Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Robert Rheinhold Reutter House - 36 West 88th Street

In 1889 real estate developer James J. Spaulding completed a row of nineteen brick and brownstone homes on the south side of West 88th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  Each of the 23-foot wide residences was striking.

Architects Thom & Wilson had created a string of harmonious, yet individual, 23-feet wide homes whose architectural personalities drew from an album of historic styles--Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival.

No. 36, like its neighbors, was four stories high above an English basement.  A dog-legged stoop led to the double-doored entrance flanked by stout, fluted engaged columns.  The entablature, embellished with Renaissance style carvings, supported a hood decorated with delicate ribbons and fruits.  The angled bay at the second floor was supported by a single leafy bracket.  Stone bands and panels created interest to the upper floors and the cast metal cornice wore a delightful mansard cap.

photograph courtesy of Landmark West!
In January 1890 Augusta Mertens purchased No. 36 for $35,000--just over $1 million in today's money.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide pointed out "This is the fourth house sold of the row."   Her residency would be relatively short.  She died in the house on November 22, 1894 at the age of 53.

photograph by the author
The following year, in October, the executors of Augusta's estate sold No. 36 to "a Mr. Ryder," according to the Record & Guide.  The buyer was actually Christopher Rheinhold Reutter (who went by the name Robert).  He paid the exact price Augusta Mertens had five years earlier.

Born in W├╝rttemberg, Germany in January 1847, Reutter had married Lena Unger in on June 21, 1883.  In January 1885 he had left the banking firm of L. von Hoffman & Co. to co-found the brokerage firm of Hellwig & Reutter.  He was, as well, a trustee in the German Savings Bank.

The couple had two sons, Robert H. and Charles Earnest, and a daughter Gertrude.  Their summer home was in Litchfield, Connecticut.

In May 1896 Reutter hired architect John P. Voelker to add a second floor to the rear extension of the house; possibly to add a bedroom or increase the size of one.  The renovations cost the equivalent of $15,700 today.

The family was at the Connecticut house during the summer of 1905 when Robert Reutter died on August 27.  His body was brought back to the 88th Street residence for his funeral, held three days later.

Lena and the children continued on in the house.  Charles graduated from Columbia University in 1912 and Robert graduated in 1913.  The brothers both joined Hellwig & Reutter--Charles in 1914 and Robert in 1917.

Gertrude was 15-years old in 1916 and her mother seems to have already been grooming her for her introduction to society.  On December 22 Lena hosted a luncheon for her at the fashionable Sherry's restaurant.

Lena was not the only member of the family to entertain.  On April 18, 1915 The New York Press reported "Mr. Charles E. Reutter of No. 36 West Eighty-eighth street will give a dance, followed by supper, at the Hotel Gotham, on Wednesday Evening, April 26."

The event may have had to do with his engagement to Mildred L. Meadows.  The couple was married in St. Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue on June 28, 1916.  The newlyweds moved to No. 156 West 86th Street and purchased a summer home in Rye, New York.

Gertrude attended the Brearley School, a private institution for girls.  She continued to be the focus of her mother's social focus.  On December 3, 1916 The Sun announced that Lena would be hosting a dinner dance for her daughter at Sherry's the following Saturday night.  

The much anticipated event finally came during the winter season of 1919-1920.  On October 29, 1919 The Evening World announced "Another debutante will be Miss Gertrude H. F. Reutter, of No. 36 West 88th Street, who is to be introduced on December 13, at a ball to be given for her by her aunt, Mrs. Charles E. Reutter, of Rye, N.Y."

In June 1921 Lena announced Gertrude's engagement to Henry Clarke Banks.  As had been the case with her debut, the wedding took place in Charles and Mildred's Rye home that November.   Mildred was her matron of honor and four-year old Charles, Jr. was the page.

Robert was still unmarried and living with his mother in the 88th Street house.  At the time of his sister's wedding storm clouds were forming over his career.  The following year, on September 15, 1922, The New York Herald reported that the president of the New York Stock Exchange had "announced yesterday the expulsion of Theodore A. Hellwig and Robert H. Reutter from membership.  With Charles E. Reutter they compose the firm of Hellwig & Reutter."  Both men were charged with "conduct inconsistent with equitable principles of trade."

Perhaps seeing the impending collapse of her son's career, Lena sold No. 36 in 1921 to Horace Andrew Saks and his wife, the former Dorothy Drey.  The couple had two children, eight-year old John Andrews and five-year old Edna Jane.  Their summer home was in Elberon, New Jersey.

Saks was born on July 14, 1882, the son of Andrew and Jennie Saks.  Andrew Saks and his brother, Isidore, had established the Saks & Company department store on 34th Street in 1902.  Horace and his brother, William, worked with their father and uncle in running the store.  Following Andrew's death in 1912, Horace essentially took the management reins and it was he who pushed to move the store to Fifth Avenue.

Horace Andrew Saks - The New York Times, November 28, 1925
In 1922 Saks joined forces with Bernard Gimbel to create a high-end specialty store on Fifth Avenue.  (A specialty store differed from a department store by not offering items like housewares and appliances.)  On September 15, 1924 the new Saks Fifth Avenue, engulfing the block between 49th and 50th Streets opened.

On November 25, 1925 Saks was in his office when he complained of a carbuncle on his cheek that had annoyed him for several days.  He went to his physician who sent him directly to Mt. Sinai Hospital for treatment.  Doctors found that septic poisoning had already set in and had spread throughout his system.  The New York Times reported on November 28, "Despite all that medical science could do, Mr. Saks sank rapidly and died within forty-eight hours."  Horace Saks was only 43 years old.

photograph via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services

For the next few days newspaper pages overflowed with editorials and letters to the editors praising him.  While extolling his business acumen, The Times added "Personally, all who knew his forcible yet sympathetic temperament, his genial and kindly contacts with his fellow-workers and his friends, will understand the sense of loss which his death will so widely entail."  Philip Goodman wrote "He was that very rare person among business men--a man who was charmingly and culturally civilized."

The house managed to survive as a single-family home for several decades.  In its May 4, 1970 issue New York Magazine reported "Technically the brownstone at 36 West 88th Street is not yet a cooperative," but advised that it "is a limited partnership."  

A few years earlier John Schetky and a friend, Bill Edgerton had found three friends to pool their money and buy the house "which none of them could have afforded alone," said the article.  It added, "Each of the owners designed his floor according to taste."  Both Schetky and Edgerton were master carpenters and they set up a woodworking shop in the basement to craft cabinets, paneling and doors.

Two years after the New York Magazine article, The New York Times reported that Schetky's wife Viviana operated a French cooking school from their space.  Viviana Schetky held a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu de Paris.  A five week course of once-a-week classes cost $125.

photograph courtesy of Landmark West!

The Department of Buildings has never issued a Certificate of Occupancy for apartments.  Nevertheless there are five units within the house.  But other than replacement windows, the exterior of the striking residence is little changed.

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