Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Martin Ferdon's 1895 646 West End Avenue


In 1895 developers Powers & Welcher hired architect Martin V. B. Ferdon to design a five-story flat house at No. 646 West End Avenue, just north of West 91st Street.  At 28-feet wide and 100-feet deep, the structure went up with blazing speed--completed within just four months.

Ferndon married Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival in designing the building.  The brawny, uncut stone blocks that faced the first floor and the clustered columns upholding the arched entrance, for instance, drew from Romanesque.  But the delicate carvings within the spandrel panels were pure Renaissance Revival.

The treatment of each of the upper floors was slightly different, with the arched top floor openings echoing those of the first floor and creating a happy balance.  Ferdon had the unusual opportunity to add fenestration and jutting bays to the south elevation because of the old lane which was not included in either this property nor that of the plot to the south of it.  The venerable pathway had originally joined the Bloomingdale Road to what is today the West Side Highway.

Each of the apartments in the building contained eight rooms, all of which, because of the lane, received natural ventilation and light.  Tenants enjoyed not only electric lights, but a passenger and a service elevator.

The building filled with white collar tenants, among the earliest of which was German-born musician Hermann Hans Wetzler.  His apartment doubled as his studio, where he taught "piano, harmony, composition and organ."  (His organ lessons were no doubt conducted elsewhere, although he very likely had a "parlor organ" in his suite.)

Hermann Hans Wetzler, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians

Wetzler did not rely solely on lessons for his income.  He was as well the organist at Trinity Church and a favorite among socialites for their musicales.  As the summer season drew to a close in 1897, for instance, the Newport, Rhode Island Herald noted:

There has been more good music this season at Newport than ever before.  Among the numerous musicales those given by Mr. and Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont, at Belcourt, were the most prominent.  Mrs. Belmont had engaged Mr. Hermann Hans Wetzler, of New York, to arrange and conduct her musicales and to play the beautiful large organ in her house, and showed rare artistic judgement in this choice, as well as n the general management of her musical entertainments.

A few weeks later, on September 22, 1897, the Musical Courier announced "Mr. Wetzler has returned and is again busy at his charming residence studio, 646 West End avenue, where there is a constant procession of pupils and musical folk."

Dr. Frank S. Grant and his wife lived in the building at the same time.  Born in Akron, Ohio in 1852, he was educated and the College of the City of New York and the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He was the medical director of the Provident Savings Life Assurance Society, his financial success being reflected in his memberships to the Atlantic Yacht and the New York Canoe Clubs.

Other tenants included De Wit C. Baker, a long-time member of the New York Southern Society; merchant Albert E. McMulkin; and attorney George A. Heaney.  McMulkin was a partner in Francis McMulkin & Co. founded by his father in 1861.  The firm dealt in meat and poultry at the West Washington Market.  

Attorney George A. Heaney was a graduate of Columbia Law School and had offices at No. 15 William Street.  In 1903 the new Superintendent of Buildings, Henry S. Thompson, appointed him as his secretary.  The position added a yearly salary of nearly $75,000 in today's money to Thompson's income.

On the cold morning of February 18, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advertiser ran the front page headline: "Peril After Main Breaks / Flood on Upper West Side Block Endangers a Number of Lives."  The article went on to report that the largest water main in the city had burst at around 4:00 that morning at Broadway and 92nd Street.  It "not only did thousands of dollars worth of damage to the neighboring property, but caused all heat to be stopped, narrow escapes from drowning in the basement flats, [and] loss of all early morning supplies of milk, rolls, and eggs to the tenants."

The article noted "At 646 West End avenue, an apartment house, the basement was flooded for five feet."  The janitor's apartment was there, and he, of course, was peacefully asleep.  "Janitor Buskey had a narrow escape," said the newspaper.

Onlookers watch the spouting water from the basement of No. 646 West End Avenue.  The Evening Telegram, February 19, 1904 (copyright expired).

The Evening Telegram added "Through this house most of the water found an exit after travelling through the cellars in that block.  The water burst open the basement door with such pressure that it spouted up to a height of several feet and appeared not unlike a geyser."

In 1914 Dr. Katherine Arends moved into an apartment and opened her medical practice here.  Three years later, on the night of May 21, 1917, she attended church services.  While she was away a burglar sneaked into her apartment by means of the fire escape.

When Katherine returned and opened her front door, she saw the shape of a man in the dark room.  Rather than scream and run, the 50 year old woman attacked.  The New-York Tribune reported "When Dr. Arends discovered the intruder she grappled with him and cried for help.  He struck her in the face, but she continued to hold him until he had choked her."

The confrontation was so intense that it was heard on the sidewalk and passersby notified an officer.  Patrolman Kies broke open her door and revived Arends, who was unconscious.  She was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital with a broken nose, scratches and bruises.  While the would-be thief escaped, he did so empty-handed.

As it turned out, Katherine's burglar was a psychopath.  His normal scheme was to answer ads placed by single women looking to share their apartments with another female.  Posing as the brother of a fictitious young woman who needed a place to live, he gained entrance.  Once inside the apartment he brutally attacked his victims before stealing their valuables.

The last of a string of complaints came from the widowed Juanita Tramanna.  The New-York Tribune reported "as in the former cases, [he] represented that he had a sister working in Wall Street, who was looking for a room...When Mrs. Tramanna led him to it he flung her down and beat her almost into unconsciousness.  He nearly tore her clothes from her in his frantic search for jewelry, but finally was frightened away by her screams."

In a period of three months he had stolen more than $3,000 in jewelry (nearly $60,000 in today's money) from women whom he also savagely battered.  Detectives laid a trap, placing eight decoy ads in newspapers then stationing an officer in each apartment.  One of those was in the apartment of Juanita Tramanna's sister, Martha Trautman.  Juanita waited silently in the bedroom with Detective Richard Golding.  And finally a knock came at the door at 8 p.m.

Martha answered it to find 18 year old John Horvath, who explained that his sister needed a room and he was there to pre-inspect it.  As soon as he was brought into the parlor, Golding confronted him.  The detective immediately noticed that Horvath was missing three teeth, as had been described by his victims.  As he started to handcuff the teen, Juanita Tramanna burst out and shouted "That's the man!"

The distraction gave Horvath an opening.  He "sank his teeth in the detective's arm.  Through the door they struggled and out into the small reception hall, were Horvath managed to wrest Golding's blackjack from him and brought it down across the detective's right eye, almost felling him."  Tenants poured out from their apartments to assist the officer.  One ran to the street to find help.  The New-York Tribune reported "Detectives Finan and McGowan arrived in time to aid in beating Horvath into submission."

Horvath's resolute resistance sent two officers to the hospital.  "Golding, whose arms were a mass of bite wounds, and Cannon, suffering from scalp lacerations, were taken to the Knickerbocker Hospital."  When Horvath was brought to trial on a long list of charges, Dr. Katherine Arends testified against him.

A renovation completed in 1920 reduced the size of the apartments to three rooms and a bath.  An advertisement in The New York Times on January 27 that year announced "Just Completed - Possession At Once" and touted "Real Kitchens."  Rents ranged from $1,320 to $1,800, or about $1,916 per month for the most expensive in today's dollars.

Despite the smaller apartments, the tenants continued to be professionals.  Among the initial residents was economist Lewis H. Haney, who had been a member of the exclusive Cosmos Club since February 1917.  Members of the social club had distinguished themselves in "science, literature and the arts, a learned profession or public service."  

Other tenants in 1921 were oil man J. Edward Jones, a graduate of the University of Kansas; and Dr. Warren B. Chapin, described by the New York Evening Post as a "well-known diagnostician."  He had graduated from Princeton in 1885 and then from the Medical School of New York University.

Housing laws at the time prevented landlords from discriminating against families with children; however the practice was still rife.  In 1921 the Daily News sent investigative reporters, masquerading as apartment hunters, into the field.  On October 21 the newspaper's findings said in part, "At 646 West End Avenue, three furnished rooms, in the back of the house, rent for $160.  But the superintendent scowled inhospitably at the mention of children.

"Miss Von Winkle, the owner, positively will not take children," he said.  "If you have children you must leave them somewhere else.  The last tenant had a child who broke up the furniture and ruined the wall paper.  No more children here."

That year the well-to-do attorney Allen T. Hopping and his wife, the former Genevieve McMaster, separated.  Genevieve moved into her mother's three room apartment at No. 646 West End Avenue with their four year old daughter, Mary Genevieve.  Genevieve found a job in a wholesale millinery firm making $35 a week.

Allen took Genevieve to court in a custody battle that would last six years.  As it turned out, neither would triumph.  On March 23, 1927 The Yonkers Statesman reported that Supreme Court Justice Mahoney had given custody of the now 10-year-old to her grandmother, Emma Louise Tilton Hopping of Hastings-on-the-Hudson.

Emma was the widow of millionaire Andrew Howard Hopping who had left her his entire estate.  The ruling said "These are advantages which could not be given either by the father or mother.  In my opinion the child should not be deprived of them solely because of the opposition of the mother, whose chief objection arises from an alleged love for the child and a desire to have her constant companionship."  He called Genevieve's motives, "selfish."

Sadly for Genevieve, she was allowed to see her daughter only on the last weekend of each month, and could have her from 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Day to the same time on December 31.

No doubt the most celebrated tenants were the New York Yankee's pitcher Vernon Louis "Lefty" Gomez and his wife, Broadway star June O'Dea.  The couple was married on February 26, 1933 and leased an apartment in the building. 

Lefty had debuted on the mound for the Yankees on April 29, 1930.  According to him, trouble between the couple had to do with their conflicting careers.  He wanted her to accompany him on road trips, but she desired to continue her stage career.  According to June, it had more to do with the hurler's drinking and "self destruction" problems.

Vernon "Lefty" Gomez and June O'Dea smile for the cameras.  original source unknown

She said in court in May 1938 that twice she had pulled him from a window sill before he could jump.  And once while driving home from a Brooklyn game he said to her "Maybe it would be a good thing if I would wreck this car and kill us both."  June claimed that when he drank, his temper overtook him.  She testified, according to The New York Sun, "One day, during the pitcher's 1935 season, he tried to beat up two Negro boys at their apartment on 646 West End avenue, but she managed to get him into the house.  That was the time she received the black eye."  Despite the highly-publicized proceedings, the couple reconciled and had two daughters and two sons.

For the next few decades professional tenants came and went.  Among them in the 1940's was Charles Joseph Herman, the chief clerk of the Upper Park Avenue Branch of National City Bank, in charge of operations.  And when World War II broke out, John T. Brickley left No. 646 to join the Marine Corps.

In 1941 the stand-alone structure was overshadowed by its neighbors.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Brickley had attended Dean Academy in Franklin, Massachusetts where he was a star football player.  He got his talent naturally, his father Charles E. Brickley having been "one of Harvard's gridiron immortals," according to The New York Sun.  Another student, Rodney D Sadler was never able to get a regular position as tackle on the team, overshadowed by "the huge form of John T. Brickley," according to The New York Sun.  

In an amazing coincidence, the two men were in the same Marine regiment, stationed in the South Pacific. They participated in the battle of Guadalcanal and now their old rivalry resumed.  The New York Sun reported on June 29, 1943, "Today Private first class Sadler is a second string tackle on a Marine regiment eleven--still trying to take the 'Varsity' assignment away from his friendly rival, Private First Class Brickley, U. S. M. C."

In the early 1980's the building was purchased by the West Side Kollel Torah, or Kollel Yisroel V'Shimson.  A synagogue was installed in the basement level.  It was the destination of jeweler Moses Dyckman each day as he attended the 6:45 service before he headed to work.

On the morning of September 15, 1981 Dyckman was walking to the synagogue when a car pulled up and two men dragged him into it.  Later the man's family received a telephone call demand for $10 million in ransom.  While the kidnappers waited, detectives received a tip that led them to an abandoned building in Harlem.  There they found the 86-year old handcuffed, gagged and with a paper bag over his head, but unharmed.

Unaware that Dyckman had been rescued, the kidnappers continued calling his home, eventually negotiating a drop-off point and a scaled-down ransom amount.  News coverage tipped off the crooks and they temporarily escaped capture.  But on October 7, 1981 The New York Times reported that two men had been arrested and a third, whose identity the police knew, was being sought.

The owners completed a renovation in 1984 that resulted in four apartments per floor, and another in 2009 that converted the first floor to classrooms, offices, and two apartments.

photographs by the author

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