Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The 1899 Philip S. Berolzheimer House - 125 West 79th Street

Dr. William E. Diller was born in New York City on July 31, 1858.  A graduate of the University of Virginia, the successful physician added to his significant wealth by speculating in real estate.  Beginning in the early 1890's he and architect Gilbert A. Schellenger worked together on a series of speculative residential projects in the Upper West Side.

In 1898 Schellenger filed plans for three sumptuous townhouses for Diller at Nos. 123 through 127 West 79th Street, just west of Columbus Avenue.  The men were working on at least two other projects simultaneously and, perhaps to save money, Schellenger designed the center house of this group, No. 125, as a near copy of No. 309 West 72nd Street, near Riverside Drive.

The three 79th Street houses were completed in 1899.  Schellenger centered the entrance to No. 125 in a rusticated limestone base above three shallow steps.  A pair of Ionic columns upheld a two-story faceted bay topped by a stone balustrade.  

Schellenger's details included bas-relief portraits that stare out from the Renaissance-inspired panels.
The third through fifth floors were clad in beige Roman brick and trimmed in stone.  The openings of the fourth floor wore architrave surrounds and foliate keystones.  The arched windows of the top floor, sitting atop a stone cornice, were decorated with carved ornaments.  A pressed metal cornice and freize capped the design.

The 17-room house became home to the Philip Sheridan Berolzheimer family.  Born in Furth, German, on May 27, 1867, he and his wife, the former Clara V. Seasongood, had two children, Charles Philip and Helen.   Clara was the daughter of Emma and Lewis Seasongood, a Cincinnati banker and merchant.

Berolzheimer as he appeared around 1908.  from the collection of Hilltop Hanover Farm

Berolzheimer's grandfather Daniel had been a pencil-maker in Germany.  The New York Times remarked that "Thirty years before the Civil War, when there was no tariff on pencils imported into this country, the grandfather established a market here."  The entire Berolzheimer family moved to New York following the war, establishing the Eagle Pencil Company and building a factory that engulfed the block between East 13th and 14th Streets, and Avenues A and B.

By the time Philip purchased No. 125 he and his brothers ran the firm with Emil Berolzheimer as president.  Each of them had garnered substantial personal fortunes.  Philip was, as well, the chairman of the board of the Public National Bank.

Around 1912 Helen and Charles pose in a pony cart in front of the house.  The woman watching closely from the porch may be their nurse.  from the collection of Hilltop Hanover Farm

Just off the coast of Georgia was an unspoiled barrier island known as Little St. Simons Island.  It had been left to Pierce Butler II by his grandfather, Major Pierce Butler.  According to John Yow in his 2012 book The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal, in 1908 the Butler heirs "sold the property to Philip Berolzheimer, who believed that the island's abundance of red cedar trees would make excellent raw material for his Eagle Pencil Company."

In what turned out to be an ironic turn of events, the trees were too wind-twisted to be used.  Philip and Clara retained their personal island, erecting a lodge and spending much time there in the pristine environment.  They renamed the Butler farm Charhelen, after the children.

Clara and Philip on Little St. Simons Island from the collection of Oatland Plantation
By 1910 automobiles had become a fashionable way of touring Europe.  On January 28 that year The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that "Among the New Yorkers who are contemplating making a tour of Europe by automobile during the coming season may be mentioned P. B. Benolzheimer of 125 West Seventy-ninth Street."

In the city, however, the Benolzheimers preferred traditional horse power.  On Christmas Day 1910 Clara and Philip took a ride in Central Park.  Another couple, Mrs. and Mrs. Michael Rothstein, had the same idea.  The uncomfortable coexistence of horses and automobiles did not not always have favorable results.

The Rothstein carriage was struck by an automobile.  The collision threw Mrs. Rothstein to the ground.  Rothstein was unable to control his panicked horse which, according to the New York Herald, "ran into a brougham belonging to Philip Bouriezheimer [sic] of No. 125 West Seventy-ninth street, and driven by Joseph Hubert."  The Benolzheimer's driver was thrown to the pavement resulting in severe head cuts.

Neither Philip nor Clara was hurt; but the frightened horse could not be stopped.  He ran wildly through the park, narrowly missing several automobiles and carriages, then onto 79th Street where he eventually crashed into a street car.  Both the horse and passengers were cut by the smashed window glass.  (The horse was treated by a veterinarian and survived.)

Upon the death of Lewis Seasongood on November 25, 1914, Clara received a significant inheritance.  The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that his $1 million estate (more in the neighborhood of $26.4 million today) would be divided "in equal shares to his five daughters and three sons."

Clara and Philip were immensely supportive of the musical arts.  They especially promoted organists and organ music and had an Estey Organ Company instrument installed in the 79th Street residence.  It was housed in a magnificently-carved Gothic style case.

In the spring of 1917 Mayor John Purroy Mitchel appointed Philip a Special Deputy Park Commissioner.  The New York Times noted "He had jurisdiction over music in the parks, and soon made use of the Police Band and some of the other municipal bands" for public concerts.  When famous musicians visited New York, he arranged for concerts in the parks by them, always finding a way to pay for them without using city funds.

The following year, under the new Mayor John F. Hylan, Philip was appointed a full Park Commissioner.  The Mayor "enjoined him not to neglect the park music," said The Times.

Philip Berolzheimer at the time of his appointment of Park Commission.  Geyer's Stationer, November 14, 1918 (copyright expired)
Philip and Clara gave generously to charity, most notably the Guilmant Organ School, of which Philip had been made an honorary member of the Alumni Association.  But their magnanimity extended into many areas.  On December 10, 1919 the Daily Star reported that Philip had donated $250 and Clara $100 toward the treatment of tuberculosis patients.  (The combined amount would be just over $5,000 today.)  And on February 25, 1922 the New-York Tribune announced that Philip had given $1,000 (about $15,200 today) for the relief of starving Jews in Latvia.

On February 7, 1919 Mayor Hylan appointed Philip to the position of City Chamberlain.   The New York Times reported "One of his first acts as chamberlain was to establish twelve free ice stations for the poor."  He used his two posts to focus on public recreation, eliminating the ban on children rollerskating in the parks and enlarging the Central Park Zoo.

Following his brother Emil's death in January 1920, Philip was elected president of the Eagle Pencil Co.  But with multiple plates in the air, he resigned from the family business in May 1925.

The Berolzheimers' support of organists continued and on September 2, 1922 The Daily Star reported that they had funded four full scholarship to the Guilmant Organ School.  They were offered to "young men and women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, who possess the necessary talent but who have not the funds to pay for the tuition."  The couple would continued to fund the scholarships for more than a decade.

On September 30, 1925 Helen was married to Ransom Yateman Place in the 79th Street house.  The New York Times reported "The wedding ceremony took place in the drawing room of the Berolzheimer residence...before an altar of white chrysanthemums with a background of palms, ferns and smilax."  The family's custom-built pipe organ was played by Dr. William C. Carl, organist of the First Presbyterian Church.  Following the ceremony 180 guests attended the reception at the Waldorf-Astoria, including Mayor Hylan and his wife and high-ranking members of government, society and the military.

At the beginning of May 1942 Philip fell ill.  He was eventually taken to Doctors Hospital where he died three weeks later on May 22.

Clara continued on in the 79th Street house and at Little St. Simons Island.  It was on the island, on February 20, 1947, that she quietly married Edgar Bromberger, chief magistrate of the City of New York.  The New York Times reported the the ceremony was performed "before a few friends and employe[e]s at the Berolzheimer Island home."

Clara and her new husband took up residence in No. 125 West 79th Street.  Edgar retired in 1950 due to ill health at the age of 60.  But during his career he had focused on the welfare of troubled and impoverished youths.  He had ended the policy of imprisoning adolescent offenders with adults, formed a psychiatric service to treatment to first-time adolescent offenders, and enlarged and strengthened the probation service.

Clara died on April 29, 1953 at the age of 78 in her home of 54 years.  Her will gave Edgar the "life use of the home" and allowed that before or after his death "he could convey the property to any civic, charitable or cultural organization that he might select."  It did not take him long to select such an organization.

On October 31 The New York Times reported that Bromberger "has presented to the Police Athletic League the five-story family house at 125 West Seventy-ninth Street for use as a youth center."  Given his deep regard for youths, the decision was understandable.

The gift resulted in the preservation of the outward appearance of the Berolzheimer house.  In 1962 a renovation resulted in two apartments on each floor above the first, which held a doctor's office and two more apartments.

Among the residents was fashion illustrator Chesley McClaren, here by 1998.  She was still here in 2007 when Women's Wear Daily reported on her first venture into fashion design.  Saying that she "works out of her West 79th Street art studio," the article noted "McLaren will continue to do some fashion illustration, and her launch's location serves as a reminder of the power of illustration."

The exterior of the Berolzheimer house survives remarkably intact; a striking relic from a period when this block of West 79th Street was home to millionaires.

photographs by the author


  1. Love that you found a picture of the pony cart outside the front of the house!