Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Dr. F. W. Lilienthal House - 408 West 154th Street

Despite his decidedly French-sounding name, Henri Fouchaux was American, born in Coytesville, New York in 1856.  By the turn of the century he was the most prolific architect in Washington Heights and Harlem, responsible for scores of homes and business buildings.

Among them were the eight upscale residences he designed for developer William H. Lake in 1898--three on West 154th Street and two around the corner on St. Nicholas Avenue.  His plans, filed in August that year, estimated the cost of the 20-foot wide homes at $15,000 each; or around $468,000 today.

Completed the following year, Fouchaux had turned to the popular Beaux Arts style for the project.  The three 154th Street homes were designed in an A-B-A configuration.  The two matching end houses were a restrained example of the often flamboyant style.  Like its identical twin, No. 408 was three stories tall above an English basement, it was clad in limestone and featured an angled bay at the second floor, supported by ornate stone brackets.

Fouchaux stepped away from the French motif by embellishing the newels of the dog-legged stoop and the spandrel panels of the second floor bay with Renaissance-inspired carvings.  Above the understated third floor was a bracketed pressed metal cornice.

No. 408 is at the left.  The steep incline of West 154th Street necessitated a higher stoop than that of its twin at No. 412.
In 1900 Lake sold all eight of the completed houses to Charles Hibbard.   The ambitious real estate operator seems to have been over-optimistic, for he lost six of the houses in foreclosure in 1902.   At the time of the auction on March 29 he owed the bank $16,690 and back taxes of $600--or about $550,000 today.

At the time Dr. F. W. Lilienthal and his wife, Auguste, were well-known among the German community.  He emigrated from Germany in 1861 and was one of the founders of the German Dispensary that served the often impoverished population of the East Village, known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.  But the couple was also known for their fearless support of the working class Germans and Dr. Lilienthal was described by The New York Times later as "one of the pioneers of the Socialist Party in this city."

The devastating economic depression known as Financial Panic of 1873 lasted for several years.  It put thousands of New Yorkers out of work, including the tenement dwellers in the German district.  With no civic funded relief available, the people grew desperate.  Committees and organizations were formed to meet with the city government in hopes to organize public works programs to provide jobs.  But they were rebuffed.

On January 13, 1874 about 7,000 unemployed workers gathered in Tompkins Square Park.  A force of about 1,600 police officers entered the park wielding clubs to disperse the crowd.  When the workers fought back, mounted police charged the crowd.  A witness, Samuel Gompers described them "riding them down and attacking men, women and children without discrimination.  It was an orgy of brutality."

Two weeks later, on January 30, what The New York Herald described as a "German mass meeting" was held at Cooper Square.  The newspaper reported "the approaches to the Great Hall were blocked by a motley crown of Germans."

Presiding over the meeting and giving the first speech to the "boisterous and demonstrative audience" was the outraged Dr. Lilienthal.   He stressed the importance of protecting "the rights of citizens in this crisis" and to "protest against this flagrant violation of the right of free assemblage."

Among the strong male voices that night was one that was perhaps unexpected by the press covering the event.  Auguste Lilienthal stepped to the dais as one of the last speakers.  The Herald described her as "a tall, stout lady."  Her impassioned speech accused the police of a "felonious outrage perpetrated upon working-men in Tompkins Square."  She said they had robbed the people of the right of free speech guaranteed by the Constitution.  "Would the police have disturbed Messrs. Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt, &c., in a meeting of theirs?  Oh, no, they would have taken great care to secure them a peaceable and quiet gathering."

"Who were the men clubbed in Tompkins Square?" she asked.  "They were the real citizens, the real workers, the real taxpayers."  Auguste's speech was repeatedly met with a chorus of "Bravos!"

Dr. Lilienthal's practice provided him the income to afford his upscale home in what had become a stylish suburban neighborhood.  After Charles S. Hibbard sold No. 408 in 1901 it became home to the Lilienthals.  The couple maintained a country estate in the Catskills near Tannersville, New York, as well.

Auguste was helped by a small staff of domestic servants.  An advertisement in The New York Herald "Two German girls, a cook and a chambermaid by small family in private home.  Two sisters or mother and daughter preferred."  Auguste's preference was most likely well-founded.  A family member, especially a mother, might keep the other from dawdling.

She needed domestic help because she was no mere housewife.  Auguste was the editor of the woman's section of the Sunday magazine of The New York Volkszeitung.  (The Lilienthal's adult daughter, Meta L. Stern, incidentally, was a popular German-language author who wrote under the pseudonym of Hebe.)

Dr. Lilienthal's booming practice may have been boosted by his generous dispensing of medications.  Medical Leaves: A Review of the Jewish Medical World later commented "A good physician with a great following was Dr. F. W. Lilienthal.  Patients were obliged to wait in line for hours at his office.  Dr. Lilienthal usually prescribed pills in large quantities; one hundred pills was his usual prescription."

The Lilienthals were at their summer estate on July 28, 1910 when the 77-year old doctor died.  The New York Times, while noting that he was "one of the leading German physician" in the city, focused on his political and social stances.  "He was also a founder of the Free Thinkers' Society, and a member of the various organizations which joined to form the present Socialist Party in this country.  He was a member of the International Socialist Union."

Within the year Lilienthal's estate sold No. 408 to Martin E. Roache.  He was the vice-president and the second-largest stockholder in James Butler, Inc., grocers.  The firm, which was started by James Butler, now operated 171 retail grocery stores in connection with its wholesale business.

The Roache family leased the house to Harry C. Hequembourg, purchasing agent for the American Locomotive Company in 1917; and in 1919 sold it.  By now the neighborhood had noticeably changed.  Subway service reached the area in 1904, making it more accessible to middle class New Yorkers.  Apartment buildings began sprouting along the avenues and the exclusivity of the neighborhood disappeared.

By the Depression years No. 408 was being operated as a rooming house.  At least one tenant, William J. Garvey, was financially comfortable enough to own an automobile.  On January 30, 1930 he was driving along South Broadway in Yonkers when a 19-year old boy, Henry Offerman, stepped in the path of his car.   Garvey was unable to react and he hit Offerman, injuring the teen enough to require his treatment at St. Joseph's Hospital.  Garvey was held innocent of any negligence.

Mrs. Odette Kelly took the building manager to court in 1935, claiming he was pocketing her rent money.  On November 15, according to The New York Age, she complained that she had given Samuel J. Cottman (a "well-known realtor") her $67.50 rent on October 2.  She was later informed by the building's owner, Emanuel & Shure, that she was behind in her rent.  When she confronted Cottman he "kept making excuses to her about the money," she said.

The New York Age reported "Cottman was hauled into Heights Court."  The hearing was held on November 22 where Cottman's defense convinced the judge of his innocence.  "The realtor told the court that he had held the money up at the request of the woman's husband," reported The New York Age.  "The court agreed with him...and dismissed the charge."

By the last decade of the 20th century the neighborhood around No. 408 had revived.  Today there are four apartments in the Lilienthal house; but from the outside little has changed after more than 110 years.

photographs by the author

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