Tuesday, August 11, 2020

R. R. Davis's 1890 768-776 Amsterdam Avenue (aka 200 West 98th Street)

In 1871 the area around Tenth Avenue (later Amsterdam Avenue) and West 98th Street was still mostly wild with a few shanties scattered around the rocky outcroppings.  But developers were already anticipating the upscale suburb that would materialize.  That was evidenced when the single building plot on the southwest corner was sold at auction that year for $5,500--nearly $120,000 today.

Little by little over the next decade operators would add to the property.  Finally, when Joseph Brown purchased the six lots in March 1887, he announced he would "improve" the property.   But his plans quickly changed.  He resold the site to developers McKinley & Gunn whose architect, F. T. Camp, filed plans in June for a "five-story brick tenement and store."  But that project, too, fell apart.

A year later, on August 4, 1888, the Record & Guide reported that the new owner, builder George E. Beaudet, had hired architect R. R. Davis to design four five-story brick flats and stores.  The total construction cost was $88,000, or about $2.4 million today.

Davis's four buildings convincingly pretended to be one.  A blend of neo-Grec and Queen Anne styles, the mass was broken horizontally by two intermediate cornices above the first and third floors.  The individual buildings were defined by slightly-projecting, full-height brick piers.  The second and third floors were purely neo-Grec, with simple sandstone lintels that held hands at the second floor, and projecting brick lintels at the third.  Queen Anne made an entrance in the incised brick banding below the third floor cornice, and in the creative textured brickwork in the spandrel panels.

The center buildings on Tenth Avenue, Nos. 1699 and 1701 (later 770 and 772 Columbus Avenue) rose to peaked gables decorated with blind panels and inset brownstone portrait roundels.  A third gable appeared on the 98th Street side.  Rather than a cornice, Davis went with a brick parapet.  Interestingly, the four domestic entrances were treated individually, a surprising departure from the architectural unity of the four buildings.

Each of the residential entrances was given its own personality.
The apartments were spacious, ranging from five to seven rooms with bath.  The southern-most store became home to the James Butler grocery store, advertised as "The Greatest Retail Grocery Concern in the World."  When it moved in the chain boasted 72 branches in the New York City area.  By 1903 this store would be one of 118 branches.

Among the early residents was photographer Ernest Marks and his wife who took an apartment on the third floor in No. 200 West 98th.   While still a teenager he had experimented with new processes of developing and "glazing" photographs.  On February 14, 1894 The Evening Telegram reported that the 35-year old "became convinced last night that he was able to solve the secret he had so long sought to fathom and set up late to follow out his pet theory."

At around 8:00 his wife went to bed, stopping by his workroom first to say "I wouldn't sit up any longer if I were you, Ernest."  He told her "I think I'm getting at it now.  I won't sit up long."  The World reported "He was sitting by a table that was covered with bottles of acids and packages of potash, in the midst of which a big photographer's lamp burned brightly."

At about 12:30 the entire neighborhood was shaken by a tremendous blast.  The Evening Telegram wrote "Instead of solving the problem he very nearly blew himself into the next world."  And The World reported "Two windows were blown out of the room in which Marks sat at work, and pieces of sash and glass went rattling down the airshaft.  Walls shook, and half a dozen doors on the lower floors were forced open."  

The explosion had been heard three blocks away and tenants fled into the street in their night clothes.  Many believed the building was about to collapse.  And while 200 people milled around the 98th Street corner, Marks was dealing with the aftermath upstairs.  He "recovered his balance and put out the fire that had started and then began dancing up and down the room and yelling like a mad man because of the agony he was in from the burns he received," said The Evening Telegram.  

When firefighters arrived they found Mrs. Marks "beside her husband, wringing her hands; the house was wrecked and Marks's face was black and burned.  Parts of his clothing had been torn from his body, leaving his flesh exposed badly burned," reported The Evening World.  The Telegram noted that he "will probably recover."

Striking portrait roundels, unnoticed from the street, decorate the topmost portion.
Also living here at the time was Frederick J. Emmerick, a wall paper commission merchant, and his wife.  The aged couple had five grown children.  Despite his age (he was born in Germany in 1821), Emmerick still went to his office every day.  He planned a short business trip to Providence on January 17, 1899 and so his son, Frederick, Jr., arranged to meet him at his office at 9:30 that morning to see him off.

Emmerick had been in his office a few minutes and was arranging papers at his desk when he suddenly "dropped from his hair to the floor," according to The New York Times.  "His clerk ran in from the next room and found him dead."  The 78-year old had suffered a heart attack.

Police officer William R. Massie lived in No. 200 West 98th Street at the turn of the century.  A member of the West End Presbyterian Church, he and his wife joined about 1,200 others on the steamboat Taurus headed to the church's annual outing on June 16 that year.  The steamer landed at Oscawana Island, near Peekskill, where the group planned to picnic, play games and enjoy the fresh air.

Almost immediately after landing Mrs. Belvedera Crandall took her two daughters and three other little girls to the shore, where they took off their shoes and stockings and sat on rocks splashing their bare feet in the water.  Suddenly the group heard Mrs. Crandall's screams.

Three of the girls, including her daughters, had fallen into the water.   Mrs. Crandall found a heavy stick and a man rushed up to help her pull Helen Crandall from the water.  The other girls were still below the surface.  William R. Massie ran to the water's edge, and "partially stripping himself, he plunged into the water," reported the New-York Tribune.  "On his third dive he brought to the surface the body of Anna Hussey."  She had been under water twelve minutes and could not be resuscitated.  Massie went back into the water in an attempt to find the third girl.  Her body was never found.

The Massies were still living at No. 200 as late as 1905, when the now-retired policeman was receiving a pension of $799.92 a year--or about $24,000 today.  At the time the roomy apartments were renting for the equivalent of $1,500 per month in today's money, according to an advertisement.

The first years of the 20th century saw several musical and theatrical tenants.  Among them was Josephine Frabasilis, known in Italy as Comtesse de Castelveccio.  She was the daughter of the Count of Castelveccio and grand-niece of Napoleon I.  In 1907 The Actors' Birthday Book said "Coming to American in the early '90's she was known simply as Miss Oldcastle, and became a member of Augustin Daly's company."  She later tweaked her stage name to Elouina Oldcastle.

On November 18, 1906 the New-York Tribune reported "Mme. Margaret Telda, former of the Berlin Conservatory of Music, has opened a studio at No. 200 West 98th Street."  She would remain for years, her advertisements not holding back on self adulation.  In 1908, for instance, an ad read "Mme. Telda, the famous dramatic soprano...former prima donna Berlin Opera house; careful and artistic voice cultivation for opera, church, concert, vaudeville, advanced pupils placed, highest recommendations."

On West 98th Street the brick eyebrows of the ground floor windows terminate in carved brownstone portraits.
The large McGrath family (there were seven children) lived here in 1906.  On the afternoon of October 14 4-year old Alexander, the youngest, walked next door to Hook & Ladder Company 22 where, according to The New York Times "The boy was a favorite among the firemen."  The men played with Alexander for a while on the sidewalk outside the station.

The innocent play turned to unspeakable tragedy within seconds.  Little Alexander turned to cross Amsterdam Avenue and walked directly into the path of an electric street car.  His body was dragged under the fender for several yards, then pulled completely beneath the car.

Two of the firemen immediately ran into the street, "but before the car could be brought to a standstill they were horrified to see the little fellow's legs roll out at their feet from under the car wheels.  The rest of the body was drawn around the front axle and crushed to pieces," said The New York Times.  Residents in the apartment houses along the avenue witnessed the horror.  "Women screamed, and several fainted after seeing the ghastly sight," said the article.

The janitor of No. 200, Herman Becker, and his family narrowly escaped death the following month.  Early on the morning of October 31 a 36-inch water main ruptured with an explosion "resembling the boom of distant big guns," said The New York Times.  Residents rushed to their windows to see "a column of water, mud, and Belgian blocks rising from the middle of the street to the sky level."  The newspaper said "Swifter than a prairie fire, the tide found a temporary level in all the cellars and basements round about."

Becker and his family lived in the cellar apartment of No. 200.  Upon hearing the explosion, Becker feared the building's boiler had burst.  His feet swung from the bed into a pool of rising water.  He tried to open the door to the outside, but the weight of the water held it tight.  "He then ran back, aroused his wife and four children, and climbed through a window to the sidewalk, Mrs. Becker handing out the little ones to him."

By the outbreak of World War I Elouina Oldcastle had retired from the stage and was again using her title as she turned her attention to relief work.  In its February 1916 issue The World Court reported "A charity concert was given by 'Le Salon,' of which society Countess de Castelvecchio is President, on December 11, for the benefit of the widows and orphans of victims of the European war."  And in 1919 she was in charge of the collection of funds for the American Convalescent Home Association.

Like William R. Massie, Louis Kovacs was involved in a water rescue in the summer of 1928.  He was at the popular Recreation Pier near Glenwood, New York in June when the motorboat in which 28-year old Mary Brennan was riding was hit by a swell and she was catapulted into the Hudson River.  Arthur Victorus jumped in after her but, although he was a good swimmer, he was weighed down by his clothing and shoes.

The Yonkers Statesman reported "He became exhausted from her weight and shouted for help.  Louis Kovacs, 21, of 200 West 98th Street, then jumped in and brought Miss Brennan to the boat."  Unfortunately, Arthur Victorus did not survive.

The buildings continued to be home to well-respected tenants.  In 1936 the family of Dr. Ramon-Ruiz-Arnao lived at No. 200.  Their son, Guillermo, was also a doctor, now doing x-ray research work on tropical diseases in Puerto Rico.  Living with them here was son Ramon, a concert pianist.  Ramon had studied at the Conservatory of Music in Versailles and Madris and had given concerts at Steinway Hall and in Puerto Rico.

There were still four separate storefronts at ground level in 1941, the southern store still a grocery, home to an Atlantic & Pacific food store.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

By the early 1940's the Rev. David Roitman and his wife Sonya were residents.  Roitman was deemed by the Canadian Jewish Review on April 30, 1943 "an outstanding cantor in Orthodox Jewry for the last thirty-eight years, whose melodies for synagogue services are well-known."  Born near Odessa, Russia in 1885, he studied music at the Leningrad Conservatory.  His outstanding voice earned him the position of cantor of the Jewish Temple at Elisavetgrad in 1904, later at a synagogue in Vilna, and finally at the Baron Ginsbourgh Synagogue in Leningrad.

Roitman made several concert tours of Europe and in 1918 he fled Russian during the pogroms.  He arrived in New York around 1922 and, in addition to his position as cantor at Temple Ohev Sholom in Brooklyn, he continued his concert tours.  Roitman was a composer, as well, and at least two of his works were recorded.   He died at the age of 58 in his 98th Street apartment in April 1943.

Over the decades the apartments were, surprisingly, never broken up and today still contain as many as three bedrooms.  Although the storefronts have been brutally massacred, the upper floors are little changed since the building first welcomed residents in 1890.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment