Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The 1898 "Indiana" Apartments - 117 West 79th Street

photo by Christopher Bride for PropertyShark
The architectural firm of Neville & Bagge had worked on several projects for developer Samuel W. B. Smith by the end of 1897, many of them on the Upper West Side.  They now joined forces again to erect an upscale apartment building on the north side of West 79th Street, just west of Columbus Avenue.

The plans, filed the first week of January in 1898, called for a seven-story "brick flat" to cost $120,000--more than $3.8 million in today's money.  

In 1884 Edward C. Clark had erected his lavish apartment building five blocks to the south on Central Park, named the Dakota.  It sparked a trend of state- or territory-named apartment buildings on the Upper West Side which would include the Delaware, the Florida, the Maryland, and the Montana.  Samuel S. B. Smith joined in, naming his building the Indiana.

Completed in 1898, the Indiana was faced in brown brick and trimmed in "white stone."  The entrance sat within an imposing Corinthian-columned portico, aloof from sidewalk level atop a short flight of steps.  The aristocratic two-story rusticated stone base included ornate window surrounds, Renaissance-inspired carvings on both the entablature of the portico and the second floor frieze, and a stone balustrade.

The four-story mid-section was faced in brick.  Several of its windows pretended to be Juliette balconies; some with carved panels and others with fluted engaged columns.  The two center windows at the second floor boasted blind balustrades and spiral-carved columns.  A striped effect at the top floor was produced by alternating brick and stone courses.  The openings did not take back stage to those of the lower, more visible floors.  They were given heavily carved architrave surrounds and cornices.

Striped canvas awnings collapsed to protect expensive fabrics inside from the harmful rays of the sun when the residents were out.  The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1910 (copyright expired)

The two spacious apartments on each floor measured 90 feet by 28.5 feet.  Each had eight rooms plus a butler's pantry and bathroom.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune touted "every modern improvement, electric elevator, electric light, etc." and said the apartments "are very handsomely finished and decorated."  Rents ranged, depending on floor, from $1,400 to $1,700; the most expensive being about $4,500 per month in today's terms.

Sumptuous carvings surround the windows within the portico.
While all of the tenants in the Indiana were well-to-do, they came from a variety of industries and backgrounds.  Among the early tenants were Robert Rutter, head of the bookbindery R. Rutter & Son; S. H. Edgar second vice-president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad; and engineer Elmer Jerome Post.

Robert and Frances Rutter would be long-term residents.  Born in Canada in 1827, Robert had come to America from Canada at the age of 21.  The couple was married in 1852, two years after Robert opened his bookbindery.  The would have four daughters and a son. 

On September 15, 1902 Robert and Frances were surprised by the employees of R. Rutter & Son, who presented them with a silver tea service lined with gold for their 50th wedding anniversary.  In reporting on the gift and dinner that followed the presentation, The New York Times mentioned "Mr. Rutter is the oldest bookbinder in the city."

At the time of the celebration Samuel H. Edgar was not doing well.  He and his new wife had moved into the Indiana in 1900.  He had been connected with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad for two decades, but in-fighting threatened his position.  Edgar's concern "brought on a nervous condition," said the New-York Tribune.   He traveled to Asheville, North Carolina to rest, but did not improve.

In October 1902 he and his wife returned to the Indiana; but when his nervous condition worsened he was placed in the Oak Hill Sanatorium in Montclair, New Jersey.   About ten days later, on November 2, he died there.  The New-York Tribune reported "The Sisters at the sanatorium say his end was doubtless hastened by the recent struggle for the control of the [rail]road."

While Elmer Jerome Post's position as engineer with the Consolidated Gas Company may have seemed mundane, his earlier career was certainly not.   Born in Deep River, Connecticut, he had come to New York around 1865 with the stage name of Louis Nevers.  He was a member of the "famous Hooley Quartette of Hooley's Minstrels."  Writing in An Authentic History of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in 1910, Charles Edward Ellis said "He was connected as a singer, in first parts, with many of the representative minstrel bands of that period, and continued in the profession up until the year 1898."  That was the year he became engineer in charge of one of the Consolidated Gas Company plants.

The wealth of the Indiana's residents was exemplified in 1905.  A Mrs. Arnold had dinner at the elegant Cafe Martin on Fifth Avenue on September 23 and when she returned home discovered she was missing a diamond studded brooch valued at $2,000--more in the neighborhood of $60,000 today.  She telephoned J. B. Martin and explained the disturbing situation.

"Mr. Martin told her not to worry; that the lost brooch had been found by Edmond Prudhomme, a waiter, near the door leading to Fifth Avenue," reported the Long Island Star.   Mrs. Arnold rewarded the honest waiter with $50 (a significant $1,500 today) and the Star noted that he "will now stand at the head of the list for promotion."

N. J. Wrigley and his wife unwillingly increased the population of their apartment by one in 1906.  Dorothy Lonsdale was 12-years old, the daughter of one of Wrigley's good friends.  Her father had died a few years earlier, and in September 1906 her mother died.  Now orphaned, she had was passed from relative to relative until she was brought to the Wrigley apartment.

That arrangement did not work out very long either.  When none of the girl's uncles would take her in, Wrigley left her at the Society of for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children "and asked that she be committed to an institution," as reported by the New York Herald.

On Saturday January 5, 1907 the girl appeared before Magistrate Olmsted in Children's Court "friendless and without the aid of counsel or adviser, charged with being an orphan."  The article said "Standing, a pathetic little figure, in the court of the friendless, the child told how her uncle in Newark, her aunt in Roseville, N. J., and this and that relative did not care to have her because it cost too much to care for her."

Olmsted decided that she should be kept in the care of the Society.  The feisty little girl spoke up.  "Isn't there any better place to send little girls than that?  It's a lonesome school and you can't go out of doors at all.  All you can do is to sit and walk and wonder what they will do with you, without any friends near you or anybody to talk to."

She was taken into the hall to wait for the Court "wagon" that would transport her back to the Society.  About twenty boys were also waiting, "charged with all manner of petty offences, an unkempt and frowsy company," according to the newspaper.  Dorothy spoke her mind again.  "I won't go with all those boys.  You've no right to make me, and I won't." 

And she did not.  Half an hour later the wagon returned to take its single female passenger back to the Society building.

The Rutters' daughter, Mabel moved into their apartment following the death of her husband, Charles W. Penrose.  Tragically she died in the apartment on May, 8, 1911.  Robert Rutter retired that year, after 60 years in the bookbinding business.  He died in the apartment four years later, on August 19, 1915, at the age of 88.

Among the various professions represented in the Indiana were several physicians.  In the pre-World War I years Dr. Lionel Mayer Homburger, a dentist, lived and worked here, as did Dr. Joseph Charles Taylor, Dr. Frank Heuel, and Dr. Joseph C. Stammer.

An eligible bachelor, Dr. Taylor was well-known and respected in the medical community.  He was Professor of Gynecology in the New York Polytechnic Hospital and was associated with Bellevue Hospital.   The doctor's bachelorhood came to an end on February 12, 1913 when his marriage to Marion R. Hungerford took place in his apartment in the Indiana.  The couple's names soon began appearing in the society columns.  Less than a week later, on February 18, the New York Herald reported that they "gave a dinner and dance for one hundred of their friends at the Lucerne Hotel last Friday night."  The couple would remain in the building into the 1920's.

Another marriage that year was that of actor James L. Crane and actress Blanche Sittler, whose stage name was Blanche Shirley.   Blanche gave up her career, becoming simply Blanche S. Crane.  The newlyweds took a sixth floor apartment in the Indiana.  They shared the apartment with Crane's father, writer and lecturer Dr. Frank Crane.

But things appear to have quickly gone wrong in the marriage.   James had not come home yet in early hours after midnight on December 22.  The maid was still up, having received a visitor.  The Evening World reported "On her way to her room the maid saw a light in Mrs. Crane's room and knocked to ascertain whether she could be of assistance."

Blanche Shirley in 1902.  from the collection of the University of Washington Library
When she got no reply, she opened the door and "the bed was disarranged, but the room was empty."  The maid searched for Blanche and, noticing an open window in the dining room, looked out.  There, "the body of Mrs. Crane lay in the court below, a kimono over her nightdress."  Blanche was 34-years old.

Frank Crane would go on to play in motion pictures, perhaps his most memorable role being the Pharaoh in the 1933 The Mummy with Boris Karloff.

In 1922 the Indiana was still commanding high rents.  The eight-room apartments were leasing at the equivalent of $3,175 per month today.   And the well-heeled residents continued to have white collar professions.

The first changes to that were noticeable in the late 1930's.  In 1939 Leonard C. Fisher, a plumber, was charged with forging the name of his employer on a $100 check.  And Daniel Meyers lived here at the same time, described by The New York Sun as "a colorful figure around the New York courts."  Meyers made his living as a bondsman, bailing out some of the most notorious gangsters on the East Coast.  The newspaper said that he "bailed out Dutch Schultz, the Diamond brothers and other racketeers of the prohibition era."  Prior to 1936, when he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for subornation of perjury, he had been arrested seven times and served two penitentiary terms.

By the mid-1950's the Indiana had been converted to a residential hotel and its name changed to the Hayden Hotel.  
A renovation completed in 1974 resulted in a warren of single-occupancy rooms throughout.  The once elegant home of moguls and theatrical figures degraded over the next decades until in the 1990's it was being operated as a homeless shelter.

A frigid cold snap lasted for days in December 1993.  The brutal conditions were especially harsh for the homeless.  On the night after Christmas a man sought shelter at Hayden Hall.  But because he was not registered there he "was kept out because the residence locks its doors as a security precaution," a spokesperson explained to Shawn G. Kennedy of The New York Times.  The nameless man huddled in the shelter of the portico until the following morning when a resident let him in, but he died from exposure within the hour.

Although it was still operated as a single-room occupancy hotel, sometime after the turn of the 21st century the name was changed to the high-sounding Park 79.  The owners were clapped with thirteen "transient use violations" in 2015.  

Facade renovation is ongoing in 2020.
It was purchased by Fairstead Capital in July 2016 for $22.5 million "with plans for a residential conversion," said The Real Deal.  A facade restoration and interior remodeling resulted in a legitimate transient hotel, which kept the name Park 79.

photographs by the author 

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