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.

1 comment:

  1. For those who care, the Wurlitzer lives on... in Rahway. There are YouTube videos of it in action.