Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Gilbert A. Schellenger's 1891 420 Through 426 Amsterdam Avenue


On May 10, 1890 the Record & Guide reported that Gordon Bros. had purchased the northwest corner of Tenth Avenue and 80th Street "for improvement."  The firm was busily erecting rows of flathouses throughout what was then still called the West End, almost always turning to architect Gilbert A. Schellenger for their designs.  By the time the Schellenger filed plans for the site on May 31 Tenth Avenue had been renamed Amsterdam Avenue.

The plans called for five five-story flats, each to cost $25,000, or about $725,000 in today's money.  Four faced the avenue, Nos. 420 through 426, while No. 203 West 80th Street was separated from the others by a narrow service alley.  (The residential entrance of the corner building sat on the side street, as well, at No. 201.)  Schellenger's row pretended to be a single building.  Faced in yellow brick, the design was a melding of Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival elements, with a splash of Queen Anne.  The architect enlivened what could have been an otherwise uninteresting façade with creative brickwork panels--some laid in a dog's tooth pattern and others in a sort of basket weave--and with arched openings on the top floor capped with brick dentils.  The edges of the openings were softened with bullnose, or rounded edge, brick.

The most interesting element was the engaged turret on the corner.  Wide bands of decorative brickwork below the third and fourth floors, one with snaky rows and the other a honeycomb motif, sat upon chunky rough cut stone.  A "witch's cap" cone almost assuredly originally topped the corner.

The flurry of building on the Upper West Side at the time was so intense that a shortage of brick threatened some projects.  On September 13, 1890 the Record & Guide explained "So much has been said about men being thrown out of work, owing to the shortness of brick for building operations" that it sent a reporter to the Upper West Side "as building operations in that section of the city are more numerous than in any other section."  He visited 100 building sites and spoke to the developers.  Among them, of course, were Gordon Bros., whose corner building was already completed.  He was assured "the brick trouble will not trouble them."

The full row was completed in 1891.  At ground level, the corner building held one store, while each of the others contained two, separated by the residential entrances.  Each of the apartments upstairs comprised five rooms and a bath.  Rent in 1894 was advertised at $22, or about $735 per month today.

The corner store was home to the butcher shop of Henry and John J. Malbrunn.  Presumably brothers, they also ran a store on Greenwich Street.  Next door at No. 422 were Charles Jaeger's boot and shoe store and Frederick Ambrust's candy store.  Ambrust changed the personality of his shop around the turn of the century when it became a stationery store.  It was a wise move and the Ambrust store remained for decades, into the 1920's.

The two stores at No. 424 were Smith Bros. "milk store" run by Floyd A. Smith, and Herman Solomon's delicatessen.  Solomon, who lived in the building, dabbled in real estate, as well, and owned apartment houses in the sordid Tenderloin District.  

When brothels operating out of two apartment houses were raided by vice agents in December 1893 a search for the landlord was made.  The New York Times decried the injustice of the punishment meted out to the prostitutes while their landlords went free.  An article on December 11 said "While many of the evicted women of the 'Tenderloin' district wandered about the streets yesterday in a penniless, and hungry condition, the owners of the houses in which they had at least been sheltered, enjoyed the day in warm and cosy homes amid surroundings which were the height of luxury, compared with the present destitution of their former tenants."  It went on to explain that owners dodged justice by using an agent to rent the apartments, so "he knows nothing about the character of his tenants.  This is almost invariably the plea."

An investigative reporter checked the records of the two apartment houses, finding the owner to be listed as James H. Solomon at No. 421 Amsterdam Avenue.  It was a fictitious address, so he knocked on Herman Solomon's apartment door.  "He admitted owning flat houses, but refused to say where they were," reported the journalist.  He "qualified his statement by saying: 'We don't rent houses to such women!'"

In the meantime, the remaining two stores, in No. 426, were home to Sarah Zaffe's home furnishing goods and Elizabeth Harstdt's butcher store.

The apartments were home to middle class tenants.  Along with Frederick Ambrust in 1893, for instance, the list at No. 422 included two widows, Barbara Lang and Mary Rufft, two clerks, John Flynn and Henry Foote, tailor Charles Harris, grocer John W. Tacksberry, and John M. Maher, a policeman.

Among the original tenants of No. 424 in 1892 were two policemen, George Davis and Isaac DeWitt Coleman.  The lives of both would come to a tragic end before the year was out.  

On the afternoon of August 3 Davis, who worked at the Prince Street Station, complained of feeling ill.  When his condition worsened, he was taken to the office of Dr. Nolan on Charlton Street.  The Sun reported "The doctor said there was nothing serious the matter with Davis and advised him to apply a plaster to the seat of pain."  Another officer, George Lane, hired a hansom and accompanied him home.  Before the cab arrived at No. 424 Amsterdam Avenue the 38-year old policeman was dead.

Officer Coleman, the son of a minister, was 27-years old and had been on the force since September 24, 1888.  At around the time of Davis's unexpected death he and his wife suffered a tragedy of their own with the death of their child.  Coleman was seriously affected by the blow.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said "Coleman of late, had been very melancholy" and he "had been troubled with insomnia and complained continually about the terrible pains in his head."

It ended at 5:30 on the morning of November 11.  Policeman Crennion, whose post was near Coleman's, "heard a pistol shot...He ran over and saw a small crowd ahead of him."  Upon reaching the scene, "Crennion saw at a glance that it was Policeman Coleman.  The body was warm but there was no sign of life."

While most of the tenants were hardworking, some appeared in the newspapers for the wrong reasons.  In August 1904 John Ryan lived above No. 420 Amsterdam Avenue, reportedly making his living as a clerk.  When a merchant, Constat De Laury, got into a conversation about horse racing with Ryan and another young man, Frederick Harris, they told him, according to The Sun, "We have a friend who is an operator of a clearing house for the poolrooms."  (A poolroom was an illegal gambling den.)  They promised him that their friend got the race results by wire before the poolrooms.  That information would enable him to place last minute, sure-thing bets.

"De Laury was impressed," said The Sun.  But a month later, after losing $7,000 he was less so.  He stunned a policeman at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge on September 14 by walking up and saying "I came over to see about betting $5,000 on the races through two young fellers who tell me they've got a sure way of beating the poolrooms.  Maybe I'm being buncoed.  What do you think about it?"  What the policeman thought was the all three should be arrested.

A much less controversial tenant in the building by 1909 was actress Vera Gordon.  Born Vera Pogorelsky in Ekaterinoslov, Russia in 1886, she had been brought to the United States by her parents in 1893.  In 1904 she married Nathan A. Gordon, a producer and writer.  Living here with them were their two small children, William, who was five in 1909 and Nadje who was two.  Vera would go on to a film career, prompting the family's move to Los Angeles in 1926.  She most often played the stereotypical Jewish mother.

By 1914 the large corner store had been converted to a saloon.  It was run by Arnold Gruenge who lived in apartment upstairs and ran a second saloon a few blocks to the south at No. 140 Amsterdam Avenue.  Gruenge was at that location at around 10:00 on the night of September 16, 1918, "placidly surveying a large crowd of customers," said The Sun, when a large touring car pulled up to the entrance and two men got out.  The newspaper reported "Gruenge, not noticing the men, went on talking to a group at the far end of his bar when above the hum of voice some one cried, 'He's got a gun!'"

As the saloon keeper turned toward the front door, one of the men pointed a revolver and fired five times.  "Gruenge, clutching at his breast, staggered to a side room, where he dropped dead with a bullet through his heart."  The gunmen rushed back to the waiting car and "there was a roar as it started and it went over Sixty-sixth street."  Patrons told police that the only motive they could imagine was that Gruenge had once prosecuted a man.  Having just left prison, that men "had been troubling the saloonkeeper."

The murderer was Albert Gerguilo and he was caught after being identified by a cohort, John McGlyn.  Gerguilo might have gotten away with the crime had he and McGlyn not gotten into a feud over a girl, May Hyland.  McGlyn learned that Gerguilo promised to "get him" and decided that one sure way of insuring his own life was to make sure Gerguilo was imprisoned.  The murderer's subsequent incarceration did not improve the relationship between the two men.

Only months later McGlyn was found guilty on a separate manslaughter charge and, ironically, he was sent to Sing Sing prison where Gerguilo was serving his sentence.  Shortly after arriving, McGlyn was stabbed in the neck with a sharpened table knife by Gerguilo who reportedly uttered "I've got you now, you squealer."  The New-York Tribune reported on June 26, 1919 "McGlyn lies paralyzed in the prison hospital with his spinal cord severed.  He is expected to die."

The corner saloon, in the meantime, was taken over by Emil Moulton.  The enforcement of Prohibition in January 1920 brought an end to saloons across the nation.  It appears that Moulton bent the rules.  In June 1921 he went uptown and left Daniel Keileher alone there.   Keileher poured himself a drink from a hidden stash and when police walked in the door he quickly put it in the safe.  He was not quick enough and the cocktail was found.  Keileher was held on $1,000 bail (a significant $14,300 today).  He pleaded ignorance of the drink and told the court "he was just staying in the place while Moulton went uptown."

The corner saloon had made way for a grocery store by the early 1940's.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Down the block Herman Solomon's delicatessen at No. 424 was run by Frank Maresco at the turn of the century, and by Samuel Johnson and Jacob Jacobson by 1919.   Called the Swedish Delicatessen by mid-century, on March 24, 1952 The New York Times commented that the "little store...does the double job of acting as a neighborhood grocery and seller of Swedish items to a much wider area."  The article said "A Lenten find, but a bargain at any time, is the home-made codfish cakes prepared and sold at the 40-year-old Swedish Delicatessen, 424 Amsterdam Avenue."

The Harstedt butcher shop at No. 426 had become the Vigilant Market by 1906.  The owner, Charles Lion, got himself in trouble in the fall of 1918.  He was one of eight butchers "caught in the Federal Food Board's anti-profiteering net [who] admitted their guilt" on October 19, according to the New-York Tribune.  In return for their admissions, each promised to refund all the overcharges and to contribute $100 to the American Red Cross.  

The 1940's saw a dizzying variety of stores along the row.  The Vigilant Market was still at No. 426, and other shops included a tailor store, a laundry at No. 424, and Jacobson Bros. which described itself as "table luxuries and fancy groceries."

No doubt the most celebrated tenants of No. 426--at least later on in life--were Yoko Ono and her husband, pianist and future composer Toshi Ichiyanagi.  In their 2013 book Yoko Ono Collector of Skies, Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky wrote "It was among her parents' worst fears that their pedigreed and well-bred daughter would live the life of a starving artist, but that's exactly what she did.  Yoko eloped with Toshi in 1956 and moved with him into an apartment at 426 Amsterdam Avenue."  They remained here into the fall of 1960 when Yoko found a loft on Chambers Street where they moved.

As a renaissance swept the Amsterdam Avenue neighborhood in the last decades of the 20th century, the stores took on a trendy complexion.  By 1994 Cafe Con Leche operated from No. 424.  Called by Not For Tourists Illustrated Guide to New York City a "Cuban-Dominican Haven," it remained in the space for more than a decade.  By 2014 Luke's Lobster was at No. 426.  The seafood restaurant is still there, committed to sustainable fishing.  A portion of its profits are donated to the Maine Lobstermen's Community Alliance.

The corner store, home in the early 20th century to a saloon was again a tavern in the first years of the 21st, the 420 Bar & Lounge.  By the spring of 2016 it was home to the Olma Caviar Boutique & Lounge, described by The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant a "dressy Upper West Side bar and restaurant."  Another popular eatery along the row is Island Burgers & Shakes, in No. 424 by 2011.

Although the storefronts have been repeatedly altered over the years, and the stone base along West 80th Street has been inexplicably painted, Gilbert A. Schellenger's 1891 row with its eye-catching brickwork survives remarkably intact above the ground floor.

photographs by the author

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