Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Joel E. Fisher House - 34 West 76th Street

photo courtesy of Landmark West!

In 1868 the Central Park Commissioners' maps of the lines and grades of the street system of the West Side was made public.  They sparked a real estate boom which resulted in land values north of 59th Street increasing by 200 percent between 1868 and 1873.  Although the Financial Panic of 1873 put a halt to most aggressive development plans, the fervor reignited around 1879 in what became known as the "Great West Side Movement."  By the beginning of the 1890's the Upper West Side was a popular new suburb.

Highly involved in the frenzy were William C. G. Wilson and James Tichborne, who formed the speculative real estate development firm of Wilson & Tichborne.  They erected rows of upscale homes, including the group of six houses on West 76th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West begun in 1891.

Architect Gilbert A. Schellenger filed plans on March 20, 1891.  Each house would have its own design, yet they would harmonize architecturally.  Interestingly, three would be 20-feet wide, one 21-feet, and the other two 22-feet wide.  Each would cost $50,000 to construct--in the neighborhood of $1.45 million today.

The row was completed in 1892.  No. 34, like its neighbors, was four stories high over an English basement faced in rough cut stone.  Schellenger married two popular styles, designing the dog-legged stoop, parlor floor and third floor predominantly in Romanesque Revival; while turning to Renaissance Revival for the second and fourth floors.  The arched sections of the parlor and third floor windows were filled with colorful stained glass.  Each house on the row wore the same pressed metal cornice, their slight differences being in the decoration of the frieze.

On New Years Eve day 1892 Wilson & Tichborne sold No. 34 to Joel Ellis Fisher and his wife, Louisa.  As might be expected in the 1890's the title was placed in Louisa's name.

Born in Francestown, New Hampshire in 1837, Fisher was a retired hat manufacturer although he retained his membership with the Chamber of Commerce.  Proud of his American roots, he was a member of the New England Society and the Sons of the Revolution.

He and the former Louisa Loveland Partridge (who was known as Vieva) were essentially still newlyweds, having married on February 21, 1890.  The bride was 28-years old, the groom 53.  When they moved into the new house, Joel, Jr. was just over one-year old and Vieva was pregnant with his sister, Vieva Marie, who arrived on October 5, 1893.

In his retirement Fisher turned his attention to worthy causes.  He was for years the treasurer of the Broadway Tabernacle, and was a trustee of the Christian Home for Intemperate Men.  He was also a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Fishers' names appeared in newspapers solely for Joel's involvement with the church or for business reasons, as when he was executor of an estate.  The couple seems to have done little entertaining.

On the evening of January 10, 1905 Fisher suffered a fatal heart attack in the house.  His funeral was held in the drawing room three days later.

Following her period of mourning, Vieva turned her attentions to renovating the house.  On July 3, 1909 the Record & Guide reported that she had hired architect Charles H. Richter to do significant work, including moving walls and adding new columns and beams.  The project would cost $1,000 (just under $30,000 today).  Less than a month later, on July 31, the journal announced more changes.  Vieva had contracted R. F. Robertson to do another $750 in interior renovations, including altering the floors and stairs.

Joel, Jr. was a sophomore at Yale at the time.  A month before his mother began work on the house he was involved in a horrifying accident.  The 18-year old was driving his car to New Haven on June 1.  Riding along in the car was a classmate, Harold Talbot Hartwell, whom Joel had picked up in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

As the automobile was passing train tracks in Stratford, Connecticut a 13-year old boy, John Christianson attempted to cross the road.   According to the New-York Tribune, "Fisher says that he sounded his horn, but it is thought that, owing to the passing of a freight train, the boy did not hear the warning."  Joel struck the teen.  He and Hartwell lifted him into the car and Joel rushed to find a doctor.  John Christianson died in the automobile.  

Joel was arrested on charges of manslaughter of speeding.  The Bridgeport Evening Farmer noted, "The boy at the time was crossing the highway, the car being on the wrong side of the road."  His mother paid his bail, equal to about $87,000 today.  

Fisher was tried on June 5 and acquitted of all charges--a decision that most likely infuriated locals who saw it as a rich college boy escaping justice.  In response John's father, Christian J. Christianson, sued for $5,000 (about $145,000 in today's terms).  He won a settlement in August, although the amount was withheld from the newspapers.

Joel may have been attempting to clean up his sullied reputation when he made a magnanimous gift to his school a month after the accident.  For about a year Dr. William G. Anderson, director of the Yale Gymnasium, had been quietly conducting experiments relating to the effects physical exertion had on the hearts of athletes.  They included the effect of high altitude and its lower oxygen levels.

On July 20 the New-York Tribune reported that "an expedition was undertaken by Dr. Anderson to Mexico, in which two high volcanic mountains were climbed.  Funds for the expedition were furnished by Joel Ellis Fisher, jr., of New York City."

If Vieva had rarely entertained before, she made up for it now.  The winter season of 1911-12 saw Vieva Marie introduced to society.  On December 27, 1911 The New York Times entitled an article "Mrs. Joel E. Fisher Entertains 500 for her Daughter, Vieva Fisher--Beautiful Decorations" and began the article saying "One of the largest balls of the season was given last night by Mrs. Joel Ellis Fisher for her debutante daughter, Miss Vieva Fisher, at Sherry's."

Prior to the ball a dinner for about 60 or 70 guests was held in the "tapestry hung ballroom."  At around 10 p.m. the hundreds of other guests began arriving.  "Two orchestras played alternately throughout the evening," said the article.  A seated supper was served at 12:30 during which three singers dressed as Pierrots strolled among the tables.  "A second supper was served at 4 o'clock in one of the suites upstairs for the late staying guests."  Names on the impressive guest list included Oelrichs, Astor, Minton, Dodge, Dick, Force and Burrill.

The debutante entertainments went on.  A week later, on January 3, 1912, the New-York Tribune reported that "Mrs. Joel E. Fisher has a dinner this evening for her daughter, Miss Vieva Fisher," and on February 9 the newspaper reported "Mrs. Joel E. Fisher will give a theatre party this evening for her debutante daughter, Miss Vieva Fisher."

It was common for socialites and their daughters to go abroad; however it was expected to take place during the warmer months.  But on February 24 the two women boarded a steamship for Europe.  Before long it was apparent that the purpose of the trip was not merely to see sights and shop.

Striking stained glass fans fill the arches of the parlor windows.
On May 10, 1912 the New York Herald reported "Letters from Rome bring the information that the engagement has been announced there of Miss Vieva M. Risher...to Mr. Giuseppe Mario Flamingo of Rome, owner and editor of L'Italie, a daily newspaper of Rome founded by Count Cavour.  He takes a prominent part in social events at the Italian capital, being a member of the Roman Fox Hunt."  The article ended, "Mr. Joel Ellis Fisher will go abroad for the wedding, which is expected to take place late in June in Rome."

But it never happened.

On June 10, two weeks before the wedding, Vieva announced that the it "had been postponed indefinitely."  Three months later, on September 18, all three Fishers returned to New York on the Cunard liner CaroniaThe New York Press wrote "It was reported the dower which Mrs. Fisher intended to settle on her daughter was not satisfactory to the Italian and the engagement was broken by the girl's mother."

The New York Herald was a bit cattier, entitling its article "Nobleman Mourns Vanished Dowry, While Girl Returns with Trousseau."  According to that article, the insufficient dowry was $1 million--more than 27 times that much today.  It added that while "gossip of an international romance suddenly broken off" was "current among the passengers on board the Caronia," Vieva Marie appeared to have moved on.  "She displayed her trousseau to fellow passengers."

Vieva Marie did not get all the attention that year.  On November 17, 1912 The Sun reported "Mrs. Joel E. Fisher will give a theatre party on November 30, followed by a supper at Sherry's to celebrate the coming of age of her only son, Joel E. Fisher."

Vieva and her daughter spent the early months of 1913 traveling.  On March 23 The Sun reported that they were in Bermuda and would return "early next week."  Afterward the women went to Oyster Bay, Long Island for about a month, and then checked into the Ritz-Carlton while the 76th Street house was being reopened.

Two decades after moving in, Viera sold No. 34 to Dr. John Aspell in January 1914.  Described by History of Medicine in New York: Three Centuries of Medical Progress as a "successful and highly regarded gynecologist and surgeon," Aspell was a native of New York City, born in 1861.

In this photo, taken around the time Aspell purchased the house, the stained glass of the third floor windows is visible.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Having attended the School of St. Colomba in Chelsea, Aspell went on to St. Francis Xavier College, then to Fordham University.  He eventually earned his medical degree at Bellevue Medical College.  He apparently focused on his career more than his love life, not marrying until the age of 48 on April 18, 1900.  He and his bride, Anna M. Tierney, would have four children, Hope, Lillian, James and Gertrude.

In addition to his private practice, Aspell served as the visiting gynecologist of the Foundling Hospital and St. Vincent's Hospital and was the consulting surgeon to St. Mary's, Misericordia, and St. John's Hospitals.

In 1925 at the age of 64, Aspell retired.  At the time he had been visiting surgeon to St. Vincent's Hospital since 1893.  His retirement, at a relatively early age at the time, was most likely prompted by failing health.  He suffered with an ailment for four years before dying on April 13, 1929.

A carved portrait hides among the swirling Romanesque Revival carvings below a parlor window.
Alice did not remain in the 76th Street house long afterward.  On August 29, 1930 it was purchased by Walter A. Foster, the first in a rapid succession of Depression Era owners.  It was sold again in March 1931 to William J. Clark, who resold it to the real estate firm of Comorco, Inc.  On December 7, 1933 the Evening Post reported it had "sold the furniture and leased" the house.

The once elegant home was operated as an unofficial apartment house for decades.  Then, in 1975, a renovation was completed which resulted in 2 apartments in the basement, three each on the first and second floors, and two each on the third and fourth.

Among the residents in the summer of 1982 was 22-year old Gina Whitlock.  The young woman worked as a clerk in Design Observations just three blocks away at No. 282 Columbus Avenue.  On the evening of June 5 that year a man came into the store and asked to see men's clothing.  Gina explained that the store was a women's boutique and that they did not sell men's apparel.  He walked to the door, paused, and turned with a gun in his hand.  He shot and killed Gina then walked out.  The New York Times said she "was shot for no apparent reason," according to police.

One of the carved panels below the parlor windows has been destroyed for an air conditioner.

In its 1973 designation report for the Central Park West-76th Street Historic District, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that of the 1892 row "No. 34 [is] the only building to have retained its original brownstone color."  Regrettably that is no longer the case.  The house has been given a coat of pinkish-brown paint.  The stained glass of the third floor was lost when replacement windows were installed.

non-credited photographs by the author

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