Monday, August 31, 2020

The Lost Robert F. Weir House - 11 East 54th Street

The Weir house replaced a brownstone identical to those at the far left and right.   photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the last quarter of the 19th century the family of George Rhett Cathcart lived in the 20-foot wide brownstone rowhouse at No. 11 East 54th Street, steps from fashionable Fifth Avenue.  Cathcart became seriously ill in the spring of 1892 and died at the family's Newport estate on June 27.  Seven years later, in May 1899, the 54th Street house was sold to Dr. Robert F. Weir.

Although the residence was only about 20 years old, it was architecturally outdated.  Weir wasted no time in changing that.  A month after he purchased No. 11 architects George A. Freeman and Charles Chary Thain filed plans for a five-story replacement dwelling.  Their American basement plan would do away with the high stoop that had been such a prominent feature of the Cathcart house.

The architects produced a restrained and dignified take on the popular Beaux Arts style.  A prominent columned portico fronted the rusticated stone base and provided a roomy iron-railed balcony at the second floor.  The second through fourth floors were clad in beige brick and trimmed in limestone.  A full-width balcony ran along the fourth floor and the fifth took the form of a mansard, pierced with a stone dormer flanked by French oculi.

Born in 1838, Weir had married Maria Washington McPherson in 1863.  The New York Surgical Society was founded in his home in 1879, and by now he was president of the New York Academy of Medicine.  The couple had a grown daughter, Alice Washington, born in 1850, who was married to Edward La Montague.

Dr. Robert Fulton Weir, from the archives of The Century Association

Weir was the personal physician of some of Manhattan's most socially-notable citizens, including the Rockefellers.  William Rockefeller was a close neighbor of Dr. Weir, living at the corner of 54th Street at No. 689 Fifth Avenue.  

In mid-May 1900 Rockefeller became ill and despite having been confined to his home for some time, he traveled to his 1,000-acre country estate, Rockwood Hall, on May 26.   Two days later Dr. Weir was called there.  He diagnosed appendicitis.  According to the patient's son, William G. Rockefeller, Weir cautioned "that the attack might recur at any time unless the operation was done and that it was best to operate while his general health was perfectly normal and there was a minimum of risk."  And so Weir, assisted by Dr. Henry Walker, performed a successful appendectomy on the multi-millionaire in his Tarrytown bedroom.

Dr. Weir performed surgery on William Rockefeller in this country estate, Rockwood Hall.
When Colonel Washington A. Roebling fell ill in the fall of 1902, it was Dr. Weir who attended to him.  Roebling, of course, is best known as the engineer who supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, designed by his father, John A. Roebling.

At the time the wealthy property owners in the immediate neighborhood of Weir's residence were faced with a serious threat.  A year earlier John Jacob Astor, Jr. had demolished the mansions at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street and begun construction of the 19-story St. Regis Hotel.  Millionaires now joined forces to keep the incursion of commerce to a minimum.  Their tactics included buying up houses as they became available to prevent developers from obtaining a foothold.

Dr. Weir joined in the offensive.  On April 26, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that he had purchased the two abutting brownstones, Nos. 15 and 13 West 54th Street, for $175,000 "to protect No. 11, which he owns and occupies."  That price would equal about $5.36 million today.  He resold the residences a month later to John R. Drexel, who promised to "erect an American basement dwelling on the plot," according to the Record & Guide.

Seven months later, on December 12, the New-York Tribune reported that Weir had purchased No. 3, directly behind the William Rockefeller mansion.  The article said he bought the property "to preserve for a residential district the attractions of the neighborhood in which he lives."

On December 5, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported that Weir had leased No. 11 East 54th Street to Dr. Henry W. Weist "for a term of years."  The article added "Dr. Robert F. Weir is going abroad for about six months."  The physicians most likely knew one another well.  Weist was a member of the New York Academy of Medicine, of which Weir was president.

The Weirs never returned to the 54th Street house.  On September 3, 1910 The New York Press announced they had sold it to their next-door neighbors Alice T. and John R. Drexel.  The price was $140,000, or just under $3.9 million today.  Drexel followed in Weir's footsteps in buying property along the block simply to protect his own home.

The handsome residence to the left of the Weir house, at No. 9 East 54th Street, belonged to Charles Boyd Curtisphotograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York     
The following year, in September, he leased it to Mme. Luis Pastor y de Mora.  It was not long before the colorful socialite brought press attention to No. 11.

Born Constance Cazenove Lee in Baltimore, she was a grandniece of General Robert E. Lee and was married to the Spanish Minister to China.  The Evening World mentioned "Some of the servants told reporters that Mrs. de Mora's husband was in China most of the time and that they had never seen him."

A month after she moved into No. 11 West 54th Street she went on a shopping spree in a Fifth Avenue store, buying a "Cleopatra gown, $335; blue velvet suit, $134; gold lace French hat, $85; pink kimono, $65; motor coat, $57; [and a] shirtwaist, $35," according to The Evening World.  The total bill would equal nearly $20,000 today.  When Mrs. de Mora had not paid for the clothing by December, a collection agency sent a process server to the house.  And then another.  And another.

"Mrs. de Mora's residence, according to all accounts, has resembled a castle under siege for several days past," reported The Evening World.  "Three process servers have been camped outside part of the time."  One of them, Henry H. Kutner, rang the bell on December 21, 1911 and was told to return the following day when Mrs. de Mora would be in.  As he left, he heard a noise at an upper window "and saw there the lady herself in her pink kimono inviting him to leave before she called a policeman.  She was not a bit mad about it and smiled," said the article, "but she didn't come down and accept service."

Two days later, after having waited outside the door in the rain, Kutner considered making "an affidavit so strong they'll let him serve his papers by nailing them to her door."

A year after the disturbing incident, Drexel gave up the fight against commerce.  On December 3, 1912 the New-York Tribune reported that he had leased it "for a term of years to Carlhian & Co., a French decorating firm."  The article noted "Extensive alterations will be made to the house."

By 1921 the former mansion was home to the P. Jackson Higgs gallery.  In December that year he staged an exhibition of 38 paintings from the M. I. Montaignac collection of Paris, including Corot's Hamlet, Renoir's Baigneuse Assise, the Danseuses Vertes by Degas, and three works by Courbet, three Monets, a Pissaro and several Old Masters.

This Renoir was among the paintings on exhibition in 1921. from the collection of the Musee de l'Orangerie 
The gallery was the target of art thieves in 1926.  On August 3 The New York Sun reported "Thieves who entered an art gallery containing $1,000,000 worth of treasures spent several hours rummaging among its delectable works of art and were frightened off after selecting about $100,000 worth of pieces which they may never be able to dispose of."  The article deemed the neighborhood "one of the most heavily guarded districts of the city."

It was one of the largest art thefts in years.  The crooks made off with Gobelin and Outdenards tapestries, Syrian and Persian glass jars, a silver figure of Hercules described as "the finest example of Renaissance sculpture in America," and other irreplaceable treasures.  Higgs told police that the objects were "of such fame in the art world that efforts to dispose of them would arouse suspicion."

The thieves left masterpieces like a Van Dyck portrait of a nobleman and a Romney portrait valued at about $1.8 million and $650,000 respectively in today's money.

Detectives doggedly investigated the case and, just as Higgs had predicted, the pieces were easily identified when they hit the market.  The first arrest came in October 1927 after Chinese and Japanese antiques showed up in the store of Marie Simmons on West 49th Street.  She was cleared of any wrongdoing, but Henry Ghiggeri, from whom she purchased them, was arrested for dealing in stolen property and later found guilty.

The art gallery remained much of the Weir interiors, including the staircase and plasterwork. original source unknown  
In November 1936 P. Jackson Higgs announced it would be leaving its home of more than a decade.  The subsequent tenants would be much less impressive.  On October 14, 1938 Ann Grady signed a lease for the second floor for "for a beauty parlor," as reported by The New York Times.

There were show windows on the first and second floors by 1941.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
The upper floors continued to be leased as apartments.  One tenant brought scandal to the address in 1948.  Madeleine Blavier rented rooms here that year.  She allowed a friend, Nancy Choremi to use the apartment on occasion.  Neighbors were no doubt shocked when the State of New York took Nancy to court in 1949 for "acts of prostitution" which had taken place there.

The five former mansions at Nos. 3 through 11 West 54th Street survived until 1954.  On July 13 that year The New York Times reported that plans had been filed for a 19-story office building on the site, designed by Richard and Emery Roth.

photo via

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The 1841 Jacob D. T. Hersey House - 332 West 22nd Street

At the same time that Clement Clarke Moore began dividing his family's estate, Chelsea, into building plots, wealthy stone merchant Bezaleel F. Smith was branching out into real estate development.  On April 25, 1835 he purchased six 25-foot wide lots from Moore.  His row of speculative houses, stretching from No. 326 to 336 West 22nd Street was completed in 1841.  The homes were designed in the popular Greek Revival style currently taking the city by storm.  

Like its identical neighbors, No. 332 was three stories tall above a brownstone-faced English basement.  The superb Greek Revival style iron railings terminated at the bottom of the stone stoop with what most likely were elaborate cast iron basket newels which sat upon the brownstone pedestals which survive.

Most likely the stoop pedestals originally supported ornamental basket newels.
The three brick-faced upper floors were trimmed in brownstone.  The entrance enframement, typical of the style, included Doric pilasters and a robust entablature.  The six-over-six windows wore molded stone lintels.

Bezaleel F. Smith retained ownership of the house, leasing it to well-to-do tenants.  In 1871 Jacob Daniel Temple Hersey, who had been living on Mercer Street, signed a lease.

Born in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1821, Hersey's father, also named Jacob, was reputedly the "first manufacturer of tacks and straw goods in this country," according to the New-York Tribune later.  In 1846 Jacob established his own straw goods factory in Munson, Massachusetts.  It was, at the time, the largest such operation.  ("Straw goods" covered a variety of products, but mostly referred to the summer headgear worn by both men and women.)

When he and his wife, the former Marcia E. Pennell, came to New York, Hersey continued operating his Massachusetts factory, but branched into the brokerage business as well.  When he moved into the 22nd Street house he was a partner in Hodges, Hersey, & Co.

The couple had a son, Arthur Temple, and a daughter, Rebecca Ellisa.  The family became members of the First Presbyterian Church, on Fifth Avenue at 12th Street where eventually Jacob would hold the post of president of the board of trustees for years.  By 1875 Hersey had ceased to use his first name professionally, going instead by J. D. T. Hersey.  A highly respected businessman, he was elected a member of the Chamber of Commerce that year and in 1883 was elected president of the American Strawgoods Association.

Bazaleel F. Smith died in 1880 at the age of 88.  His heirs retained ownership of No. 332 for seven years, finally selling it to Jacob and Marcia Hersey on March 31, 1887 for $16,000--just under $445,000 today.

Following the death of her husband, the Rev. Austin S. Dean, Marcia's widowed sister, Rebecca M. Pennell Dean, moved into the house.  She died on March 5, 1890 and her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

The Herseys apparently took in a boarder shortly afterward.  Henry R. Arnold was living with the couple in 1893 when he suffered a near-fatal accident at Union Square.  At around 5:30 on the afternoon of September 25 he was crossing Broadway at 15th Street, an intersection that had become notorious for streetcar accidents, several of them deadly.

The Evening Telegram said he stepped into "the fatal Union square crossing" when "cable car No. 27 came along at the usual breakneck speed and struck him.  The unfortunate wayfarer was knocked senseless."  He was taken to New York Hospital but luckily seemed to be mostly unharmed.  "As soon as Arnold recovered from his shock he expressed a desire to go home; there being no apparent injury the physician let him go."  The incident no doubt provided animated discussion around the dinner table in the Hersey house that evening.

The 22nd Street house was the scene of an outpouring of warmth on November 27, 1900.  The New-York Daily Tribune reported "Golden weddings are always interesting, and many friends of Mr. and Mrs. J. D. T. Hersey, of No. 332 West Twenty-second-st., offered their congratulations on that anniversary...Flowers, music and supper aided in the festivity."

It would be one of the last of the parties held in the Hersey home.  On the morning of April 22, 1902 Jacob suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 80.  His funeral was held at First Presbyterian Church three days later.

In 1904 the Herseys' daughter donated a stained glass window in memory of her father to the church.  Designed by Frederick Stymetz Lamb of the studios of J. & R. Lamb, it consisted of three lancet panels, the central one depicting David bearing a harp.  The inscription reads:
To the glory of God in memory of J. D. T. Hersey
for many years trustee and elder of this church
Born, Bridgewater, Mass, Sept. 22, 1821
Died, New York City April 22, 1902

Marcia soon moved to the Upper West Side.  Following her death in 1911, Rebecca commissioned another memorial window for this First Presbyterian Church.  This one in honor of both her mother and her brother.

The memorial windows were designed by brothers Frederick (top) and Charles Lamb.  Entitled The Reformation, the window to Marcia and Arthur Hersey (bottom) depicts Martin Luther.  photos via

By 1909 No. 332 was the home of the attorney Joseph E. Cavanaugh and his family.  Son James offered private tutoring.  His advertisement read "Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, Latin, English, branches, college entrances; private lessons at your residence, prices moderate; Normal school and college preparation." 

Like the Herseys, the family took in a boarder.  William E. Murphy, was promoted to sergeant of police in 1909, and in 1911 both he and Joseph Cavanaugh were appointed Commissioners of Deeds--a potion similar to a notary public today but more highly paid.  Murphy would remain with the family for years, still listed at the address as late as 1915.  

Stephen A. Cavanaugh was also an attorney, one who found himself on the opposite of the law on August 11, 1916.  When he lit up a cigarette at around 11:00 in the 181st Street Station of the Broadway subway line that night, he was approached by a man who told him to extinguish it.  The New York Times reported "the lawyer refused with a defiant look."

Cavanaugh was apparently unaware that the man was Dr. Charles G. Pease, president of the Anti-Smokers' Protective League of America, and an activist.   In fact, in reporting on the incident, The Times entitled the article "Dr. Pease Busy Again."  Rather than escalating the situation, Pease simply called for a policeman who took both men to the 177th Street station house.  There, according to the article, "Cavanaugh was charged with disorderly conduct."

Five months later the Cavanaugh family sold the house at auction.  It was purchased by Anna Wood who hired architect George M. McCabe to draw plans to alter the interior into studio apartments.  But those plans never came to pass.  Wood sold the house to Harry A. Goidel, who sold it to Lauren Carroll, who sold it to Maria S. Simpson--all the transactions taking place within a two-year period.

The elegant ironwork includes palmettes, or anthemions, and wreaths.  The bottom palmette is not missing.  That open space was used to scrap mud off one's boots.
The once-elegant home was, nevertheless, operated as a rooming house by the end of World War I.  Among its tenants in 1923 was disabled veteran Anthony Rodriquenz, who had been placed in the Government's Rehabilitation Program but still was unable to find employment.

Suspicious of men like Rodriquenz, Congress launched an investigation in 1923 to ferret out "fakers."  Frank Irwin, chairman of the National Rehabilitation Committee for Disabled American Veterans of the World War lashed out during his testimony before the Congressional committee.  He said his "sincere desire [was] to help mitigate the sufferings of the scarred veterans of this country rather than to attempt to criticize this committee," and insisted that the men were not fakers.  Irwin explained that while men like Rodriquenz had been trained for jobs, convincing employers that a disabled man would perform was a major obstacle.

In 1941 the window cornices had been shaved flat.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
In 1969 a renovation of the house resulted in one apartment per floor.  It may have been at this time that the brick facade was painted black and the stonework white.  

A scourge was developing in the neighborhood in 1985 which New York Magazine exposed.  The periodical tagged Morris Lender and Hardmon Lambert "goon-squad leaders" who were hired to intimidate residents to give up their rent-controlled apartments.  They would move "goons" into the buildings who were "expected to make life in a given building so intolerable that the original tenants would leave just to get away from the terror, or would agree to do so for a small amount of money."  For each apartment they emptied, Lender and Lambert were paid $500 to $1,250.

The Hersey house became a target.  Stephen Cardassi and Gerald Musano were buying up properties in the neighborhood.  When they purchased No. 332 they hired Lender and Lambert to vacate it.  And, sure enough, four months later it was vacant and they resold it.  The following year, however, the pair faced justice.  The Daily News reported on May 23, 1986 "Cardassi and Musano were found guilty of hiring 'professional vacaters' Morris Lender and Hardmon Lambert" to empty No. 332 and five other buildings.

During an alteration in 1980-81 the paint was removed from the facade and the lintels refabricated.  Today the exterior of the Hersey house appears remarkably unchanged after nearly 190 years.  

photographs by the author

Friday, August 28, 2020

The J. R. Wardlaw House - 305 West 138th Street

J. R. Wardlaw was a busy man in the late 1880's.  A surveyor for the city, he worked in the rapidly-developing upper sections of Manhattan.  He became a resident of that area, as well.  On April 19, 1890 The New York Statesman ran the announcement: "J. R. Wardlaw is residing at 305 West 138th street, New York City."

Wardlaw's new home was the middle of three identical Queen Anne style homes.  At just 16-feet wide, they were erected for middle-class buyers like him.  Yet at three stories tall above an English basement, they were comfortable and stylish.

Within the year Wardlaw leased the house to Henry H. Bliss.  The deputy librarian at the College of the City of New York, he had married his wife, Evelina, on July 23, 1868.  It was her second marriage, having divorced Robert Swift Livingston.

Also living in the house was Evelina's daughter, Mary Alice Almont Livingston Fleming, and her children.  It was not a tranquil arrangement, with Mary Alice seemingly constantly at odds with her mother and step-father over finances.

Henry Bliss leased the house through 1894.  That year Wardlaw lost it in foreclosure and it was sold to real estate operator Laura A. Hudson for a mere $14,000 (about $41,750 today).  The Bliss family moved to No. 121 Manhattan Avenue.  But the domestic drama was only just beginning.

On the night of August 30, 1895 Evelina and Mary Alice got into another heated argument in Henry's presence.  After dinner Evelina fell violently ill.   A doctor was called who diagnosed "mixed poisoning."

On September 9, 1895 the Glens Falls Daily Times reported "Nine days ago Mrs. Evelina M. Bliss ate some clam chowder.  Five hours after eating it she was dead."  Police launched an investigation and Dr. Henry A. Mott, an analytical chemist, was brought in on the case.  He found "a large amount of arsenic in the stomach of Mrs. Bliss," according to testimony later.

The morning after Evelina's death Mary Alice was arrested "and locked up in the Tombs charged with murdering her mother," said the Glens Falls Daily Times.  An official told the newspaper "There is not the shadow of a doubt that Mrs. Bliss was poisoned by eating clam chowder."

Mary Alice Livingston Fleming The Tully Times, June 27, 1896 (copyright expired)
Mary Alice waited for nine months in jail before the trial began.  On June 8, 1896 her step-father took the stand.  The Evening Telegram described him as "a rather rotund, elderly person, decidedly bald, with a stubby grey moustache."  During his testimony he asserted that "he himself had been sufficiently suspicious of Mrs. Fleming to say to her on the day of the funeral--'Alice, did you poison your mother?'"

The trial lasted seven weeks.  It took the jury just over an hour to reach its verdict--not guilty.  Newspaper readers who had closely followed the trial were no doubt stunned.

It appears that Mary Alice now set out to exact revenge.  She took Henry H. Bliss to court in November, suing for $375 which she claimed he owed her for money she expended while living in No. 305 West 138th Street.  Three years later, on September 14, 1899, the unlucky Henry Bliss was struck and killed by an automobile while getting off a street car on Eighth Avenue at 74th Street.

In the meantime, Laura A. Hudson had leased the 138th Street house to a series of tenants.  In 1897 Isidor Cohen, a manufacturer of women's apparel, lived here; and by 1899 a Mrs. Symons leased the house.  The funeral of her niece, Mrs. George H. Crawford was held in the parlor on December 26 that year.

In the first years of the 20th century No. 305 was a fraternity house.  On October 28, 1914 the weekly newspaper of the College of the City of New York, The Campus, reported "George F. Balland delivered the first of a series of monthly lectures to be given at the Delta Sigma Phi House, 305 West 138th Street.  He spoke on 'The Panama Canal.'  The lecture was illustrated by sterioptican [sic] views."

Laura A. Hudson sold No. 305 in September 1920.  By now the Harlem demographics had greatly changed and was the center of Manhattan's Black population.   Now operated as a rooming house, it attracted blue collar tenants.

Among them was Hugh A. Sprauve, who landed a job on September 1, 1932 with the Board of Transportation as a porter in the subway.  He was promoted to station agent on June 18, 1933, a raise in responsibility and pay.

Sprauve was put in charge of the 163rd Street Station with the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift.  There was only one turnstile at that station, a condition that Sprauve brought to the attention of his supervisors.  During the morning rush hour a tremendous crush of passengers would build up in the station as they passed one-by-one through the single turnstile.  Despite Sprauve's reports, nothing was done about the problem.

Then, on the morning of May 25, 1935, the passengers revolted.  Sprauve stopped the line long enough to empty the turnstile which had become full of nickels.  The crowd pushed through the "folding gate" onto the platform.  Sprauve was fired that day for allowing passengers to ride for free.  (The day after the incident a second turnstile was installed at that station.)

Sprauve sued the city for "irregularly and illegally" firing him.  His was an uphill battle, however, and he not only lost the case but was forced to pay the city its $10 in court costs (about $187 today).

Another roomer at the time was George Gruby, who worked as a porter for the LaRocca Construction Company.  He suffered a gruesome injury at work on June 20, 1931 when, while walking out of a garage, one of the firm's trucks struck him, fracturing both of his ankles.

In 1959 the house was converted to apartments, two on each floor including the basement.  That configuration remained until 2007 when architects A. S. III Design Studio filed for a "gut rehabilitation."  The renovation, completed in 2011, resulted in one apartment per floor.  In the meantime, the exterior of the little house with the riveting history remains little changed.

photograph by the author

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The 1891 Schermerhorn Building - 696-702 Broadway

William Colford Schermerhorn (a distant cousin of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor) was educated in private schools and graduated from Columbia College in 1840.  An attorney, he lived in the family mansion at the corner of  Lafayette Place and 4th Street until 1860.  Late, as his former elegant neighborhood changed, he replaced former mansions with modern commercial buildings.

In 1890 he partnered with his cousin, Frederick Augustus Schermerhorn, to erect a substantial store and loft building one block away from his old home, at the northeast corner of Broadway and West 4th Street.  Architect George B. Post designed the imposing structure, which was completed in 1891.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, April 29, 1893 (copyright expired)
The tripartite Romanesque Revival design consisted of a two-story base clad in rough-cut brownstone, a brick mid-section which took the form of four-story arches, and a top section consisting of paired, two-story arched openings.  Here the individual windows were separated by thin, engaged and clustered columns; and the pairs of windows by brick piers wearing brownstone capitals.

Despite Post's solid reputation, the Schermerhorn Building was met with a biting review from the Record & Guide.  The writer said the site of the building could have provided opportunity, "having an unusually ample frontage on Broadway, and ample depth on the side street."  And he praised the entrance as being "in general very good and it is the most effective feature of the building."

The architectural critic of the Record & Guide noted that the entrance "spandrils [sic] are richly carved."
The critic found fault with the decoration of the mid-section, but admitted "This does not prevent this central part of the building from being impressive.  The main difficulty of the composition arises with the attic [i.e., top section]...The effect is undoubtedly awkward and ineffective."  The rather scathing critique went on in detail for half a page.

On March 17, 1891, just as the Schermerhorn Building was nearing completion, a massive fire destroyed the eight-story building at Nos. 104-106 Bleecker Street.  It took more than a day to extinguish the blaze.  Among that building's tenants was men's apparel manufacturer Hammerslough, Saks & Co., who suffered a loss of $300,832.35--an astonishing $8.7 million today.

An advertisement demonstrated that the firm could fit a customer of any size or shape.  (original source unknown)
Despite the massive financial blow, Hammerslough, Saks & Co. was able to relocate into the new Shermerhorn Building.  The firm consisted of Samuel Hammerslough and Andrew and Isadore Saks.  It was described as "one of the largest wholesale clothing businesses in New York."

At a time when many garment factories pushed back against organized labor, Hammerslough, Saks & Co. avoided strikes by working with the unions.  At a meeting of the Garment-Workers' Trade Council on November 25, 1893, complaints were received about certain factories "who were said to discriminate against union men and to give their work to sweating-shop contractors."  The minutes noted "Hammerslough, Saks & Co., it was stated, are employing union men only."

In 1894 Andrew and Isadore Saks retired, turning the management of the firm entirely over to Samuel Hammerslough.  The name was changed to Samuel Hammerslough & Co.

By now the name of the Schermerhorn Building was rarely used, most likely because of rampant confusion.  In 1888, three years before this building was completed, William C. Schermerhorn had erected a six-story structure at the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Street which he also named the Schermerhorn Building.  And to make things more tangled, a third Schermerhorn Building, owned by John Jacob Astor, was located downtown at No. 96 Broadway.

Around 6:00 on the evening of October 25, 1895 three electricians who had been working in the building prepared to go home.  The entered the freight elevator and attempted to run it themselves.  The New York Times reported "Being inexperienced with the management of elevators, they stopped it so suddenly that the cable broke.  The elevator fell with sufficient force to smash the platform and throw the men in a heap on the floor."

The car plummeted to the sub-basement level.  An ambulance was called and the responding doctor "found all three suffering from shock and sprains of the lower limbs."  They all refused to go to the hospital and after resting awhile went home.

On November 12, 1900 a headline in The World announced "Samuel Hamerslough & Co., One of the Best-Known Manufacturers of Clothing, Retires from Business."  The building continued to house clothing-related businesses, many of them now in the millinery trade.

Among them were David Spero, a dealer artificial flowers for hats; Jacob Auslander & Sons, "caps and hats;" and Ury & Mendelson Bros., makers of "ready-to-wear, ready-to-trim and fancy hats."

Millinery Trade Review, January 1904 (copyright expired) 

Eva Wolf was 14-years old and an employee of Jacob Auslander & Bros.  The factory was on the sixth floor but on February 9, 1907 she was sent on an errand to the office of Jacob Auslander on the first floor.  Eva had never been to that floor and was unfamiliar with the layout.  As she went to leave, she passed through an open doorway which, unfortunately, turned out to be an elevator shaft.

Eva suffered severe injuries which kept her bedridden for six months and resulted in permanent injury to her legs and hips.  In 1911 her parents not only filed suit against Jacob Auslander, but against the estate of William C. Schermerhorn, which still owned the building.  The complaint alleged they "carelessly and negligently failed to protect or close an unprotected opening or shaft."  Eva was awarded $2,750 in damages--about $76,300 today.

In the building by 1907 was George C. Batcheller & Co., makers of women's foundations like its "Glove-Fitting" corsets, brassieres, and children's "waists" or undershirts.

This George C. Batcheller & Co. ad depicted a variety of items.  New-York Tribune, March 24, 1907 (copyright expired)
Also in the building at the time were millinery firms Warshauser & Rosemond and the Caton Hat Co., and artificial flowers and feathers dealer Berlinger, Brown & Meyer.  

Berlinger, Brown & Meyer had started business in April 1902.  On September 25, 1909 the New-York Tribune remarked "in this remarkably short period of time [it] has built up a business which involves over half a million dollars capital."  The article said that "as a result of Mr. [Philip L.] Berlinger's many trips abroad to France and Germany every year search of new styles and ideas, the trade throughout the country looks upon this house as the highest authority for the proper millinery styles in flowers and feathers to wear as the season approaches."

Millinery firms continued to fill many of the spaces.  Sharing the building with Berlinger, Brown & Meyer in 1913 were Oscar Glanckopf, Inc., George Rawak, and Warshauer & Rosemond, all of which manufactured "silk and velvet hats."  The Glanckopf operation was a substantial one, employing 128 women and 7 men that year.

Garment manufacturers and dry goods firms were still represented, however.  In 1917 L. Finkelstein & Sons, purveyors of "serges and poplins" was here and would remain several years.  And in 1921 J. Tartikoff & Sons and the related firm Tartikoff & Moss moved in--the former taking the top two floors and Tartikoff & Moss leasing the fourth.

A noticeable exception to the garment and hat makers was A. A. Marks, which leased space by 1918.   The firm manufactured artificial limbs.  In November that year it was looking for a "boy for office work" and promised future growth: "later to learn trade."

On March 1, 1946 The New York Times reported that Henry Modell, president of Henry Modell & Co., had purchased the building "for a sporting goods store and warehouse for government surplus goods acquired by the company."  Modell announced his store would open within a few weeks and the firm would occupy the entire building by February 1947.

The last quarter of the century began as a dark time for this section of Broadway and the upper floors of No. 700 Broadway sat vacant for years during the 1980's.  In 1983 Pottery Barn took a gamble by opening a store in the ground floor as a renaissance of the neighborhood was taking shape.  The store had unusually late hours, staying open until 9:00 during the week and 11:00 on Saturdays.  The chain's vice president of merchandising explained "We always try to tailor the hours to the neighborhood, and this is a very late neighborhood."

The store was still in the space on November 1989 when the National Audubon Society announced its intentions to create its national headquarters in the building.  On December 3, 1992 Cara Greenberg published an article in The New York Times entitled "A Tree Grows in Architecture: 'Green' Design'." She remarked on the work of Croxton Callaborative, the architectural firm in charge of the renovations.  The firm's director of interior design said that No. 700 Broadway "is now one of the lowest energy-consuming office buildings in the country," and pointed out several of the features, "like maximized use of daylight and low-toxicity paints."

The National Audubon Society moved out in April 2008.  The building received a restoration headed by architect Philip Toscano following its purchase that year by the legal firm Weitz & Luxenberg.  

On its website Seaboard Weatherproofing & Restoration notes "a simple facade cleaning and repair project turned into an extensive deconstruction and restoration."  Severe structural and surface damage was discovered, caused by years of freezing and thawing as well as the constant vibration from the Broadway subway.  

An Seaboard artisan works on the reparation of a terra cotta element.  photo via
Included in the extensive restoration was the complete dismantling and rebuilding of 40-feet section of a load-bearing wall on the eighth floor.  The final result is that George B. Posts's building looks much as it did in 1891 when it sorely offended one architectural critic.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

An Improbable Site for Music History --The 1908 Thomas Lynch Stable - 9-11 Weehawken Street

photograph by the author

In 1797 the Georgian-style Newgate Prison was opened by the State of New York at the foot of Christopher Street.  Following its closure in 1829 the site developed as a market and collection of small buildings related to the riverfront trade.  The one-block long Weehawken Street was opened and paved in 1834, named for the the new Weehawken Market which sold goods brought from New Jersey.  In 1845 Littles, Nash, Beadleston & Co. founded a brewery at Nos. 3-5 Weehawken Street, and later one of its founders, Henry Beadleston, erected two brick tenements steps away at Nos. 9 and 11.

The Beadlestone family retained ownership of the tenements until April of 1905.  The purchaser was Thomas Lynch, a "truckman," who ran a delivery operation at No. 25 West Broadway.   Lynch's father had begun the business just after the end of the Civil War.  Lynch took his time in developing the site, and it was not until 1908 that the tenement buildings were demolished and construction was started on a stable building.

Architect George M. McCabe designed the brick-faced, Romanesque Revival structure.  The rusticated base was dominated by side-by-side arched truck bays.  They were flanked by two pedestrian entrances--one to the commercial space and the other to the third-floor living space.  The segmentally arched openings of the upper stories wore brick eyebrows and were splashed with rock-faced limestone trim.  Above the top floor was a triangular parapet with brick corbels.

The ground floor housed the Thos. Lynch delivery vehicles, while horses were stabled in the second floor (according to the Board of Appeals).  Thomas and Ellen L. Lynch moved into the spacious third floor apartment.  The riverfront location no doubt made a perfect location for the company, with ships being loaded and unloaded along the docks.

Lynch was apparently aggressive and ambitious.  An announcement in The Pottery, Glass & Brass Salesman on July 29, 1915 read:

I desire to announce to my friends in the trade that for the convenience of those who are located uptown, I have opened an office at 3 and 5 West 28th Street...This will be maintained in connection with my other offices at 25 West Broadway and 9 and 11 Weehawken Street.
Thomas Lynch, Truckman

The bustling building saw horse-drawn drays coming and going for more than a decade until motorized trucks had essentially taken over the industry.  In 1921 Lynch began a renovation, completed in 1922, which resulted in a garage (capable of holding 50 vehicles according to building documents) on the ground floor and storage space on the second.  In a solid business move Lynch leased the property the to the Thos. Lynch Garage, Inc. upon the completion of the renovations.  

The Fire Commissioner ruled in June 1923 that "the living quarters shall be restricted to the use and occupancy by the owner of the premises."  It was a clause that would have long-lasting ramifications.  If any of the new owners after the Lynches did not live there, the third floor was to remain vacant.

The Lynches remained in the building until Thomas Lynch's death in 1935, and title to the property was transferred to their son, Thomas F. Lynch.  In 1941 Rose and Ralph Kantor purchased the building, operating the Weehawken Garage until 1944.  After two more rapid turnovers, Joseph Oelhaf and his wife, Anna, purchased the building in 1947 starting an amazing chapter in its history.

A gasoline sign hangs from the facade in 1941.  via NYC Dept of Records and Information Services
Born in Switzerland and reared in Germany, Oelhaf was a partner in Meier & Oelhof, a marine repair firm around the corner on Christopher Street.  It was one of the last survivors of the old-time marine operations in the neighborhood.  Oelhaf made alterations to accommodate a four-truck garage on the first floor and a machine shop on the second.  He and his wife moved into the third floor apartment.

Perhaps unexpected in an owner of a boat repair company, Joseph Oelhaf was a life-long devotee of organ music.  Sophie Miller, writing in The Kingston Daily Freeman, said that "as a boy he used to cycle as often as he could to the Weingarten monastery near Friedrichshafen to hear the organ he considered the finest in the world."

In March 1934, just over a decade before the Oelhaf's moved onto Weehawken Street, a Wurlitzer pipe organ with an Art Deco cabinet had been installed in the famous Rainbow Room restaurant 65 stories above Rockefeller Center.  It was played every night between the orchestra sets by well-known musicians like Dick Leibert, Ray Bohr and Ann Leaf.

via NYC Dept of Records and Information Services
But in 1954 the posh restaurant installed an air conditioning unit which elbowed out the instrument.  Radio City Music Hall organist Dick Liebert negotiated the sale of the organ, which was purchased by Joseph Oelhaf and installed in the Weehawken Street apartment.   The Oelhafs contracted Louise Ferrara, the senior curator of the Radio City Music Hall organ (and later Ronald Bishop, who succeeded the position) to maintain the 1,400 pipe, three-manual console.

The fall 1956 issue of Tibia magazine published an article by organist E. J. Quinby entitled "Greatest Night in Organ History."  The American Guild of Organists convention that summer was held in New York  City.  Among the famous musicians attending were Virgil Fox, E. Power Biggs, Charlotte Gardens, Alexander Schreiner and a host of others.

On the evening of June 24 a group of organ enthusiasts, having heard Virgil Fox at the Riverside Church organ, wandered downtown and entered the Paramount Theatre where Ray Bohr was playing.  The unintentional concert resulted in a more than enthusiastic reaction.  "The audience was not content with mere applause--they stood up, they stomped, they hollered, they whistled."  Then, one-by-one, eminent organists took the the instrument until 4:00 a.m. when the manager of the Paramount Theater told the group they really had to go now.

Quinby wrote "But this was not the end of that memorable night.  Joe and Anna Oelhaf...invited a few of us to join them...This, it appears, was overheard by many and sundry in the immediate vicinity and it resulted in a mass taxi pilgrimage.  When Joe unlocked the door to his premises, it looked as though half the Paramount audience had accepted the invitation."

The mass of organists and organ enthusiasts crowded into the Oelhaf apartment.  While Ray Bohr performed, the Oelhafs served refreshments.  And then it got better.  Joseph Oelhaf was a collector of musical instruments and brought out several for inspection.  Quinby wrote "Amongst those present it developed that there was a violinist, an oboist, a flutist, a pianist, and a performer on the French horn to augment the organ, and an impromptu musical carnival progressed until dawn when coffee and Danish pastries were served by the dazed host and hostess."

When the Oelhafs had left their Weehawken Street apartment the previous evening simply to enjoy a concert, they had no idea that one of the most memorable episodes in recent musical history would take place in their own home.

On January 23, 1962 Sophie Miller wrote "Now [Oelhaf's] home is the mecca or port of call for the greatest organists in the world.  Every couple of months he holds a musicale for the elect and can sit back and listen to the finest musicians play his beloved Bach and Handel music."

The Oelhaf family retained possession of the building until 1984 when it was purchased by William Gottlieb.  (When they left, so did the organ.)  By 1997 GLC Productions was operating from the former marine repair space.  Denis Hamill, writing in the New York Daily News on April 13 that year called it "an impressive, self-contained, independence production company...that specializes in 3-D animation, visual editing and sound design."  The firm remained at the address at least through 2017.

photo by Beyond My Ken
The Lynch stables building has suffered little change, other than replacement windows, in its more than 120-year existence.  The few passersby on the quiet block-long street gave little notice to the structure which once made accidental musical history.