Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Dr. Wm. Holmes Stewart House - 222 West 79th Street

Brothers William W. and Thomas H. Hall were prolific developers on the Upper West Side in the late 19th century.  In 1894 they completed an ambitious project--a row of eleven houses on the south side of West 79th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.  Designed by the firm of Thom & Wilson, the Renaissance Revival style residences were 18-feet wide.  Although slightly narrower than most upscale homes they were intended for moneyed owners.

Sadly abused today, the houses still hint at the row's original appearance.
Among them was No. 222 West 79th Street.  Both the basement and parlor levels were faced in limestone, while the two upper floors were clad in buff-colored Roman brick.  A stone balustrade crowned the rounded bay at the parlor level and the entrance was ornamented with elaborate foliate carving.  The windows of the second floor wore carved stone architrave surrounds, and the center opening of the third floor mimicked a Venetian balcony with engaged columns and an expertly-carved fan within the tympanum.  Celtic-style stone carving outlined blind panels below the metal cornice.  A half-story fourth floor was unseen from the street.

On November 16, 1894 The Evening Post reported "Wm. H. and M. T. Hall have sold the 3-1/2 story 18-foot dwelling, No. 222 West 79th st., for about $36,000."  The price would amount to about $1.1 million today.

The buyers, George L. and Isabella M. Avery, did not intend to live in the new house.  Real estate operators, they bought and sold properties, some of which, like this one, they leased.  Their well-heeled tenant in 1900 found himself on the wrong side of the law after a night of imbibing.

On March 29 the New York Herald reported that Daniel T. Gerrie had been drinking the night before with two companions in a downtown restaurant.  The article said Gerrie "was well dressed and gave his business as 'a gentleman.'"  By the time they decided to have dinner, the men were noticeably intoxicated.  "Their condition apparently made them undesirable patrons, and the proprietor refused to serve them dinner."

The three gentlemen then "upset the table, broke the crockery and otherwise disturbed the equilibrium of the other diners."  All three men were arrested but the proprietor pressed charges only against Gerrie.

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Soon afterward the house was leased to Samuel S. Shubert.  His was a remarkable rags-to-riches success story.  Born in Poland in 1878, his family settled in Syracuse, New York in 1881 where other Polish Jewish families were living.  Because of his father's alcoholism, the family struggled financially and while very young Sam was working on the street as a shoeshine boy.

The course of his life took a decisive turn when he landed a job as an usher in a theater.  By the time he was 18 he managed a road company, and not long afterward leased a theater and then another.  He brought his brothers, Lee and Jacob into the business and by the time he leased No. 222 he owned or controlled approximately two dozen playhouses in America and two in England.  

Shubert moved his mother into the 79th Street house, a striking change for the women who had struggled amidst dingy surroundings and with little money for so many years.

On June 17, 1905 the Chicago Eagle reported tragic news--among the 22 persons killed in "the terrible railroad disaster near Harrisburg, Pa." was 23-year-old Sam S. Shubert.  The young man's rise from near poverty to a nationally-known theatrical manager smacked of a Horatio Algier story.  "Sixteen years ago he was selling papers on the streets of Syracuse, N. Y. and at the time there was nothing to distinguish him from the hundreds of other newsboys in that city," said the newspaper.  His amazing, 15-year career generated an estate of $500,000--about $14.7 million today.

Shubert's funeral was held in the 79th Street house on May 14.  The New York Press reported on the quiet service, noting "It was the family's earnest desire that there was no out-turning of a great number of mourners, for it is seldom there has been such a genuine and widespread sorrow among theatre folk as that caused by the killing of the young manager."  The article said that "Besides the members of the family...only the men--about twenty of them--most closely associated with him in theatrical affairs, attended the funeral service...in his mother's home at No. 222 West Seventy-ninth street."

Samuel S. Shubert from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Morning Telegraph mentioned the hundreds of letters and telegrams that arrived at the residence, "from managers and chorus girls, from stars and stage hands."  Among those who sent respects were renowned managers like Fred and David Belasco, Charles B. Dillingham and Daniel Frohman; and stage stars like John Drew, Ethel Barrymore and Julia Marlow.

On March 6, 1906 the Averys sold No. 222 to Dr. Alexis M. Leon.  Born in New York City in 1857 he had graduated from Manhattan College in 1875 and from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1878.  By now he was an attending physician at St. Francis' Hospital.  But like the Averys, Leon purchased the property for investment rather than for his own residence.  

He leased the house to George C. Foster and his wife, the former Lucrecia M. Wood, who was known as Lulu.  Like Shubert, Foster had a considerable fortune and registered his yacht at this address for years.  Sadly, the house was the scene of a second funeral on September 5, 1911, three days after Lulu's death.

George continued to lease the house until the fall of 1912 when Alexis Leon sold it to another physician, Dr. William Holmes Stewart.  Stewart was born in Syracuse, New York in 1868 and received his degree from New York University in 1891.  He and his wife, the former Florence Maud Morris had a son, Leslie Morris, a daughter, Dorothy Holmes Stewart.  With the outbreak of World War I Stewart joined the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army, earning the rank of major.  

Although the war would not end for another month, in October 1918 Stewart was back home for the marriage of his daughter.   Dorothy's wedding to Lt. Henry Cunningham, Jr. took place in the Church of the Holy Trinity on Lenox Avenue on October 14.  The location and date of the wedding was important.  Not only had her parents been married in the church on that date 22-years earlier, but it was also the 44th wedding anniversary of Barbara's maternal grandparents.

Barbara Stewart on her wedding day. The Sun, October 20, 1918 (copyright expired) 

The New York Herald remarked "Lace handed down from both grandmother and mother of the bride adorned her gown and formed part of the veiling."  The guests traveled downtown to the 79th Street house for the reception.

Dr. Stewart was a roetgenologist, meaning in laymen's terms that he was a pioneer in the use of x-rays to diagnose and treat diseases.  On October 23, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported "Dr. William H. Stewart and Dr. Arthur Stern demonstrated at Lenox Hill Hospital a new method of the use of the X-ray in diagnosing diseases of the gall bladder and the abdomen.  The method of these surgeons consisted of injecting oxygen into the abdominal cavity."

Stewart wrote many articles on roentgen diagnosis and became a director of x-ray laboratories in at least six New York City hospitals.  His careful experimentation was exemplified in his using sausage skin rather than living patients when exploring improved x-ray treatments of the esophagus.

By 1936 the West 79th Street was becoming increasingly commercialized.  That year Dr. Stewart commissioned architects Max Hirsch and Henry Z. Harrison to alter the basement level to a store.   Three years later the Stewarts apparently totally surrendered and converted their home of two decades to commercial space in the former basement and parlor levels, and a single apartment each on the second and third floors, and one in the half-story.

The Stewarts retained ownership until 1946 when they sold the property to Joseph S. Ward.  The configuration of stores and apartments continued for decades.  In 1973 Clay Crafts opened, described by New York Magazine as "a new crafts shop" selling items hanging planters, vases and bowls.  The shop offered pottery classes as well.

That all changed in 1986 when the space above the store was converted to a single family triplex.  In 1992 the ground floor became a restaurant.  On December 11 The New York Times reported that Frank Valenza "who had the ultra-expensive Palace in the late 1970's, later Giogio, on Park Avenue South," had opened Restaurant Two Two Two.  Restaurant critic Bryan Miller commented "The town-house setting is warm and dignified, with oak-paneled walls, oil paintings, a polished wood floor with a marble inset, and adequately spaced tables."

Restaurant Two Two Two was a fixture for more than a decade.  Then in 2004 it made way for the Greek restaurant, Onera.  That was followed in 2007 by Kefi, another Greek eatery, owned by chef Michael Psilakis.

Of the eleven houses on Thom & Wilson's 1894 row, No. 222 is the most intact, giving us a good idea of what the block was like when well-to-do families populated the neighborhood.

photographs by the author

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