house as well.  Seventeen-year old Robert O'Brien, who acted as the Armchair's editor, for instance, tended the furnace.  So "in the heat of press time the clubhouse is cold," said The Sun.

It was not all work, of course.  St. Catherine's Boys Club also had "football, baseball, basketball, track and debating teams, a dance committee and a library," according to the article.

Unfortunately for the boys, the endeavor did not last.  Within a year it had become The Modern School, a private elementary school.  In the 2001 book Manhattan at Mid-Century: An Oral History, Barbara Pringle recalled that the first school she attended "was the Modern School at 154th Street, which was a feeder for white private schools.  Ethel Waters's daughter, W. E. B. Du Bois's granddaughter, a whole number of children who came from black professional families went there."

The girls of The Modern School were dressed for a program on Christmas Eve 1939.  from the collection of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The Modern School was founded in 1934 by Mildred Johnson Edwards.  A Black graduate of the teacher training program at the Ethical Culture Center on Central Park West, when she found that she could not get a teaching position in a New York City private school, she simply opened her own.  The school accepted children from 18 months of age through the fifth grade.

Mildred Edwards purchased No. 411 when her success demanded more space and her enrollment reached 200.  Years later, in 1999, Nina Seigal wrote in The New York Times, it "came to be respected as one of the best private schools in Manhattan."

Around 1954 the school moved to West 152nd Street.  No. 411 became home to Bryant Memorial Zion Baptist Church, which retains ownership.  Although sadly battered, the house has managed to retain its charm, silently begging for sympathetic attention.

photographs by the author

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