Friday, September 4, 2020

A Stunning Transformation - 629 Park Avenue

In 1869 developers Patrick Fitzgerald and Eugene Sullivan, partners in Fitzgerald & Sullivan, erected two brownstone fronted flathouses on the east side of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue) between 65th and 66th Street.  Designed by architect William McNamara, each of the 22-foot wide Italianate style buildings housed three families--one per floor.  There was most likely always a store at ground level.

Each of the apartments had six rooms and, at least by the 1890's, a bathroom.  In 1894 the rent charged was $26, or about $767 per month in today's money.

On April 3, 1893 an advertisement appeared in The World which read "Boy Wanted in upholsterer's shop; one used to shades preferred, references required."  It was Thomas H. Robins who placed that ad.  He and his wife, Emma, lived in one of the upstairs apartments at No. 629, above his shop.

Theirs was an interesting tale.  In 1876 Robins was living in England.  Emma provided him the money to come to New York, married him, and then set him up in his upholstery business.  He was successful, but 17 years later things were not going as well with the relationship.

Emma was 40-years old in 1894, described by The Evening Telegram as "a small, slender, respectable looking woman."  The newspaper said Thomas was "a tall, stout, powerful looking man."  Emma's slight stature did not diminish her mettle, however.  

On February 25 The New York Times began an article saying that Robins "ran out of his apartments Friday night with blood streaming from a cut over his right eye.  He told a policeman his wife had made the wound."  The Evening Telegram expounded, saying the cut, according to Robins, "was inflicted by a saucer thrown at him by his wife."

Police went to the Robins apartment where they found "the little woman, quietly seated in a chair in her apartments."  Emma did not deny throwing the saucer at Thomas, but said "he had come home drunk, told her she was not his wife, and ordered her out of the house.  She refused to go, and then he seized her by the throat, threw her on the floor and attempted to choke her."  When she managed to escape, she began to fire the table dishes at him.

When she appeared before the judge, she recounted the story of bringing Thomas to America and financing his business.  "Now that he has prospered he wants to throw her aside for a younger woman," said The New York Times.  Emma was released, and The Evening Telegram concluded its article saying, "at any rate she will have nothing to do with him, so she said."

It appears that the feuding couple made up.  The Robins upholstery store remained in the space for several years to come.  The other two families in the building in 1897 were J. P. Decker and his wife, Louise; and the family of Patrick Conway.   Each of the families was financially comfortable enough to have household help, most likely one maid and a cook.    The Conway's cook was looking for a job in 1897.  It was an amiable split with the family allowing prospective employers to interview her at their apartment.

Thomas and Emma Robins had left No. 629 by 1900 and the Hemberg & Berlin upholstery shop was now in the store.  It  was operated by Frederick A. Berlin and Charles Hemberg.  

Berlin stopped in a saloon at No. 9 Bowery on March 4 that year.  The Bowery could be a risky place to have a drink and The Morning Telegraph reported "Yesterday morning the Bowery furnished two good, old fashioned robberies, in which two men were held up in the glare of electric lights and relieved of their rolls and jewels."  One of those men was Frederick Berlin.

He told police a man had held him up and robbed him of $30 in the saloon--nearly $950 today.  A policeman accompanied him to the saloon where he identified a bricklayer, William Kelly, as the culprit and had him arrested.  "Kelly denied the charge, but Tony, the Italian bootblack in the place, said he saw him take the money and pass it to a pal," said the article.

Patrick Conway and his family were still living in the building on May 7, 1901.  That morning he was in the neighborhood of 60th Street and Lexington Avenue when a fire spread through a five-story apartment building on the corner.  There were 20 families in the structure and the New York Herald reported "Flames spread through the building with such rapidity that escape was quickly cut off."  Some tenants jumped from their windows, others were seen "to fall back from windows into the flames."

As firefighters and policemen worked furiously to rescue victims, Conway rushed in.  The New York Times reported, "Patrick Conway of 629 Park Avenue, a by-stander, took a woman from the first floor."  His heroism and that of the responders saved many lives.  Nevertheless, the New York Herald reported the following day "Three lives are believed to have been lost" and "many were injured, some so seriously that they may die.  Firemen are confident that not fewer than four bodies will be found in the ruins."

In the first years following World War I the former upholstery shop was converted to Daniel Reeves's grocery store.  It was the target of an armed robber on September 22, 1919, but the hoodlum had underestimated the store clerk, George Dwyer.  When police entered the store, Dwyer had William Sweeter restrained.  Later, in court, the clerk explained that Sweeter had entered the store "wearing a mask, and pointed a revolver at him, with a demand that he open the cash register."  Dwyer refused and "leaped over the counter and grappled with the hold-up man," according to The Evening Post.  He knocked the gun from Sweeter's hand then overpowered him.

Around 1940 the building was little changed.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
The tenants of the apartments continued to be respectable.  Perhaps one exception was Dr. Maximilian Goldstein who was indicted on July 5, 1938 for his involvement in a "surety racket."  It was an early example of the type of insurance fraud that continues today, with physicians charging insurance companies for fictitious ailments and treatments.

Major change came to the aging building in the summer of 1941 when it was "entirely modernized" by the Rocco Corporation.  The large apartments were divided into "suites of one and one-half and two and one-half rooms."  The Victorian exterior got a renovation as well.  The firm's president, Gerard van Dam was quoted by The New York Sun
on August 8 saying he "sought to bring out the building's original attractiveness by renovation, including black and white decoration."  The cornice was replaced by a jazzy parapet.

Rocco Corporation gave the building a "new personality." The New York Sun, August 8, 1941 

The new apartments were touted in an advertisement in The New York Sun on September 26, 1941.  "Former Town House in smart 60's near clubs, social activities, now offered modern 1-1/2 room suite; featuring dropped living rooms.  Never before occupied."  The $70 rent would be more in the neighborhood of $1,210 per month today.

The new tenant of the ground floor was Sumner Wine & Spirits.  By 1981 it was home to Ilona of Hungary, a skin care facility, which would remain for well over a decade.

But by the turn of the century No. 629 had been vacant for several years.  Construction workers were in the building in the spring of 2001, possibly doing renovations.  But during rush hour on April 7 the rear wall collapsed.  Fearing vibrations would further weaken the structure, officials stopped service on the Metro-North Railroad until crews could "prop up what remained of the building," according to The New York Times.

The restoration of structure was remarkable, resulting in the recreation of the lost brownstone elements and the cornice.  It could easily fool an experienced architectural junkie.  Today a medical office occupies the ground floor, above which are two apartments.

photographs by the author

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