Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The 1900 Benjamin Birkenfeld House - 318 West 105th Street

Real estate developer John C. Umberfeild's aggressive building project which began in 1899 would fill the entire southern blockfront of West 105th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue.  Designed in near-matching pairs by Janes & Leo, the sumptuous Beaux Arts style residences were completed the following year.

Like its neighbors, No. 318 would have been comfortable on a Parisian street.  Elaborate scrolled brackets on either side of the ground floor window upheld an iron-railed balcony.  A gently-bowed two story bay was flanked by Corinthian pilasters upon pedestals.  Above the floor-to-ceiling windows of the second floor carved garlands of fruits and flowers draped from the graceful French pseudo-balconies of the third floor.  The slate shingled mansard was punctured by stately dormers with arched pediments.

Umberfield sold the 22-foot wide house on July 20, 1902 to William A. Stanton, who held it for just a year.  It then became home to Benjamin Birkenfeld, a partner in Birkenfeld, Strauss & Co., makers of ladies' muslin and flannel undergarments.

On September 9, 1906 Birkenfeld headed to City Island with three women in his automobile, presumably family members.  Unsure of the route, when he noticed a friend's car in the Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania and he waved him down for directions.   Along with his chauffeur Jacob Leitner had three friends in his automobile.

The New York Herald reported "After the needed information was given, the two cars started down Crotona avenue at a high rate of speed.  In fact, according to by-standers and Policeman Lynch, of the Tremont station, the two machines were racing."  As the cars neared 108th Street, Leitner's chauffeur saw an approaching crosstown streetcar.  His speed made it impossible to stop in time, so he drove faster in hopes of clearing the tracks in time.  That did not happen.

The streetcar struck the car which, according to the newspaper, was "smashed like an eggshell.  The occupants of the machine were thrown out into the roadway."  Luckily no one was seriously hurt.

Birkenfeld sold No. 318 in 1908 to Hugh Mullen, a partner in the women's undergarment and hosiery importing and manufacturing firm of Brown, Durrell Co.  The family moved in just in time for the announcement of the engagement of daughter Genevieve Lillian.

On November 8, 1908 The New York Times reported simply that her engagement to Guyon I. C. Earle had been announced and "The wedding will take place in January or early in February."  Other newspapers were more interested in the juicier details of the groom's family.

On December 30 The Buffalo Evening Times reported "Unconverted to the matrimonial ideas Guyon Crocheron Earle was decided to be married in the old-fashioned way, and yesterday he obtained a license in the City Hall.  He said his intended bride was Miss Genevieve Lillian Mullen, daughter of Hugh Mullen, who is in business at No. 11 West 19th Street."

Noting that the groom-to-be was the son of General Ferdinand P. Earle, the article added he was "a brother of Fredinand Pinney Earle, who gained notoriety by putting his wife away to marry Julia Kittner, whom he called his 'real soul mate,' his 'affinity.'"  The Sun, too, focused on the romantic history of Earle's brother, entitling its article "Brother of Ferdinand Pinney Earle Gets License To Wed."  The wedding took place in the West 105th Street house.

Interestingly, Guyon Crocheron Earle had grown up in the Morris-Jumel mansion in Washington Heights, once the headquarters of George Washington and where Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met before their fatal duel.  The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record explained that the house was "built by a relative of his ancestor, Capt. William Morris."

Nos. 318 (left) and 320 were designed a near mirror images.
More routine were the newspaper announcements of W. Stanley Mullen's engagement to Kathryn E. Comisky six years later, on May 1, 1914.

Shortly after their son's marriage the Mullens gave up city living in favor of the suburbs, moving to a new home in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called the Mullens' new home "a fine example of Colonial architecture."  April 6, 1916 (copyright expired)
The new owners quickly leased rooms in the residence.  When the property was offered at auction on February 11, 1918 it was described as a "five-story apartment building."  It was purchased by Hyman Freund, who resold it in 1920 to the 319 West 105th Street Corp. (which, not coincidentally, was headed by Hyman Freund).  Later that year it was converted to non-housekeeping apartments--meaning there were no kitchens.

Perhaps the most celebrated of the tenants was Alabama-born actress and singer Roberta Curry.  She appeared on Broadway in the 1925 Dearest Enemy and the 1927 White Eagle.  On June 28, 1928 the Alabama newspaper The Union-Banner reported "Radio fans, and they are many in this section, were thrilled to the nth degree on Monday evening to hear again, Roberta Curry's voice over the ethereal waves."  The article continued "Many letters of appreciation...have been forwarded to the artist at 318 West 105th Street, New York City."

A tenant with less positive notoriety, at least in the minds of Government officials, was Robert De Saulmier.  He was living here by 1940 and would remain for at least a decade.  During those years he was constantly tracked by Congress's Special Commitee on Un-American Activities as a registered member of the Communist Party.

A renovation completed in 1943 resulted in two apartments per floor.  In the late 1950's it was home to the International Foreign Mission Association of North America.  Simultaneously Tahseen Mohamed Basheer, the press attaché of the United Arab Republic Consulate lived in an apartment here.

In 1972 photographer Aubrey Balkind opened his apartment for a five-week course in the basic techniques and equipment for beginning photographers.  The two-hour classes included weekly field assignments; the course costing $40 (around $245 today).

Somehow the 1900 fireplace and overmantel survived in this much reduced apartment.  photos via streeteasy.com
Other than an unsympathetic replacement entrance door and an unnecessary coat of gray paint over the limestone, the former Birkenfeld house is little changed on the outside.  Leo & Janes's 1900 interiors have not been so fortunate.

photographs by the author

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