Saturday, June 6, 2020

An 1872 Tenement Turned Upscale Home - 347 East 52nd Street

The Turtle Bay section of Manhattan, once an area of summer homes of wealthy New Yorkers, saw tremendous change following the end of the Civil War.  By 1868 modest dwellings and rows of flat buildings had been erected to house the workers who moved north to work in the gritty businesses that took advantage of the riverfront.  Immigrants found jobs in breweries, cigar factories, gasworks, slaughterhouses and cattle pens, and piers.  At one point there were 18 acres of slaughterhouses (or abbatoirs) along First Avenue alone.

In 1872 operator Dennis Loonie completed three brownstone-fronted flat houses on the north side of East 52nd Street between First and Second Avenues.  Five stories tall, each was an attractive example of the Italianate style, with architrave framed windows and bracketed metal cornices.  The double-doored entrances, above a three-step stoop, featured an arched overlight and a robust Italianate pediment supported by foliate brackets.  An advertisement offering an apartment in No. 347 that year described the building as "a fine brownstone house."  

Around 1941 the house still retained its 1872 appearance.  photo via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services

When Loonie sold the three buildings a decade later in December 1882, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide was more direct in its description, calling them "five-story stone front tenements."

Unlike those living in tenement buildings in Manhattan's more notorious neighborhoods like Hell's Kitchen or Five Points, the residents of No. 347 seem to have been hard-working and law abiding.  Their social and financial standings were reflected in the jobs they sought through daily newspaper ads.  In 1906 three women were looking for work--one as a dressmaker, another a nurse (who "understands all bottle feeding"), and the third a laundress.  The latter apparently had children to take care of.  She asked for an "out by day" position, meaning she would do the "washing and ironing, open air drying" at her own home.

The building was owned by Max and Bertha Roth at the time.  The couple lived in the building, the title of which was in Bertha's name.  While she managed it, Max ran a wholesale liquor business.

William Southard was among the Roths' tenants.  At a time when motor-powered taxicabs were just making their appearance on city streets, he landed a job as a cabbie.  Unfortunately he had a serious accident with his employer's vehicle on June 26, 1909.  The Brooklyn newspaper The Daily Standard Union reported "A break in the steering gear of a taxicab at Ocean parkway and Kings highway last night caused the machine, driven by William crash into a tree."  Luckily he had already dropped off his fare so the cab was empty and no one was not hurt.  Although it appeared the accident was not his fault, he would have to explain the damages equal to $1,450 today to his employer.

Resident Thomas F. Gannon was appointed to the New York Police Department on November 16, 1916, earning an annual salary of $1,920 (just over $46,000 today).  Five years later, when he received a satisfying $320 raise, the seeds of change for the neighborhood had been planted.

On December 26, 1920 the New-York Tribune broke rather shocking news, saying “A group of well known folks…have become interested in a little cluster of homes in the shadow of the massive Queensboro Bridge, on Sutton Place, a little byway of the city known by comparatively few New Yorkers.”

As the elegance of Sutton Place spread south to Turtle Bay, the tenant list at No. 347 changed.  A renovation completed in 1953 resulted in a duplex apartment on the first and second floors, and two apartments each on the upper floors.

Among the new residents was Maggy Fisher, a talent agent who represented entertainers like singer Ken Remo.  He recorded two singles for M-G-M in 1953, "My Heart Is A Kingdom" and "Mexico."  Billboard gave him a mixed review, saying "Mexico" was a "Latin-flavored novelty" with a "forthright vocal," and that "My Heart Is A Kingdom" was a "pretentious ballad, [with] schmaltzy fiddles and a belting vocal by Ken Remo."

Also in the building in 1953 was ceramist Gertrude Englander, who preferred to be called a "craftsman."  A member of the New York Society of Craftsmen, she later taught ceramics classes at The Craft Students League.

Gertrude Englander exhibited this bottle  in the exhibition of the New York Society of Craftsmen.  Ceramics Monthly, July 1954
By 1958 Modernist architect George J. Sole and his wife, Antoinette, lived at No. 347 East 52nd Street.  Best known for his ecclesiastical buildings, Sole was born in Naples, Italy and brought to the United States while an infant.  Among his best known works are the United Nations parish church, the Church of the Holy Family, and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Skies at Kennedy International Airport, both dedicated in 1965.

George and Antoinette Sole remained in the building for years.  When George died on April 21, 1973 at the age of 65, he was responsible for more than 40 churches and several synagogues.  The New York Times noted "He had also designed public elementary schools here, a police stationhouse for the 25th precinct in Harlem, apartment houses, and residences."

Another celebrated resident died the following year, on November 13, 1974.  Hazel Jones was a character actress who first appeared on the London stage at the age of 12.  She made her American debut in 1945 at the Barrymore Theater, sharing the stage with Gertrude Lawrence and Raymond Massey in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.  In reporting on the death of the 79-year old, The New York Times listed among her co-stars Noël Coward, Sir Laurence Olivier, Claude Rains, and Leslie Banks.

By the time that brother and sister Jeffrey Reich and Randi Kahn and their spouses purchased No. 347 in 1995 for $650,000 it had received a pseudo-modern veneer of black marble and the 19th century interiors were gone (just one mantel had survived).  After the leases of the rent-stabilized tenants had run out, the family embarked on a gut renovation.  Completed in 1999, there were now a triplex on the first through third floors, and a duplex above.  

Outside, the black veneer was replaced with one of warm light brown brick.  The architrave frames of the openings were preserved as was the arched form of the doorway.

photographs by the author

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