Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Skinny John M. Ruck House - 420 West 58th Street

In October 1881 developer John M. Ruck purchased a long parcel of property along West 58th Street from Effingham H. Nichols.  Included were vacant lots, a wooden stable, and one 25-foot wide "shanty," as described by The Real Estate Record.

Three months later, on January 14, 1882 the journal reported that Ruck's architects, Thom & Wilson, had filed plans for six buildings on the site.  Interestingly, four of them were five-story brick flats, typical of Ruck's projects; but two were private houses.  Those would share a 25-foot wide plot, giving each an astonishingly narrow 12.5 foot frontage.

The architects disguised the slender proportions by designing mirror image brownstone-faced residences that appeared nearly as one.  Paired stoops rose to side-by-side entrances flanked by full-height rounded bays.  Architrave frames surrounded the openings and leafy terra cotta panels and tiles provided interest.

The western house, No. 420, was initially operated as a boarding house.  Among the tenants in 1885 was Cuban born music teacher, Ramon S. Aquabella.  The 31-year old was hiding out from his wife and her family.

Aquabella had been renting a room in a house on West 29th Street where young Helen C. Walsh, the landlady's daughter, caught his attention.  An "acquaintanceship," as worded by The New York Times, developed.  But when it went beyond mere flirtation Helen's brother stepped in and "threatened to kill him unless he married her."

The couple was married on June 1, 1885.  Immediately afterward Aquabella disappeared.  The Walshes' attorneys found him in September living at No. 420 West 58th Street where he was arrested and charged with abandoning his wife and failing to contribute to her support.

In court Aquabella told of being forced into the marriage, said that "he had not intended to live with her," and accused the family of "coercion and fraud."  The fiery Cuban made a scene of sorts in the courtroom.  "The manner of the music teacher was very violent during the examination, and he called the counsel for the prosecution 'a liar' several times," reported The Times.

Also renting rooms in the house that year were two "Firemen First Grade."  John Schwab worked at Hook and Ladder Company No. 20, and Henry T. McBride was with Engine Company No. 54.

At sometime before 1895 John M. Ruck moved his family into the house.  He and his wife, Clara had two daughters, Cornelia (known as Nellie) and Marie.

He had given up real estate development around the same time to form the law office of Kohn, Ruck and Lippman.  The firm specialized in real estate law.  

In 1908 Nellie married Philip Ackerman, and coincidentally or not, November 11, 1914 Marie married Harvard graduate Stephen Hulburt Ackerman.

It was around this time that the name of the firm was changed to Jay-Em-Arr Realty Co., with Clara as president and Marie as a director.  That Nellie was not involved was, perhaps, a hint at troubles within the family.

Clara Ruck died in the 58th Street house on April 22, 1921.  Although her death notice in The New York Herald called her the "beloved mother of Nellie Ackerman and Marie Ackerman," at least one other obituary ignored Cornelia altogether.

The rift between Nellie and the family became obvious to everyone in 1926 when she sued her sister over the estate of a relative, Marie T. Becker.   John M. Rucker represented Marie as her attorney.

No. 420 seems to have been damaged when construction began on the apartment building next door, at Nos. 410-418 East 58th Street in 1928.  It was deemed an "unsafe building" by the Department of Buildings.  A construction permit was issued and reparations completed before the year's end.

The Ruck family retained ownership of the skinny house until 1940 when the Jay-Em-Arr Realty Corporation sold it to an unnamed buyer "who plans to remodel the building for his own occupancy," according to The New York Sun on August 19.

Those renovations included a puzzling a two-story extension--a sort of masonry screen--which brought the entrance to sidewalk level.  The original doorway was preserved, serving as an entrance to a sort of sun room at the former parlor level.

The house was photographed shortly after the renovations were completed.  photo via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services
Simultaneously the matching house at No. 422 was demolished in 1940 and replaced with an "office and storage" building.  While Thom & Wilson had worked hard to hide the narrow proportions of the house, the taller buildings that closed in on either side now exaggerated them.  The result is that the Ruck house is one of those quirky architectural oddities that dot the city.

The original facade can be seen through the extension windows.
photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Peter Hirsch for suggesting this post

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tip of the hat (and the story of the building, of course), Tom.

    Peter H.