Friday, July 24, 2020

Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell's 1900 206 Ninth Avenue

By the 1840's the Chelsea district--recently the summer estate of the Moore family--was quickly developing into a residential neighborhood.  High-stooped brownstone homes rapidly rose on the streets and avenues.   The 24-foot wide home of the family of John and Roth Noble stood at No. 206 Ninth Avenue, just south of 23rd Street in the early 1850's.

The last quarter of the 19th century saw the Chelsea avenues evolve as bustling thoroughfares.  In April 1899 the esteemed architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell filed plans for a "five story, brick, stone and terra cotta flat and store," for Margaret L. de Stuers.  The cost to construct the building was $16,000--just over half a million in today's dollars.

Because Margaret lived overseas, she relied heavily on her agent, Henry L. Morris, to oversee the negotiations and the details of the project.  Born Margaret Laura Carey, she was the granddaughter of William Backhouse Astor.  She had married Alphonse Lambert Eugène, Ridder de Stuers in 1875 in her parents' New York City mansion.

It is peculiar that Margaret used the surname de Stuers for the Ninth avenue project, since that was no longer her name.  While in Newport she had met Count William Eliot Morris Zborowski (the title was purely fictitious), filed for a scandalous divorce, and within a few hours of obtaining it on March 7, 1892, had married Zborwski.  The scandal had forced the couple to leave America, moving to England and spending much time in France.

Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell architecturally cutting-edge structure faced in Roman brick was completed in 1900.  The Arts & Crafts movement had originated in England decades earlier, but was only beginning to appear in America.  While the basic design of No. 206 Ninth Avenue was Renaissance Revival, the overall decoration relied heavily on Arts and Crafts, most notably in diamond pattern panels between the third and fourth floors.  Faceted bays at the second floor were flanked by terra cotta tiles which continued past the intermediate cornice to create a three-story enframement for the openings.  Another cornice separated the top floor where the openings wore splayed brick lintels.

Bull-nosed brick and terra cotta combine to create this impressive doorway.
Each floor held just one apartment of five rooms and a bath.  The monthly rent was the equivalent of $817 today, reflecting on the upper-middle class status of the residents.  Their small staffs would have included, most likely, a cook and a servant girl.  

The Alviene family's cook apparently decided she was done with city life in 1903.  Her advertisement was explicit in wanting only suburban work:

Middle Ages woman, competent cook and baker, to small private family; country only; fish, soups, entrees, meats, poultry, game, jellies, ices, creams; with or without kitchenmaid; first class references, written or personal.  206 9th av., near 23d (Alviene's bell).

In the meantime the retail space was home to a restaurant.  In 1907 the owner sold the business as well as "7 circling fans, 1 water pump, 3 coffee urns, range, plate warmer, &c."  The restaurant was continued under John Palmer who was still running it in 1910.  By 1913 a delicatessen as in the space.

A relatively long-term resident was James W. Patterson.  He was living in the building in 1906 when he was appointed a Commissioner of Deeds, a civil service position similar to a notary public today.  His main profession was in real estate and he ran his business from his apartment for years.

On July 9, 1911 Countess Zborowski died in her 225-acre estate, Higham Park, in England.  Her husband had died in a car accident seven years earlier.  Her estate was appraised at $2,889,979--or around $77 million today.  Her large real estate holdings, including No. 206 Ninth Avenue, would be managed for several years by her estate.  Then in 1919 the building was sold to Abraham Schecter.

Among the tenants in 1921 was James Gilson who spent his spare time managing the Trinity Big Five basketball team.  His announcement in the sports pages of The Evening World on December 6 challenged specific teams:

Trinity Big Five, heavyweights, travelling.  Anxious to play Starling Greys, Myrocks, Bronx County Five and other leading teams.

On the night of June 14, 1933 fire broke out in the apartment building across the street at No. 216 Ninth Avenue.  It spread quickly and "brought out hundreds of spectators," according to The New York Sun.  Hearing cried of help, Patrolman Charles Perkins rushed into the building, but the blazing hallway prevented his further entry.

He then ran into the adjoining building and climbed to the roof.  Following right behind him was John Murray, who lived in No. 206.  A family of three was standing on the third floor ledge of the burning building, terrified.  Perkins climbed down the fire escape opposite the Carregal family.  Murray had continued to follow closely behind.

The gap between the two buildings was too far for the victims to jump.  "Perkins instructed Murray to hold his feet securely.  Murray stood on the fire escape and did so," reported The Sun.  "Patrolman Perkins swung his body across the chasm to the ledge.  First he seized Mrs. Carregal and swung her across.  The he seized the girl and swung her across to safety, and finally the father."

Two women died in the inferno and two boys were hospitalized with severe burns.  But Murray and the policeman were credited with saving the Carregal family.

Around 1941 the temporarily-vacant store wore a pseudo-modern front.  (the Hotel sign belongs to the building next door.) via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
Tragedy visited No. 206 on July 19, 1946.  Thomas Cleary and his 79-year old father, Michael lived in the third floor apartment.  Around 5:30 that morning Thomas woke up and realized his father was missing.  He discovered the elderly man's body on the sidewalk.  He had either jumped or fallen from the window.

For years in the early 21st century the storefront was home to Chelsea Cottage, a Chinese restaurant.  It was replaced in 2018 with aRoqa, an Indian restaurant described by food critic Pete Wells of The New York Times as "cosmopolitan" with its "moody cocktail-bar lighting and a swooping ceiling of bent wooden slats."

The original configuration of one apartment per floor survives upstairs.  Although most of the 1899 detailing has been lost, there are unexpected relics here and there.

A period mantel survives on the second floor.  photo via
photographs by the author

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