Friday, August 21, 2020

The Augustus L. Nosser House - 178 East 72nd Street

August Ludwig Nosser was born in 1819 in Germany.  His wife, the former Johanna Caroline Buchelman, was born in Bradenburg, Germany in 1830.  The couple had three sons when they moved into the skinny neo-Grec style rowhouse at No. 178 East 72nd Street.  Henry Nosser was born on August 7, 1854, Charles on January 3, 1862, and August Louis, Jr. arrived on August 20, 1873.

At just two bays and 16-feet wide, the brownstone-faced house was intended for a merchant-class family.  One of a long row of identical homes, its neo-Grec design included architrave windows with molded cornices and brackets, a projecting, columned portico above the stoop with its stone railings and newels, and a stylish metal cornice.

No. 178 is at the left.  The middle house, No. 176, had already lost its stoop when this photo was taken. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

August and Johanna worked as partners in real estate, buying and selling properties throughout the city.  But August took time from wheeling and dealing to try his luck at a newspaper contest in 1888.   In October The Evening World challenged readers to predict the three coldest days of the coming winter.  The winner would receive $100--a significant $2,700 today.  August was confident in his prediction:

To the Editor of the Evening World:
     I am quite certain that the coldest three days of the approaching Winter will be Dec. 26, 1888; Jan. 19, 1889, and Feb. 3, 1889.

Whether he won the grand prize or not is unknown.

Henry Nosser had died in 1876.  His brothers remained in the East 72nd Street house with their parents.  As they matured Charles joined the real estate business while August focused on music, at one point studying the violin in Belgium.

Early on the morning of May 16, 1894 the house was thrown into turmoil.  Shortly before 7:00 a servant, Annie Bennett, went out to get milk, leaving the basement door open.  That did not go unnoticed by John Smith who was standing on the opposite side of the street.  When Annie was out of sight, Smith bolted across the street and into the house.  On the hat rack in the entrance hall were three expensive overcoats.  Smith put them on over his own and headed out.

But as he reached the basement door he came face-to-face with Annie.  "The girl gave a scream that could be heard a block away," reported The Evening World.  Charles had just arisen.  His bedroom was on the second floor and, upon hearing Annie's cries, "jumped down the stairs in an improvised costume."

Smith was already headed towards Madison Avenue with Annie right behind yelling "for all she was worth."  Charles, said the newspaper, "shouted 'Stop thief!' and every one who appeared on the street took up the hue and cry."  Neighbors, roused from their beds by the commotion, saw a remarkable sight.  "It was a picturesque chase, too, for the pursued wore three stolen coats, besides one of his own, and the pursuer wore only a night-shirt and a pair of trousers."  The coat-thieving culprit was captured by Policeman John H. Wagner three blocks from the Nosser house.

On October 29, 1895 Johanna Nosser died in the house at the age of 65.  Her funeral was held there two days later.   August survived her by only five months, dying on March 25, 1896.  Rather surprisingly, given the expected Victorian mourning protocol, Charles was married before the year was out.  

The title to the house remained in the Nosser Estate and the brothers leased it late that year to millionaire Lazarus Morgenthau.  He was a cigar manufacturer, "compounder" of patent medicines, and philantropist.  Morgenthau intended to use No. 178 both as his home and as the headquarters of his newly-founded and exhaustingly-named New York German-American Non-Sectarian Orphan Dowry Society.

On January 4, 1897 the New York Herald reported that the society's rooms "were opened to the public for inspection last evening."  Morgenthau explained the creative concept behind the society.  Orphans "of any creed" who passed a careful vetting process, would receive a wedding ceremony, $100 at the time of the marriage, and, "at the end of five years, if the couple are found worthy and live happily together, a sum of money amounting to about $400 shall be paid to the wife, or in case of her death to her children."

Lazarus Morgenthau New York journal and Advertiser, August 21, 1897 (copyright expired)
The cost of the weddings and the dowries was paid for by donations.  The New York Herald said "The list of subscribers is to be kept in what is called the 'Golden Book of Life.'"

Two rooms on the parlor floor were transformed into what Morgenthau called "The Temple of Humanity."  On the evening of February 13 the first of the weddings was held here.  Bertha Horowitz was married to Isaac Hoffman in the presence of about 25 or 30 people.  Alderman John Jeroloman, who performed the ceremony, placed a $100 gold piece in the bride's hand.

But six months later Morgenthau's name appeared in newsprint for much less altruistic reasons.  In May 1897 he hired a married couple as his housekeeper and gardener.   Regina Greenberger was 24 years old.  According to her, by July Morgenthau had "become very affectionate toward her."  At one point he told her "that his physician had informed him that if he wished to bring back his youth he should seek the love of some young woman."  

Rita, whom the New York Journal and Advertiser described as "a woman of 300 pounds" went to the Legal Aid Society, saying that Morgenthau "was so importunate that she felt insulted."  The millionaire was summoned to court on July 15, charged by his housekeeper with "making love to her," according to The Sun.

Morgenthau's attorney used Rita's physicality against her.  "You see, Judge," he said, "this woman might properly be classed as a heavy weight and could easily pick up this feeble old man and throw him out of the window if he attempted to insult her."  Rita, who spoke only German, answered through an interpreter that she was afraid she might hurt him.  And when asked why she did not simply call her husband she said she "was afraid he might kill Morgenthau."

The judge did not deem Rita Greenberger's story plausible and he dismissed the case.  The Greenbergers had to find new jobs.

In the meantime, Morgenthau was experiencing financial troubles.  The New York Journal and Advertiser explained on August 21, 1897 "Various ventures in which he was deeply interested have failed of late, and he could not stand the accumulated pressure."  With his fortune suddenly depleted, his health failed.  He was forced to leave East 72nd Street and move into a boarding house.  And the activities of the Orphan Dowry Society came to an end.  The New York Journal and Advertiser lamented "Husbandless orphan women have lost a friend."

A sheriff's sale of Morgenthau's furniture took place in the house on August 24, 1897.  A newspaper commented "His collection of crayon drawings, including pictures of some twoscore famous men, ancient and modern, will be sold."  Listed among the fallen mogul's creditors was Charles Nosser, to whom he owed $262.95 in back rent (just over $8,000 today).

It appears that August and Charles played tug-of-war concerning who had control of their parents' home.   On July 25, 1898 the Record & Guide said "August L. 'otherwise Louis'" had given Eleanor M. Hall a three-year, $10,000 mortgage on the property.  But three months later, on November 5, Charles gave Benjamin P. Ducas a $3,000 mortgage.   The dispute seems to have been settled when neither Hall nor Ducas took possession and, instead, Charles and his wife, Lillian Emiline, moved back into the house.

By now the couple had a child, Henry.  In 1899 Antonette was born, followed by twins Gertrude and Gladys in 1900, and Charles Joseph in 1902.

As many families did, the couple rented spare rooms.  In 1899 Frank Knapp lived here.  He was appointed a commissioner of deeds that year, a position similar to a notary public today.   Knapp and another boarder, Milton Lamburger, became heroes on February 27, 1900.  The two heard screams for help and discovered the house next door at No. 180, now being operated as a rooming house, was in flames.  

The top floor was occupied by the family of Berthold Bernheim.  The Morning Telegraph reported "Bernheim has a large family, but the children were at school at his wife was out shopping.  No one was at home but his aged and feeble mother and himself."  When he discovered his kitchen ablaze, "Bernheim rushed for the front windows and called loudly for help."  Knapp and Lamburger ran up the stairs and carried the elderly woman to safety.

Like all financially comfortable couples, the Nossers held dinner parties and receptions.  On February 11, shortly before the frightening incident next door, the New York Herald had reported "Mr. and Mrs. Charles Nosser entertained Wednesday evening at their residence, No. 178 East Seventy-second street."

Charles sold the 72nd Street house in 1904.  The new owner was the well-known Jewish actor Jacob P. Adler and his wife, Sarah.

Yiddish theater star Jacob P. Adler from the Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University

In the meantime, August's musical career had faltered.  He was married in 1901 to Eva Haines.  At the time, according to the New York Sun, "He made fairly good money playing with orchestras in this city, and he and his wife were happy."  But trouble came.  The newspaper went on, "In the course of time, Nosser developed a passion for gambling, and this caused him to desert his violin, especially from a wage earning point of view.  He became what might be termed a successful gambler, and soon had a well patronized poker 'club' on one of the side streets of the Tenderloin."  His gambling house on West 13th Street was known as the Wall Street Club.

The Minneapolis Journal described Nosser as "a handsome man, dressed in faultless style, and...a sort of Beau Brummel of the Tenderloin, which knew him as 'Cupid'...Gambling was his only source of income."  But things went wrong.  Nosser lost his fortune--at one point estimated at $500,000 (in the neighborhood of $15 million today)--and in 1905 he declared bankruptcy.  The Sun reported "Mrs. Nosser, shortly after her husband went into bankruptcy, was shocked to learn that he was addicted to the use of opium."  The costly habit had contributed to the collapse of his finances.

August had another secret, as well: chorus girl Estelle Young.   Eva and August were living at the Pierrepont Hotel in March 1906 when Eva learned that August planned to sail to Europe taking Estelle with him.  She sent a note pleading with her to leave her husband alone.  Estelle, who had not known August was married, was enraged.  The 26-year old stormed off to the Pierrepont Hotel on the afternoon of March 14 with a rawhide dog whip in her jacket and with every intention of using it.

But when she arrived at the Nosser apartment, she changed her mind.  She berated August for his deceit and begged Eva for forgiveness.  While she explained how she was lured into the affair, Nosser paced back and forth, then walked into the bathroom.  The women heard a thump and found him on the floor with an empty laudanum bottle by his side.

Nosser had not taken enough of the poison to kill him.  A doctor advised the two former rivals to stay up with him overnight, walking him to keep him from falling asleep.  At 4:00, with Nosser apparently out of danger, Estelle said she was exhausted.  Eva prepared her a bed in the front room where Estelle fell asleep.

Around 8:00 a.m. Eva stepped into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face to keep herself alert.  Suddenly the door was shut and she heard the lock click.  While she struggled with the doorknob, she her a loud bang.  And then another.

Escaping through the hall door, she beat on the apartment door until a porter used his pass key.  Inside they found the bodies of Estelle and August.  He had shot himself in the head after murdering Estelle.

It is unclear how long the Adlers remained in No. 178.  In 1910 it was leased to the Church of the Holy Communion, located far downtown at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street.  The three-year lease came with a total rent of $22,000.

The house was sold to Thomas Crimmins in 1919 and given a renovation, completed in 1920.  It may have been at this time that the stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to street level.  Interestingly, Crimmins lived next door at No. 176.  His sister, Mercedes, and her husband David Challinor moved into the updated house.  

Like most socialites, Mercedes was active in charitable causes.  On December 17, 1925 The New York Times reported "Mrs. David Challinor gave a tea yesterday afternoon at her home, 178 East Seventy-second Street, for the young women who will sell programs at the music festival in aid of the Reconstruction Hospital."  

Living in the Crimmins house next door was Herbert Lloyd, the son of Thomas's wife by a former marriage.  On November 19, 1928 Herbert was married to Josephine Munroe.  The Chicago wedding was deemed by the New York Evening Post "One of the most important of the several out-of-town weddings of the new year."

The stoop had been removed by 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
When the Challinors moved out of No. 178 East 72nd Street, Herbert Lloyd and his family moved in.  The couple had two daughters, Joan Herbert and Josephine Logan.  

On December 15, 1950 Joan's parents announced her engagement to Peter de Lancey Wallace.  The prospective groom's social pedigree was impressive.  The New York Times noted that he was "a descendant of Isaac Shelby, first Governor of Kentucky; Maj. Gen. William Alexander, and Lord Stirling, he is related also to the de Lancey, Van Cortlandt and Livingston families of New York."  The wedding took place on January 27, 1951 in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church with the bride's sister serving as the maid of honor.

It was most likely the alteration completed in 1975 that shaved off what was left of the Victorian detailing and removed the cornice.  A commercial space was created in the former basement and a two-family home above.  The Livingstone-Learmonth Gallery would operate from the lower space for several years.

In 1981 the restoration architectural firm of Beyer-Binder-Belle recreated the lost brownstone details in stucco and reproduced the lost cornice.  Today the narrow Nosser house looks a bit lonely, the last surviving relic of the 1870's row.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for prompting this post

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