Friday, May 1, 2020

The Capt. Jacob Miller House - 113 East 30th Street

The family of Edgar Henry Richards lived at No. 113 East 30th Street by the mid-1870's.  His house was one of a row built about two decades earlier in the Anglo-Italianate style.  Instead of the high stoop appearing throughout the city, these 19-foot wide homes had short stoop of just five steps.  Above their rusticated bases were three stories of planar brownstone.  The elliptically arched upper openings sat on molded sills supported by brackets.   Each house wore an arched pediment, like a diadem, above the bracketed cornice.

Born on March 20, 1811, Richards was described by The Sun as a "wealthy retired merchant."  He had married Mary King in 1856 and the couple had two sons, James Gore King Richards, born in 1859, and Frederick Gore King Richards, who arrived in 1863.

Mary was one of eleven children of James Gore King and the former Sarah Rogers Gracie.  Her father had served in Congress in 1849 to 1851, had been president of the Erie Railroad, and founded the banking firm now named James G. King's Sons.  Her mother was the daughter of Archibald Gracie (whose summer estate is now New York City's mayoral mansion).

It was only natural that the Richards family did their banking through James G. King's Sons.  But that resulted in one awkward intra-family situation in 1877.  On Friday evening, February 16, Mary's brother, Frederick, stopped by the 30th Street house to make sure that it had been Edgar who removed one of his safe deposit boxes from the bank vault.  The box contained securities worth approximately $4 million today.

One can imagine the fumbling for an explanation Frederick experienced when he was told that neither Edgar nor Mary had removed the box.

The Sun called the caper "one of the most daring and mysterious sneak robberies known to the police" and said "there is not the slightest clue to show who committed the theft."  Rather astonishingly, Frederick King attempted to deflect blame onto Richards, telling reporters "when Mr. Richards left the boxes at the banking house he did not inform the firm that they contained valuables.  If he had done so they would have been placed where it would have been impossible for thieves to have got at them."  Luckily for Richards, according to The Sun, "The securities were all registered, and of no use except to the owners."

Mary King Richards died in 1890 at the age of 74.   The following year James married Alice Haliburton King, daughter of Lt. Colonel Cornelius Low King (and no relation to his mother's family).  The newlyweds remained in the 30th Street house with elderly Edgar.

Two more Richards funerals would held in the house.  On July 18, 1892 friends and family assembled for the service for Frederick Gore Richards, who died suddenly at just 30 years old.  And two years later, on August 4, 1894, Edgar Henry Richards died at the age of 83.

In 1895 James sold his childhood home to Commander Jacob William Miller and his wife, the former Katherine Wise.  The couple had three children, 20-year old Henry Wise Miller, 17-year old Dorothea, and 15-year old Charlotte Everett.

An 1867 graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy, Miller's fortune came from his position as vice-president of the St. Louis, Fort Scott and Wichita Railroad Company and, after 1886, as general manager of the Providence and Stonington Steamship Company.

But it was for his military service that he was best known.  He was among the original members of the Naval Reserve Association of New York and now served as Commander of the First Naval Battalion of the New York Naval Militia.

Shortly after moving into No. 113 the family had a terrifying brush with disaster.  On November 8, 1896 The New York Press entitled an article "Typhoid Fever Is Carrying Off The Four Hundred" and reported that the disease had targeted Manhattan's wealthiest families.  "Half a dozen families have been assailed, and in some cases two and three members have been prostrated.  There have been several deaths."

It noted "The two children of J. W. Miller of No. 113 East Thirtieth street were taken ill of the fever in the summer."  They had thankfully both recovered by the time of the article.

In fact, Dorothea's coming-out took place that season.  On November 23 The Evening Telegram announced that "Mrs. J. W. Miller, of No. 113 East Thirtieth street, will give a tea this afternoon to introduce her daughter, Miss Dorothea M. Miller."

At the time her father was experiencing difficulties with his officers.  Finally, on June 11, 1897 The New York Times reported that he had stepped down.  "The resignation is no surprise to the members of the battalion, who have criticized him for not being sufficiently painstaking."  An anonymous friend came to his defense, saying "There is no money in the position, and Commander Miller's services and attentions to the battalion have been purely gratuitous."

There seems to have been more behind the resignation, however.  Just a month later, on July 16, The Times reported "Gov. Black has appointed Jacob William Miller of New York Captain of the Naval Militia of the State."

Because of his position, it was not always Katherine who was responsible for the entertainments in the 30th Street house.  On February 20, 1898, for instance, The New York Times reported "Capt. Jacob W. Miller, commander of the Naval Brigade of New York, gave a dinner party at his home, 113 East Thirtieth Street last night."

The Millers' summer home, Buena Vista, was in Bar Harbor, Maine.  They frequented other fashionable resorts, as well.  On September 1, 1902, for instance, The New York Herald reported that "Mr. and Mrs. Jacob W. Miller and family, of No. 113 East Thirtieth street, are spending a few weeks at Newport."

Captain Jacob W. Miller, Biographical Sketches of Distinguished Officers of the Army and Navy, 1905 (copyright expired)

Henry was not with them on that visit.  Two years after he graduating from Harvard in 1897, he had married Alice Duer.  The families did spent time together in the summer seasons, however.  On July 8, 1903 The New York Herald noted "Mr. and Mrs. Jacob W. Miller and the Misses Miller...are at their summer residence, Buena Vista" and added "Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wise Miller will spend the summer with Mr. and Mrs. Miller."

Charlotte was married on June 16, 1906 to Robert Bonner Bowler.  The following year, on September 20, Dorothea married James Otis Post.

Jacob and Katherine lived quietly on in the 30th Street house.  On March 6, 1918 Jacob caught a cold.  It rapidly worsened to pneumonia and he died in the house two days later.

Katherine Wise Miller went on to be a recognized author.   She died on October 5, 1940 at the age of 86.  

The 30th Street house was used by the Society for the Relief of Half Orphan and Destitute Children until 1948, when it was purchased by the American Field Service.  On June 30 The New York Times reported that "After extensive alterations" the house would be used as the group's headquarters and for "its International Scholarship Program."

The non-denominational American Field Service was organized during World War I as a volunteer ambulance corps.  During the second World War, according to The New York Times in 1946, it "served as a volunteer ambulance corps as long as there was a wounded soldier to transport."  Now that the war was over, "the voluntary services it proposes to do for peace and good international relations is as brave and useful as the work it performed under enemy fire."

The American Field Service sold No. 113 in November 1959, although it remained in the location at least through 1961.  It then became home to the First Zen Institute of America, Inc.  Founded in 1930, it was the first of five Zen centers in the city by 1977.  The Institute remains in the house, which (other than an unnecessary coat of blue-gray paint) looks much as it did when millionaire Edgar Henry Richardson's bank box was stolen.

photographs by the author

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