In the decades following the end of the Civil War Harlem, once open farmland and summer estates, began developing as a fashionable suburb of the crowded city to the south. Early in 1889 builder George J. Hamilton joined the trend by purchasing a long stretch of the northern block front of West 138th Street between Edgecombe and Eighth Avenues (later Frederick Douglass Boulevard). He hired E. R. Wile to design a row of eight upper-middle class homes on the property.
Hamilton was a competent and well-known builder, responsible for the construction of several of the upscale Murray Hill mansions like the Carow house. It would be interesting to know how he and the architect joined forces, for essentially nothing is known about Wile and this project appears to be his sole work in New York City. He filed plans on January 25, 1889 for the 17-foot wide houses, each to cost $8,500 (or about $244,000 today).
Obscurity aside, Wile produced a charming row of storybook-type houses. While they were a blend of styles, Queen Anne took prominence. The basement and parlor floors were faced in brownstone and the upper floors in red brick. Dogleg stoops led to the entrances and a shallow projecting bay graced each of the second floors (other than the end house, which anchored the row as an angled tower). A mountainscape of gables and dormers fronted the mansard roof.
|Wiles produced a picturesque row of homes.
The houses were completed in the spring of 1890. George Hamilton placed a price tag of $15,500 each on them, or just under half a million in today's dollars. It may have been that he intended to move into No. 317, for on May 28 he transferred title to the property to his wife, Petrona. If so, they changed their minds within a year and in 1891 Petrona Hamilton sold the house to John Glass, Jr., head of the John Glass Jr. Construction Co.
Glass sold the house in 1893 and in 1897 it was lost to foreclosure. It became home to Jeremiah and Leticia M. Howard, whose country home was in Clinton, New York. The couple would not enjoy the house for long. Leticia died around 1901 and the following year, on June 8, The New York Times reported that Jeremiah had died while on a trip to Pino del Rio, Cuba.
The house saw a succession of owners. The Henry Brick family was living here in 1917 when daughter Dorothy was married on October 9 in the St. Regis Hotel to Harry Negbaur. Her sister, Marion, and brother, George, acted as attendant and usher.
When it sold in November 1920, No. 317 finally had a long-term owner. Adah B. Thoms was a strong, self-reliant Black woman. Born Adah Belle Samuels in Richmond, Virginia in 1870, she retained the surname Thoms from her short and unsuccessful marriage. Having initially taught school in Richmond, she moved to New York in the 1890's to study elocution and speech at Cooper Union. But she turned to the field of nursing instead.
She graduated as the only Black woman in the 1900 class of the Women's Infirmary and School of Therapeutic Massage. She continued her training at the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing, graduating in 1905. The following year she was made acting director of the school.
Thoms worked tirelessly, helping to organize the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. Its published goals were "to advance the standards and best interests of trained nurses, to break down discrimination in the nursing profession, and to develop leadership within the ranks of black nurses." She hosted the first meeting in 1907 at the Lincoln Home and Hospital, became the association's first treasurer and then, in 1916, its president.
During World War I Adah Thoms lobbied vigorously in an attempt to enable Black nurses to enroll in the Red Cross. The Surgeon General compromised by allowing a limited number to enroll; however that changed when the flu pandemic of 1918 created a desperate need for nurses and the restrictions were removed. That year 18 Black nurses were appointed to the Army Nurse Corps.
Adah Thoms initially used a portion of her new home for the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The group's Placement Bureau for Colored Graduate Nurses and its Bureau of Information operated from the house.
|The New York Age, December 3, 1921 (copyright expired)
In 1922 Adah married again. But the independent, modern-thinking woman did not give up her name this time. Instead she put a hyphen between Thoms and Smith.
Possibly because hotel accommodations for Black travelers were not desirable, Adah repeatedly hosted visitors to New York. On August 19, 1922, for instance, The New York Age reported "Mrs. K. B. Taylor, R. N., public health nurse of Orlando Fla., has been taking a Summer course in public health at Columbia University. While in the city she is the guest of Mrs. Adah. B. Thoms-Smith, 317 West 138th street."
The house was the scene of benefits and receptions over the years, as well. On May 10, 1924 The New York Age reported "The New York City Health Unit of the Circle for Negro Relief, Inc., held a reception on Tuesday evening, April 29, at the home of Mrs. Adah Thoms Smith, 317 West 138th street, to welcome home from Liberia, West Africa, its president, Mrs. Helen Curtis." The group heard about Mrs. Curtis's trip and the inauguration of President King of Liberia. The article noted "The selections rendered by the Fisk Jubilee Singers were delightfully received."
Adah's party on February 26, 1927 was somewhat surprising in that it was purely social. The New York Age reported the house "was the scene of a beautiful gathering of friends...Whist, bridge and dancing were enjoyed. A collation of chicken and mushroom patties, punch and cake was served." The article listed dozens of guests.
|Adah B. Thoms. American Journal of Nursing, 1929.
The New York Age reported "One of the prettiest and most successful benefit teas of the season, was given at the home of Mrs. Adah B. Thoms, 317 West 138th street...for the benefit of the National Health Circle for Colored People." The article said that more than 200 people were there to meet the author and "to hear of the work being done by the National Health Circle."
Among those present that afternoon were important figures in health and social circles, including Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson; Isabel Stewart, director of nursing education at Columbia University; a representative from Harper & Brothers Publishing; and a member of the National Training School in Washington. (Fannie Hurst's popular 1933 Imitation of Life would highlight race problems in America.)
|Little has changed to the house since this photo was taken around 1941, while Adah Thoms still lived here. via the NYC Dept of Finance and Information Services.
In 1936 Adah was selected as the first recipient of the annual Mary Mahoney Medal, presented by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The National News Bulletin explained "The medal commemorates the lift of Mary Mahoney who was the first Negro woman to be graduated from a nursing school. Mr. Mahoney was a personal friend of Mrs. Thoms." In presenting the medal, Dr. Louis T. Wright called Adah "an institution and a symbol."
Adah B. Thoms died on February 21, 1943 at the age of 80. In reporting on her death Survey Midmonthly: A Journal of Social Work commented "Her major interest was education, and it was she who said 'No doors are closed to the colored nurse who bears the key of adequate preparation.'"
The architecturally charismatic and historically significant house remains a single-family home today. And while the Harlem neighborhood has seen considerable change 1890, the Thoms house has not.
photographs by the author