Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The William C. Poillon House - 353 Riverside Drive

Although virtually identical, No. 353 (left) and 352 Riverside Drive were built by separate owners.  photograph by the author
In the spring of 1899 developers and builders Perez Stewart and H. Ives Smith entered into an unusual project with wealthy silk merchant Adolphe Openhym.  Millionaire Samuel Gamble Bayne had built his imposing Romanesque Revival mansion in the wilderness of Riverside Drive and 108th Street a decade earlier.  Partially to ensure the upscale nature of what would eventually be his neighborhood, he bought up the Riverside Drive properties to the south--enabling him to pick and choose the buyers.

On April 29, 1899 the Record & Guide reported that Stewart & Smith and Openhym had purchased an 82-foot wide parcel between 107th and 108th Streets from Bayne.  "Two detached residences will be erected on the plot," said the article, "one of which will be occupied by Mr. Openhym."  Openhym worked together with the developers, even though these were technically separate projects.  Architect Robert D. Kohn received the commission to design identical dwellings while, as expected, Smith & Stewart were the builders.

The twin mansions were completed in 1901.  Kohn's Beaux Arts design featured rusticated stone bases and three-story gently bowed bays.  French-style carved cartouches announced the addresses.  Stone balconies with ornate iron railings at the second floor fronted French doors.  The bays created a stone balustrated balconies at the fourth floor, and the full-height attic levels took the form of mansards embellished with elaborate stone dormers.

photo by Dmadeo
As the finishing work was being done that January, popular entertainer Hilda Kathryn Clark was recuperating in Missouri.  On January 16, 1901 The New York Times reported "Miss Hilda Clark, prima donna soprano of the Bostonians, did not leave Kansas City with the company yesterday; instead she is in her room at the Coats House with her injured knee bound in a plaster cast."  The article noted "Her sister, Miss Cora Clark, and her mother are with her."

Her mother was Lydia A. Clark, wife of Leavenworth, Kansas banker Milton Edward Clark.  Within only a few months the entire family would move into the new Riverside Drive house next door to the Openhym family.

In August the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Lydia had purchased No. 353 (common practice was for the title to upscale domestic property to be put in the wife's name).  The Morning Telegraph made special note that she was "the mother of Miss Hilda Clark, and [the house] probably will be the family home of the prima donna at the close of the present season."  The Clarks paid Stewart & Smith $135,000 for the mansion, in the neighborhood of $4.1 million today.  It contained twenty rooms and five baths, along with a passenger elevator.  

The mansion was the scene of Hilda's marriage to millionaire Frederic Stanton Flower on February 18, 1903.  Newspapers across the city filled columns with detailed descriptions of the event.  The New-York Tribune wrote "The house was decorated with palms, smilax and roses.  An orchestra played behind a screen of tropical plants."

The groom was a member of the stock brokerage firm Flower & Company.  A nephew of the recently deceased Governor Roswell P. Flower, he was called by one newspaper "a well known club man."  His love affair with Hilda had been a long one.  The Evening World said "The young millionaire first met and loved the actress fifteen years ago...His parents objected to his choice, however, and he respected their wishes.  But in all the years since then he has never lost an opportunity to be with her."    After receiving a large bequest from Governor Flower's estate, he "determined that he would wait no longer for the bride of his choice, and his family removed all objections."

Hilda Clark was a teen when she gained prominence on the stage. from the collection of the New York Public Library  

Two years later on June 5, 1905 Cora Adelaide Clark was married.  Hilda was her matron of honor and, because Milton Clark had died the previous year, Frederic S. Flower gave her away.  Possibly because of her father's recent death, this wedding was not held in the house, but at the Buckingham Hotel.  The 34-year old groom, William Clark Poillon, was a banker with the Mercantile Trust Company.  

The newlyweds moved into the Riverside Drive house with Lydia.   The Poissons were Christian Scientists, so when Cora was looking for a nurse for their daughter, Aline, in May 1909, she placed the ad in The Christian Science Monitor:  "Nurse for 8 months' old infant; must be experienced, with good references; permanent situation; summer in country."  

In 1910 Lydia transferred the title of the Riverside Drive house to Cora.  It may have been at this time that she moved out.  She lived on until 1928, but no longer appeared at No. 353. 

A few months later, in January 1911, William was elected president of the Mercantile Trust Company.  Later that year the firm merged with the Bankers Trust Company and he was elected a vice-president of the combined organizations.  Then, in December 1915, he resigned to become a general partner in the banking firm of Tucker, Anthony & Company.

William Clark Poillon - The Financier, December 1915 (copyright expired)

Poillon was also involved in real estate as a director of the United States Realty and Improvement Company.  Not only did the firm own valuable properties like the Copley-Plaza Hotel in Boston, but it was building the Seventh Avenue subway at the time.

Living in the Riverside Drive mansion that year with William and Cora were their two daughters, Aline and Yvonne, and four servants.  Overseeing the little girls (they were 8- and 6-years-old respectively) was their 23-year old French governess, Charlotte Bourguin.

In 1922 the Poillons left Riverside Drive.  On November 11, The New York Herald reported that Cora had leased it, and on November 27 an auction was held within the house "consisting of fine furniture, Tiffany chiming hall clocks, bric-a-brac bronzes, rugs and pictures," according to the auction notice.

It was rented by Lena Schultz and Ida Rosoff who operated it as The Patrician, what today would be called an event venue.  Announcements of weddings, dinners and bar mitzvahs routinely appeared in newspapers.  On November 27, 1923, for instance, Dr. Louis Ginzberg, professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was the guest of honor of a testimonial dinner here.

And on November 4, 1925 The New York Times reported that Traina Gitelson and Irving J. Feinfeld had been married at The Patrician the day before.  But the dinner thrown for the Harry P. Fierst family on June 15, 1927 as they prepared to leave for Israel for son Herbert's bar mitzvah was among the last events for The Patrician.

One month later, on July 12, The New York Sun reported that the neighbors had had enough and went to court.  "They declared that the establishment for five years had constituted a nuisance, keeping them awake night after night with jazz, singing, laughter and noise of revelry."  Schultz and Rosoff's lawyer explained that this was not a public restaurant, but a catering hall.  The lawyer for the neighbors countered that it was "nothing but a plain dance hall."  It was the end of The Patrician.

In 1935 well-known architect Robert T. Lyons converted the former Poillon house to apartments--two per floor.  An advertisement in 1938 offered three large rooms for $1,000 per year--about $1,500 per month in today's money.

Another conversion came in 1943 when an order of Jesuits purchased No. 353 and 352 for use as Woodstock College.  The twin houses were not connected internally, but were used as separate entities.  While the former Openhym house was used as the school proper, with classrooms, a chapel and dining room, for instance; No. 353 was essentially a dormitory, with bedrooms on each floor.

After three decades in the side-by-side houses, the order sold them in 1977.  While No. 342 was returned to a single-family house, Diane Taxson and Donald Porter joined in partnership to convert the Poillon house to cooperatives.  

The exteriors of the twin houses survive essentially unchanged; a slice of time when Riverside Drive was home to some of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens.

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