Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Imlay Ludovic Benet House - 137 West 87th Street

In August 1884 the trade journal Building reported "Mr. Charles L. Guilleaume proposes to build on the north side of 87th street, west of Ninth avenue, seven 3-story high-stoop residences, to cost about $84,000, from the designs of Mr. A. B. Jennings."  The cost of each house would translate to about $317,000 in today's money.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added "The fronts will be of Berea stone, brick, terra cotta and brown stone, each house being of different design in Rococo."  

Guilleamue's determination to fit seven houses on the 97-foot wide plot is surprising, especially given the high-end residences rising in the immediate neighborhood.  The widest of his row would be No. 139 in center, at just 15 feet.   

Despite the Record & Guide's description of the style as "Rococo," Arthur Bates Jennings blended two rather diverse styles, Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival, for his balanced A-B-C-D-C-B-A row.  

The showier treatment of the attic level made No. 137 (with the pumpkins) not a true mirror image of the other "C" style house, No. 141 two doors to the left.

No. 137, one of the "C" style houses, was just 14-feet wide.   The tall stone stoop led to a necessarily narrow arched doorway.  The basement and parlor levels were faced in rough cut brownstone where Romanesque Revival made its cameo appearance.  The angled facade of the upper floors were faced in red brick.  Jennings crowned the residence with a windowless attic level encased in pressed metal.  Its fanciful design included a triangular pediment and quarter sunbursts, a nearly obligatory Queen Anne style motif.

The house went through a series of relatively rapid turnovers.  It was purchased by Frederick Hussey, principal of the Frederick Hussey Realty Corporation, who leased it before selling it on November 1, 1888 to Mary B. Kidder for $21,000.   The price would equal about $572,000 today.

Mary did not move in, but as Hussey had done, used the house as rental income.  By 1893 she leased it to Edward K. Jones, a member of the legal firm of Eustis, Jones & Clovis.

Born in Delaware, Jones had come to New York in 1879 and opened his law practice.  His reputation among the legal community was sterling.  The New-York Tribune quoted a New York Supreme Court justice who said of him "You will find him...a man of rare scholastic and professional attainments, and possessed of the finest instincts of personal honor and manhood."

In connection with his position as Special Counsel for the United States in Prize Cases, Jones sailed for Europe in the summer of 1897.  In his absence his wife, the former Wilhelmina Paterson, and their daughter, Charlotte, went to the the fashionable Mathewson House hotel at the seaside resort of Narragansett Pier in Rhode Island.  After receiving a telegram that Charlotte had fallen seriously ill, Jones hurriedly returned, arriving in New York on September 5.

As it turned out, it was not only Charlotte who was ill.  Both she and Wilhelmina were suffering from pneumonia.  And, tragically, before Jones could reach them, they died.  The Syracuse, New York newspaper The Evening Herald reported on September 6 "One expired within half an hour of the other."

Edward K. Jones - New-York Tribune Illustrated Supplement, July 17, 1898 (copyright expired)
Jones would partially rely on his fine reputation in the fall of 1898.  Before sailing to Europe in August he had locked up Wilhelmina's and Charlotte's jewelry in the safe of the Metropolitan Club, one of the several exclusive clubs of which he was a member.   When he returned two months later and unlocked the sturdy box, it was empty.

On October 25, 1898 the New York Journal and Advertiser reported that the jewels were "valued at many thousands of dollars," and that Jones "has offered $1,000 reward for the recovery."  Earlier The New York Press had detailed the loss:

One oval-shaped diamond brooch, diamond star corsage pin, pair bracelets (one set with diamonds, others with sapphires, same pattern), pair solitaire diamond earrings, cluster diamond ring, solitaire-diamond ring, gold bracelet set with amethysts, plain gold wedding ring (marked inside 'E.K.J. to W.F.P'), gold scarfpin and packing containing gold coin.

The detailed description may have sparked a scheme in the mind of Helen Maillard who lived in an apartment at No. 50 West 65th Street.  She reported that at 4:00 on the morning of October 22 thieves had broken into her flat and stolen the identical jewelry.  Her story suddenly cast doubt on Jones's.  The New York Press reported "Two peculiarly mysterious losses of diamonds were brought to the attention of the police yesterday.  Whether there really was a robbery in either case is doubted to some extent by them, and that there is the possibly of the two strange stories having some connection is more than hinted at."

Helen's story unraveled, however.  Police could find no marks of forced entry although she insisted the door had been jimmied open.   And two years earlier, according to police Captain McClusky, "Mrs. Maillard complained to him that she had been robbed of jewels worth $5,000 by Samuel Gaston, known as 'Jew Sam.'"

Nine months after the incident, on June 27, 1899. Mary E. Senn sold No. 137 to Dr. Imlay Ludovic Benet and his wife, the former Edith Elizabeth Laidlaw.  The couple had been married on November 5, 1896.

Born in Brooklyn on March 13, 1868, Benet had graduated from Princeton University in 1892.  His name drew from those of his parents--Ludovic Benet and Isabel Imlay.  He was by now a surgeon at the Presbyterian Hospital.

Unlike the previous owners, the Benets intended No. 137 to be their long-term home.  In 1904 they hired Brooklyn contractor J. Welch to re-do the plumbing throughout the house.

As was customary, the title of the property was in Edith's name.  And so when Louise C. Ball tripped on the loose coal hole cover on the sidewalk outside on February 25, 1910, she sued Edith.

Louise was 26-years old and a teacher at the New York Normal College.  As she stepped on the lid of the coal hole, it tilted and her foot slipped in.  Two delivery men passing by on a wagon jumped down and carried her up the stoop to the Benet house.  There, according to Louise's testimony, Edith "called for the maid in the house and she came down and they put alcohol on my bruised leg, which made me suffer even more pain."

Charging negligence, Louise sued Edith for $10,000 damages; more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.  The jury found in her favor, but greatly reduced the settlement to $1,750.

In March that same year Benet sold his automobile.  Entitling his advertisement in The Evening Telegram "Doctor's Maxwell," he described it as "Perfect throughout, at bargain price; demonstrate anywhere, $300; cost $500."  The bargain price would translate to just over $8,000 today.

Little has changed to No. 137 since this tax photo was shot around 1940.  via NYC Department of Records & Information Services
The Benets' marriage had come to an end prior to 1921 when Imlay married Gabrielle Collette in the American Church in Paris.  In March 1922 No. 137 was sold to Harry A. Hannigan who quickly resold it in August to Margaret M. Hull.  The New York Herald reported that she intended to occupy it.

The end of the line for No. 137 as a single family home seemed to have come in 1954 when it was renovated to apartments and furnished rooms.   But in 1971 it was reconverted to a single family home.

The skinny house with its eye-catching pressed metal crown looks little different today that when the paint first dried in 1887.

photographs by the author

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