Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bitters, Undertaking, Artwork and Beer -- 225 Tenth Avenue


In 1859 Henry Ferris opened his Excelsior Brewery at 223 and 225 Tenth Avenue, just north of 23rd Street.  It was conveniently near his home on West 24th Street.  He would produce "ale, porter &c." from the location until 1869 when he moved slightly north on the avenue.

Half of the former brewery site, No. 225, was sold to John Jackson who erected a four-story flat and store building.  The Italianate style structure was faced in red brick with cast iron lintels and bracketed cornice.

Jackson and his wife, Rachel, moved into one of the apartments.  Their initial tenants were two single women.  Margaret Henry was the widow of Laurence Henry, and Louisa Seaman was the widow of Percival C. Seaman.  Louisa taught at Grammar School No. 56 on West 18th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

On April 19, 1873 John Jackson died "suddenly" at the age of 60.  His funeral was held in the apartment three days later.  Rachel remained, managing the building.

Her small list of tenants held respectable jobs.  In 1876 the Lyons family rented rooms.  Joseph E. was a stenographer on Wall Street and Dennis was a clerk--a catch-all term for officer worker that covered a variety of jobs.  Francis White was also listed as a clerk, and William Delly was a watchman, essentially the private security guard of today.

Rachel Jackson retained possession of the building until September 27, 1887 when she sold it to Gustav Von Glahn for $14,000--the equivalent of $388,000 today.  She remained in her apartment, however, possibly rent-free as part of the deal.

Born in Germany, Gustav and his brother, John, had arrived in America around 1873.  They founded Von Glahn Bros, wholesale grocers on Washington Street and a bitters factory at No. 96 Water Street.  Gustav's sons, Diedrich H. and Henry W. opened their "consumer" business in the 10th Avenue store.  No doubt among the commodities available here was Caroni Bitters.

In 1893 A Souvenir of New York's Liquor Interests said, "It is a matter of common information in the trade that there is not a finer quality of bitters in use in America for making mixed drinks and other purposes than those known as the Caroni Bitters, for which the sold proprietors in this country are Messrs. Von Glahn Bros.

Gustav Von Glahn's fatherly love did not surpass his no-nonsense Teutonic business sense.  His sons rented No. 225 Tenth Avenue from him, signing official leases.  When they renewed the lease in February 1897 for five years, it granted them "privilege 7 years renewal."  The brothers agreed to rent equal to about $20,000 per year in today's money.

In 1898 Rachel Jackson was still living in her apartment of nearly 30 years.  Another widow, Eliza Donnell, lived here at the time and by 1900 Patrick J. Casey, who was treasurer of the nearby Guardian Angels Church was renting rooms.

The building as it appeared around 1941.  via NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Von Glahn brothers' store was gone by 1905, replaced by John McCormick's undertaking business.  It was involved in a peculiar mystery that winter.

On December 20, 1905 an impoverished man, James Hayes, was admitted to the City Hospital on Blackell's Island suffering from tuberculosis.  He died early in February 1906 and his son, 19-year old Edward Hayes, identified his father and authorized an autopsy.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Then Edward is alleged to have visited John McCormick, an undertaker at 225 Tenth avenue, and ordered him to get the body and prepare it for interment."

McCormick retrieved the body, prepared it and dressed it in a new suit for his funeral.  The newspaper said he "placed it in a coffin and called the relatives to view it."  The New York Times reported on February 11, "Young Hayes, accompanied by his grandfather, the moment they saw the body, declared that it was not that of their relative."

McCormick seems to have done too good a job.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle explained, "The undertaker had made a great improvement of the appearance of the body with the aid of shaving tools and soap and water."  The article went on, "The astounded undertaker insisted that they were wrong, but the youth and the old man were positive that the dead man was not James Hayes."

There was nothing else for McCormick to do but notify the morgue.  The hospital officials confirmed that there had been only one body, so no mistake could have been made.  Nevertheless, "The body, all ready for interment, was taken back to the morgue late last night," reported The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Among the tenants in the building at the time was the Casey family and John McKierman, a driver.  In 1909 McKierman changed careers when he got a civil service job as a river pilot for the city.  

A baby boy, John J., was born in the Casey apartment around 1900.  He went on to graduate from Cathedral College in 1921, completed his religious training in Rome, and was ordained a priest on March 12, 1927.  In 1932 he was appointed the private secretary to Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes.

The mid-century the commercial space was home to the German bakery, Wuest Bakeries, Inc.

The neighborhood changed as the century drew to a close.  By 1996 the Sarah Morthland Gallery was here and today a tavern, The Drunken Horse, operates from the space once home to John McCormick's undertaking business.

photograph by the author

Otherwise, little has outwardly changed to John Jackson's 1869 building.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The William MacKenzie House - 432 West 22nd Street


Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest constructed three speculative homes at Nos. 430 
through 434 West 22nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in 1843.  He most likely worked in partnership with James Phelan, who simultaneously erected three essentially identical houses at Nos. 424 through 428.  Faced in red brick and sitting upon brownstone English basements, each of the houses rose three floors.  Their entrances were typical of the Greek Revival style--Doric pilasters upholding a beefy, corniced entablature.  The openings were trimmed in brownstone and capped with molded lintels, and a simple cornice unified the row.

In 1854 the owners of the recently redecorated No. 292 West 22nd Street (renumbered 432 in 1863) had extra space in their 19-foot wide house.  Their advertisement in the New York Morning Courier read:

Board--Two or three single gentlemen, or a gentleman and his wife can be accommodated with very pleasant rooms, with board, at No. 292, West 22d street; between 9th and 10th avenues, accessible by cars and stages.  House contains all the modern improvements, and location very pleasant.

Publisher John Bigelow leased the house for a year, from 1856 to 1857.  Born in 1817 he had already had a fascinating career.  In 1845 he was appointed inspector of Sing Sing Prison where he instituted penal reform.  William Cullen Bryant brought him in as partial owner and editor of the New York Evening Post in 1848.  Just prior to moving into the 22nd Street house he had broken from the Democratic Party because of its pro-slavery stance.  Later, Abraham Lincoln would appoint him consul general in Paris.

Following the Bigelows, John Wade and his family moved in.  He was a partner with George Wade in the flour and commission firm of Wade & Brother on Broad Street.  

At the end of the Wades' lease, in January 1858, the house was offered for sale.  The advertisement in the New York Daily Herald touted "all the modern improvements."

It became home to the family of attorney William MacKenzie.  Moving in with the family was MacKenzie's sister-in-law, Mary Cameron Fraser, the widow of Rev. Alexander Fraser. 

In 1877 James Cameron MacKenzie entered New York City College.  He was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Dr. James Cameron.   Upon his graduation he would become a well-known physician in the district.

A brother in-law, John G. Cameron, was briefly living with the family in 1888.  Cameron operated a coffee importing business.

Interestingly, when "improvements" costing just over $4,000 in today's money were made to the house in May 1885, Mary Fraser paid for them.  It was most likely at this time that the house was updated with Italianate entrance doors and the parlor windows extended to the floor.

Dr. James C. MacKenzie was outspoken about what he saw as malpractice.  On June 20, 1888 he was called to the Wright house on West 28th Street where he found 14-year old Lulu "delirious [with a] temperature 104 degrees."  He had been called in as a second opinion, since the treatments of Dr. MacEttrick were not helping.

MacKenzie diagnosed the girl with meningitis and told the Board of Coroners that MacEttrick's treatment "seems to have been chiefly morphine...every three hours."  MacKenzie ordered the parents to stop administering the morphine, but the girl died later, at around 5:00 a.m.  He refused to sign a death certificate, referring the case to the Board for investigation.

Mary Cameron Fraser died in the house on May 15, 1890.  By the turn of the century only James C. MacKenzie, his wife Carrie and their children occupied the house.

Things between the couple was souring by 1905.  On April 29, 1905 Carrie went to the City Magistrate and claimed that her husband not only "threated to abandon" her but, indeed, had.  Now, she said, she was in fear "of becoming a burden upon the public."  The judge issued a warrant to have him appear to further explain the situation.

Dr. MacKenzie had, in truth, left home, prompting the magistrate to "adjudge be a disorderly person as charged."  He was ordered to pay the Commissioner of Public Charities $20 per week towards Carrie's and the children's support.  (The amount would equal $600 today.)

That was by no means the end of what would become an extremely public and ugly battle between the pair.  Carrie left the 22nd Street house with the children, and Dr. MacKenzie brought in "a housekeeper," Rose Nussbaum.

In 1907 James C. MacKenzie filed for divorce, charging Carrie with infidelity.  But he would need proof of such a scandalous accusation.  On October 9 Carrie "went for a ride," as she explained later, with a Mrs. Bell (who lived in the same boarding house with her), a man named Gilmore and the chauffeur, Charles Staples.   Carrie later said that Mrs. Bell "was persistent in extending invitations to me and really dominated me."

She said that they stopped for refreshments several times.  Each time she was pressed to drink alcohol, and each time she politely refused.  Eventually they ended up at a café on West 67th Street.  Someone ordered her a cocktail.

On March 25, 1908 The New York Times wrote "She said she did not drink the liquor, but ate the olive.  Immediately following they all got into the automobile and were driven down to the Van Buren Hotel, in East Twenty-sixth Street."  On the way there, Carrie said, she "gradually lost her senses, until by the time they reached the hotel she had to be helped out of the machine and into an upstairs apartment."

The next thing she remembered was struggling with a man, and then seeing her husband, accompanied by several other men, rush in.  Dr. MacKenzie had his evidence of extra-marriage dalliances.

In court, on March 24, Carrie testified that "She was sure that the olive had been drugged, and said that it was all part of a plan to entrap her," according to The New York Times.  She became overcome with emotion and the court had to be adjourned for 15 minutes while she composed herself.  The New York Times editorialized, saying "A pathetic circumstance was the presence of the couple's two young children during the proceedings."  (That was quite possibly a ploy on the part of Carrie's lawyer to gain the sympathy of the jury.)

The jury was out for three hours before coming to the decision that Carrie was innocent and that James MacKenzie "had been guilty of adultery with Mrs. Rose Nussbaum on divers occasions."   Carrie was awarded a degree of absolute divorce.

The drama of disorderly persons and drugged olives that had played out in newspapers for three years was not over.   Dr. James Cameron MacKenzie made it publicly known that he would be making Rose Nussbaum the chief beneficiary of his will, including the 22nd Street house.  But before he could do that he died suddenly of mysterious causes only three months later, on June 15.

Just as his funeral commenced two days later, investigators ordered it halted.  Interviews with MacKenzie's servants and the doctors who had attended him led his lawyer's filing a complaint "that his client did not die from natural causes."  Eventually Coroner Acritelli and three other physicians decided that "Dr. Mackensie had probably died from nephritis and oedema of lungs," as reported by The Evening World.

Carrie was quick to step in.  Four days after the funeral The New York Times entitled an article "Widow Demands Husband's Estate" and reported that Carrie had taken her two children to the 22nd Street house "and made a formal demand on Mrs. Nussbaum to hand over to them Dr. MacKenzie's effects."  Those effects, of course, included No. 432 West 22nd Street.

Rose Nussbaum had somehow been informed that Carrie was on the way and she had a policeman standing by "to prevent trouble."  She also had her lawyer with her.

A new battle ensued when Rose Nussbaum's attorney "refused to do so," forcing Carrie back to court.   On Monday, exactly one week after MacKenzie's sudden death, Rose agreed to vacate the house within three days, "pending a dispute in the courts as to which is entitled to Dr. Mackenzie's chattels," reported The Sun.

As it turned out, neither woman ever moved back into No. 432.  The estate sold the house to James P. Clark in August 1910.  He leased it two months later to Annie Cameron "for a term of years."  It is tempting to assume there is a connection between Annie and the Cameron-MacKenzie family, but any relationship is uncertain.

The lease ran out in October 1920 and in anticipation an advertisement was placed in The New York Times on March 3:

Three-Story Dwelling (Chelsea Section)
432 West 22d St., eleven rooms; price $15,000; possession October, 1920; little cash.

(The sale price would equal around $191,000 today.)

The house changed hands twice before Louis Saint Lanne purchased it in September 1922.  By now the neighborhood was not nearly so upscale as it had been 75 years earlier and Saint Lanne converted No. 432 to a rooming house for 15 tenants.

Among his tenants was the once-popular entertainer Dave Christy, born Lyman Van Valer in 1853.  Variety magazine described him as a "minstrel, balladist and actor."  He had started his career around 1882 with well-known acts like Harrington and Hart, McIntyre and Heath, and with Lester and Allen.  For several seasons he appeared in minstrel shows in San Francisco.

Christy, who never married, turned from vaudeville to the legitimate stage in 1889, with roles in popular plays like The Old Homestead, The Heart of Maryland and, in 1914, My Best Girl, which was possibly his last stage appearance.

As Christy's health declined, the Actor's Fund provided him a weekly stipend which paid his rent here.  He died in his room on May 15, 1926 at the age of 73.

The lintels had already been removed when this photo was taken around 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

No. 432 was converted to apartments, one per floor, in 1950; and then in 2006 it was renovated to a single-family home.  Although the window cornices were shaved off at some point, the house looks little different since Mary Fraser made her 1885 "improvements."

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Jason Weinberg for suggesting this post

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Meyer A. Bernheimer House - 9 West 69th Street


Architect Alexander M. Welch was known for designing high-end homes, very often on the east side of Central Park.  But in 1895 he was hired by builders James A. Frame & Son to design a row of five 20-foot wide homes on West 69th Street, just off Central Park West.  The developers had purchased the parcel from Clara Sachs for $75,000--or about $2.36 million in today's money.  The firm promised the homes would have "all modern conveniences."

Completed the following year, the Renaissance Revival residences rose four stories above an English basement level.  The rusticated limestone base of No. 9 West 69th Street sat above a dog-legged stone stoop.  The two-story midsection, faced in gray Roman brick, featured a rounded bay.  Decorative blind roundels and palm fronds adorned the lintels of the second floor.  The fourth floor was clad in paneled limestone.

It was sold in October 1896 to John J. and Julia Mitchell.  The couple paid about $50,000 for their new home--in the neighborhood of $1.57 million today.  As was common, the title was placed in Julia's name.  

Mitchell was president of Mitchell, Vance & Co.  Founded in 1854 it manufactured and designed light fixtures, clocks and bronzes, and ornamental metal work.  While Mitchell busily oversaw his well-known business, Julia focused on things more social.  On March 26 1899, for instance, the New York Herald reported "Miss Marion E. Coppernoll gave an interesting talk on 'Famous Folks and Their Families' Friday morning last at the home of Mrs. John Mitchell, No. 9 West Sixty-ninth street."  On the same page an article about Mrs. John H. McCarthy's afternoon luncheon listed Julia as one of the guests.

The Mitchells remained in No. 9 for more than a decade, selling it on April 28, 1908 to Meyer A. Bernheimer.  Interestingly, he immediately transferred title to Alice, Cora A. and Blanche A. Bernheimer.

Bernheimer was one of eight children born to Isaac and Isabella Bernheimer.  He and his brother Jacob were partners in Jacob S. Bernheimer & Bro., the cotton converting firm founded by their father.  Meyer was more visible, however, in his real estate dealings.  His father had branched into real estate and mining interests before his death and Meyer followed suit.  He bought and sold Manhattan properties and owned vast properties in the Far West.  In 1917 he would purchase silver mining properties in Montana.

The Bernheimer girls involved themselves in Jewish causes.  Blanche was involved with the Hebrew Technical Institute and Cora was a member of the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Bernheimer family and their neighbors along the block lived in quiet opulence, surrounded by the trappings of the well-to-do.  Their homes were filled with silver flatware and serving pieces, paintings and sculpture and expensive bric-a-brac.  And they were the constant targets of stealthy burglars.

In 1914 the neighbors organized the Sixty-Ninth Street Property Owners' Association for their own protection.  Meyer Bernheimer told a reporter from the New York Herald, "the property owners decided that there were too many burglaries in the neighborhood and hired special watchmen, one for day and one for night duty."  Unfortunately, the regular policemen bristled at the move, seeing the private watchmen as an insult to their own capabilities.  When the association asked that the watchmen be supplied with special police badges, the police commissioner refused.

One night in December the night watchman, Leo A. Carey, heard a loud police whistle being blown by one of the Bernheimer maids--the signal that help was needed.  He rushed to the house and detained Thomas McCoy.  The New York Herald reported "The man was caught while trying to escape a maid in the Bernheimer home at No. 9 West Sixty-ninth street.  One hundred dollars' worth of silverware had been taken."  (The foiled heist would be valued at about $2,640 today.)

The responding policemen were less than congratulatory to the watchman.  The New York Herald recounted "According to Mr. Bernheimer, Carey hardly had his prisoner locked up when detectives arrived at the Bernheimer home and asked upon what authority Carey made the arrest.  Mr. Bernheimer says that this has been the practice ever since the request for special police badges for the watchmen was refused by the Police Commissioner."  The article noted "That the block needs more protection, the property owners assert, is shown by the fact that in the last few months Carey has made no fewer than seven arrests on charges ranging from burglary to disorderly conduct."

World War I brought with it considerable anti-German sentiment.  It prompted some German-American run businesses and institutions to change their names to something less German-sounding.  One wonders about the conversations that went on within No. 9 West 69th Street before Charles Daly Bernheimer changed his surname to Burnham before joining the United States Army Reserve Corps.

Charles rose to a captain in the Quartermaster Section.  Shortly after the war's end, on June 24, 1919, he married Estelle White King.

The Bernheimer family left West 69th Street within a few years, moving to No. 42 West 58th Street.  Meyer A. Bernheimer died there on October 18, 1928.

By the early 1940's No. 9 was the sole survivor of the 1896 row.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

By the Great Depression years the former Bernheimer house was being operated as a respectable rooming house.  Among the tenants in 1937 was Peyton Fentrell McLamb.  A graduate of West Point he was married to Esther Marie Johnson that year.  His bride was a graduate of the University of Kansas.

photo via

After surviving, essentially, as a private residence for eight decades, No. 9 West 69th Street was converted to apartments in 1977.  It was the last standing house of the 1896 row.  Much of Alexander Welch's handsome interior elements survive while the exterior is nearly unchanged.

photographs by the author

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Lost Frances Mary Hoyt Mansion - 726 Fifth Avenue


image via  Collins' 'Both Sides of Fifth Avenue'  1910 (copyright expired)

Born in 1839 to Samuel Tonkin and Martha Mary Jones, Frances Mary Jones had an impressive pedigree.  Her ancestors included Samuel Carpenter, the Deputy Governor of Colonial Pennsylvania, and Samuel Preston, mayor of Philadelphia in the 18th century.

Frances's first husband, Richard Montgomery Pell, died in 1882.  She married millionaire stockbroker Louis Thurston Hoyt on June 11, 1894.  Hoyt, whose first wife, Marie Antoinette Bogert, had died in 1879, had a grown daughter, Geraldine.

The couple moved into a smart Empire style mansion at No. 392 Fifth Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets.  That same year William Waldorf Astor demolished his mansion two blocks to the south and began construction on the Waldorf Hotel, a move that would open the floodgates to commerce along the exclusive residential avenue.

The Hoyts' townhouse featured a side garden, an especially desirable feature.  The New York Times, June 18, 1911 (copyright expired)

Louis and Frances were in Germany in the summer of 1901 when Hoyt died on August 2.  Later The New York Times reported that he "left the bulk of his estate to his widow, Mrs. Frances M. Hoyt.  The total value of the personal estate is found to be $30,440.46."  That did not include his real estate holdings, including the Fifth Avenue house.  That alone was valued at nearly $9 million in today's dollars.

By 1908 the neighborhood around Frances's home had fallen from fashion.  In December The Record & Guide announced that she had hired the architectural firm of McClellan & Beadel to design a new mansion at No. 726 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets.  Associate architect Arthur Dillon had been brought in to work on the project.  It was an exclusive block, anchored by the Harry Payne Whitney house at the corner of 57th Street.

The New York Times noted that the five-story house "is to be of decorated limestone, in the style of Louis XVI, with a mansard and second story balcony, with large easement windows."  The article placed the cost of construction at $38,000--or just over $1 million today.

It appears that Frances underestimated the speed at which commerce was pushing up Fifth Avenue in choosing her site.  On December 14, 1910, only a year after her mansion was completed, The New York Times commented

Within the last year the invasion by the art dealers of the upper Fifth Avenue precinct has been one of the most characteristic features in the changing appearance of that thoroughfare.  The Whitney block has already been invaded by business, the fine residence on the northwest corner of Fifth-sixth Street, formerly occupied by Edwin Gould, having lately been torn down to make way for the Duveen Brothers' new building.

The article noted that the deed to the Whitney house was under a ten years' restriction for private purposes "and the same restriction is on the next house at 726 Fifth Avenue, owned by Mrs. Louis T. Hoyt."

Frances's bachelor brother, Shipley Jones, was prominent in society, earning him the appellation of a "clubman."  With neither having spouses nor children, the two appeared regularly among society together.  On May 17, 1914, for instance, The New York Times reported that they were sailing for Europe that week.  They spent their summers together, as well.  On June 13, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported "Mrs. Louis T. Hoyt and her brother, Shipley Jones, will go to Southampton, Long Island, to-morrow for the summer," and three years later the New York Herald announced "Mrs. Louis T. Hoyt is making a round of visits in Southampton.  She will join her brother, Shipley Jones, in New Brighton, Staten Island, next week."

In October 1919 Frances brought the architects (now reorganized as Dillon, McClellan & Beadel) back to renovate her home.  The change in the neighborhood may have been responsible for one item on the punch list--an iron fence.  

What was apparently the last straw, however, came only three months later when the announcement was made that a 30-story office building would be erected on the 57th Street corner.  Within days Frances put her house on the market.

On February 7, 1920 The New York Times ran the headline "Record Price for Fifth Avenue Plot / Mrs. Louis P. [sic] Hoyt Sells Her $600,000 Residence to a Firm of Dressmakers."  The New-York Tribune reported "The buyers are Farquharson & Wheelock, dressmakers, who occupy 724 Fifth Avenue, adjoining."  It noted that the price, about $7.65 million in today's money, was "the highest price ever paid for an inside lot on Fifth Avenue north of Forty-second Street."

Later that year, on October 11, the New York Herald announced, "Mrs. Louis T. Hoyt and her brother, Mr. Shipley Jones, have returned to their new apartment in Park avenue from Greenwich, Conn. for the winter."

Louis's striking limestone mansion was already gone by then, having stood only 11 years.  It was replaced by Severance & Van Alen's 12-story commercial structure, which survives.

photo via

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Thomas Merritt House - 255 West 18th Street

The 170+ year old house is disguised by a 1942 brick veneer.

Thomas Merritt was a "carman."  The term referred to deliverymen, most often employed by stores or express firms.  And so he was the 19th century counterpart to today's U.P.S. or FedEx driver.  As early as 1849 Merritt and his family lived in the 26-foot wide house at No. 177 West 18th Street (later renumbered 255).  The three-story vernacular style building was faced in brownstone and, most likely, a store always occupied the ground floor.  In the rear, accessed by a narrow horsewalk, or walkway, was a smaller house for rental purposes.

There were two boarders in the house in 1849--Charles B. Warren and Francis J. Doremus, both masons.  They were gone by 1852 when Lewis Rigler and John S. Davis rented rooms here.  Rigler was a butcher who ran a stall in the Washington Market, and Davis listed his occupation as an "inspector."

In 1856 the ground floor store housed a dairy store.  An advertisement appeared in The New York Sun in 1858 offering "For Sale--A Good Private milk round with horse, wagon, harness and cans.  Apply at 177 West 18th st."  A "milk round" referred to the route of established subscribers to whom the wagon would make deliveries of fresh milk.

The business was purchased by John H. Carr, the son of constable Benjamin J. Carr and his wife, Hester.  The family had lived just a few houses away at No. 163 West 18th Street, but in 1858 moved into No. 177 with a boarder, confectioner Charles Ayrey.  Two other tenants that year, presumably in the rear house, were William Garrett, a butcher, and carpenter Edward Sullivan.

Benjamin Carr had been appointed a constable in 1854 and was a city collector as well--responsible for collecting past taxes, for instance.  Ayrey remained with the family through 1861, at which time he had changed his profession from making candy to making shoes.

Garrett R. Ackerman, another carman, lived with the family for several years; and then Isabella Gillespie, a widow who sold toys, rented a room in 1861 and '62.  She was replaced the following year by Margaret Wilson, who made candies. 

Benjamin J. Carr died in 1861, but Hester and her son remained in the 18th Street house until 1864 when she moved uptown to No. 60 West 32nd Street.  No. 255 continued to see a succession of blue-collar boarders and widows.  In 1868, for instance, the residents included Andrew Armstrong (who would remain for several years), a "laborer;" widow Mary Mack who took in washing; cabinetmaker Jacob Matz; and Susan Roe, widow of Edward Roe.

In 1879 John Herman ran the store, but police were unhappy with one of the items he sold there.  On February 21 The Evening Telegram reported that he had been arraigned in the Jefferson Market Police Court "charged with violation of the Lottery law in selling policy slips purporting to represent part of a drawing or lottery unauthorized by the laws of the State."

The rear house was occupied by James Cullen and his wife in the 1890's.  Mrs. Cullen did housework, advertising on May 21, 1890 in the New York Herald "A respectable woman to work by the day; terms moderate."

The name of James Cullen, too, would appear in newspapers, but for a less respectable reason.  On Saturday night, January 12, 1895, plainclothes officers Rohrig, McConville and Gregg were patrolling the neighborhood when they overheard two men on West 18th Street talking about playing poker.  They followed them to No. 255 West 18th Street, where they went down the pathway to the rear.

The New York Press reported "The officers followed and found themselves in a little, narrow alleyway leading to the back door, which was so narrow that they had to file in one at a time."  Officer Gregg rapped on the door while the other cops stood back.  The door was opened a crack and someone said "What do you want here?  This is a private house."

The officers did not answer, but rushed in, "carrying the doorkeeper with them."  There were fully a dozen men, ranging from 18 to 25-years of age, including Cullen, "seated around a table playing poker."  The Sun reported "There were five card tables, several packs of cards, and 420 poker chips" and The Press said the men, "arose thunderstruck, to be taken in charge by the three policemen."

The group maintained that they were playing for fun, despite long, "diligent" questioning.  But one of them, John Beattie, caved when promised he would be discharged if he would testify against Cullen.  The Press reported "He said that they were playing for money, and told how much the different chips represented."  The other men were released after being fined $5 each--about $157 today.

At the time George H. Tabor ran his paint store in the ground floor shop.  He was called for jury duty on May 20, 1896 regarding a highly visible trial.  Alice Almont Livingston Fleming was the only child of millionaire Robert Swift Livingston and Evelina Matilda Livingston.  When Livingston died, his will left most of his estate to Evelina.  At Evelina's death the remainder would go to Alice.  Evelina later remarried and on August 30, 1895, she died from poisoning.  Alice was indicted for her mother's murder.

George H. Tabor had no intention of sitting on the jury.  When his questioning began, he "said he was a little hard of hearing," according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  The lawyer lowered his voice and continued the questions, deciding that "the objection of deafness did not weight very heavily."  So Tabor changed his strategy.  He told Recorder Goff he had formed a "passing thought" on the case.  The lawyers discussed the issue, and then decided Tabor could be impartial.  But just as he was about to be sworn in (and after having been grilled for an hour and thirty minutes) the defense lawyer changed his mind and Tabor was happily dismissed.

The Young family had moved into the rear house by this time.  Like her predecessor, Mrs. Young did domestic work.  She placed an advertisement in the New York Herald that year that read "Respectable woman to do washing or house-cleaning,"  Similar ads continued for several, always ending "Mrs. Young, rear house."

No. 255 was owned by James M. Moore in 1905, when he made significant improvements by introducing indoor plumbing.  The modernization came with a "water-closet" which would have done away with the necessity of a backyard privy.   The significant updates cost Moore then equivalent of $15,000 in today's money.

George H. Tabor continued to operate his store here until about 1915.  In 1911 he got home to find he had dropped his eyeglasses somewhere along the route.  His ad on July 1 read "Lost--pair of spectacles, in case, between 255 West 18th and 442 Manhattan Av."  He promised that if the finder would return them to the 18th Street store, he "will be suitably rewarded."

A grocery store occupied the ground floor in 1932.  At some point in the second half of the 19th century a neo-Grec cornice was added.  photo by Charles Von Urban from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The building was officially converted to apartments in 1942--one each on the second and third floors.  It was most likely at this time that a veneer of beige brick was applied to the brownstone front and the cornice replaced by a parapet.  A new storefront was installed, as well, accommodating two shops.

Irving Lazaroff was one of the tenants in the mid-1960's.  He was associated with a camp in the Catskill Mountains called the "Irene--Kenmar County House."  The facility was especially aimed aimed at mentally challenged children.  The Review-Times explained on June 19, 1965 that it was "a place where middle income families and their retarded may enjoy an inexpensive family vacation."  

Before 2000 one of the stores became home to Ellen Christine Colon-Lugo's boutique.  She was described by Claudia Varin in her A Guide to New York's Fetish Underground that year as "a hatmaker and dressmaker with a vision.  She specializes in real antique and newly made antique fashions, and has taken hatmaking and dressmaking to a new level by using antique and vintage hat styles for inspiration."

The store was visited by The New York Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal in March 2009.  The designer explained her approach to hats (her career began in 1995) and bemoaned the fact that hats, overall, had fallen from fashion.  When asked what caused that, she replied "Hairdos changed," as far as women went, "And then you had Vatican II.  The ecumenical council decreed woman no longer had to wear hats in church."

And for men?  "People like to blame it on J.F.K.  He loved his lush hair, plus he was always getting dressed so fast from all his affairs he didn't have time for a hat."

The building is little changed since its 1942 makeover.  No one passing by could suspect that beneath the brick is a brownstone house more than 170-years old.

photographs by the author

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Squadron A Club -- 1321 Madison Avenue


photo via

In the late 1880's the tide of fashion was moving ever northward, past the millionaires' Midtown mansions.  In the neighborhood that would later be known as Carnegie Hill stalwart developers were replacing small farms and wooden houses with upscale dwellings.

In February 1890 developer James v. S. Woolley purchased the large plot at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 93rd Street from Seth M. Milliken.  The $40,000 price for the vacant parcel reflected the soaring property values in the neighborhood.  It would equal $1.16 million today.

James E. Ware designed a row of five brick and stone houses in the popular Queen Anne style for the site.  The corner house was the most impressive.  Three stories tall above an English basement, its avenue façade was faced in brownstone.  A dramatic story-high dormer broke through the cornice of the pyramidal attic floor.  

Ware placed the entrance on 93rd Street where a sideways stoop rose to the entrance.  Here the architect departed from Queen Anne, embellishing the doorway with carved Renaissance Revival pilasters and an ornate hood.  The motif was echoed in the arched window to the side.  The entranceway was crowned by a stone balustrade that matched the stoop railings.

The fact that Woolley did not sell No. 1321 Madison Avenue until November 1892 may have been a reflection of the commercialization of the thoroughfare.  The problem that had plagued Fifth Avenue millionaires stopped at Central Park, where the now one-sided avenue did not lend itself to stores, restaurants and hotels.  But the wide avenues to the east were fertile ground.

Martin Frank first purchased the house, and it changed hands several more times until 1911 when the newly-organized Squadron A Club acquired the property.  On September 14 that year the club was incorporated "to conduct a clubhouse for Squadron A and Troop A of New York City."

The mansion was conveniently close to the Squadron A Armory on Park Avenue and 94th Street.  The group had unlikely origins.  In 1884 some of the wealthiest and most prominent of New York's gentlemen banded together in their love of horsemanship.  They created a private unit—originally a social club—called the First New York Hussars or First Dragoons.  The men drilled at Dickel’s Riding Academy where they had use of an assembly room and lockers.  They created their own dress uniforms based on London’s 10th Hussars.   

At the same time the National Guard had a problem.  Since 1877 it had had no mounted unit.  Whenever 
an escort was required for visiting Presidents or other dignitaries, the infantry or artillery made do.  More importantly, military leaders became concerned about the lack of a cavalry in the major urban area.   

And so in 1889 the 53-man unit became Troop “A,” an official part of the New York National Guard.   The Troop was put under the command of West Point trained Major Charles F. Roe, a veteran of the Civil War and former Indian fighter.  

The elite members, accustomed to smoking rooms and evening clothes, found themselves quickly in less than elegant conditions.  In August 1892 the Troop was sent to Buffalo, New York to quell the riots that erupted during the railroad strike there. 

Even before the Squadron A Club was formed, the Squadron and Troop A acted the part of a gentlemen's club within its armory when their services were not needed.  “The organization resembles a club in other social customs,” remarked The Times on January 23, 1898.  “’Smokers’ and entertainments for various purposes are held from time to time in its assembly room and outside of their homes.  The reading hall is always free to members of the organization."

Now ensconced in the Madison Avenue mansion, the Squadron A Club had the well-appointed spaces its wealthy members were accustomed to--dining rooms, billiard and card rooms, a reading room and such.  It was the scene of receptions and dinners, and offered members sleeping rooms on the upper floors.  (When well-to-do families closed their homes for the summer months, men who came back to town to conduct business would most often stay at their clubs.)

Reflecting its beginnings, the club was best known for its polo playing.  On June 25, 1916 The Sun wrote, "Squadron A. has kept up the game [at Van Cortlandt Park] for fifteen years and several very fine players and teams have been graduated from the regimental field to win cups at the club  tournaments."  The club held an annual open tournament in September.

The size of the club's stable was evidenced in 1916 when the National Guard seized horses for military use.  "A present day instance of the adaption of polo mounts is that the call for the mobilization of the militia transferred automatically the fifty-two nags in the polo barn of the Squadron A Club at Van Cortlandt Park into active service," reported The Sun on June 25.

On February 20, 1920 The Sun reminisced about the 
accomplished players that had filled its rolls.  "Undoubtedly the strongest player developed by the Squadron A club is J. Cheever Cowdin, who in polo circles at present is regarded as a contender for a place on the next American international polo team," it said.  "Others of note were Leavitt J. Hunt, Joseph Hunt and Alexander D. B. Pratt."

But that had ended.  The Squadron's polo club, "which for nearly twenty years furnished New York with the only polo matches that were open to the public gaze, has disbanded," reported The Sun.   Simultaneously the Squadron A Club left its Madison Avenue clubhouse, moving to rented rooms in the Biltmore Hotel.

By the time Daniel Casey, Jr. purchased the building from Mildred S. Wells in February 1923 it had been converted to "two-room and bath apartments," according to The New York Times.

The march of commerce finally caught up with No. 1321 Madison Avenue in 1930 when a renovation resulted in a projecting two-story commercial extension at the front, a single apartment on the third floor and a duplex on the fourth and attic level. 

photo via NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

At mid-century the Caligor Physicians' Supply Co. was in the ground floor.  Beginning in 1959 the upper floors were home to members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Mission staff.  

A renovation completed in 2017 resulted in a single family residence above the ground floor store.  Soviet Mission staff member Nikolai Aleksandrovich Sakharov resided there at the time.

Despite the 1920's renovations, the charm of James Ware’s corner house remains evident today.  With only a little imagination one can envision an 1890's mother hurrying her children up the outside stairs, finally home again.

non-credited photos by the author

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The 1915 Blanche Wagstaff House - 4 East 65th Street


The distracting top floor was added in 1929.

In 1900 William and Anna Barnes Bliss erected two abutting mansions at Nos. 6 and 8 East 65th Street.  Designed by the firm of Hiss & Weekes, the Bliss family would live in the smaller of the two sumptuous Beaux Arts residences, No. 6.

The Bliss house is to the right.  

In 1914 Anna B. Bliss embarked on another building project.  She purchased and demolished the outdated brownstone next door at No. 4, and hired architect Thomas Nash to design a modern replacement.  Rather than Beaux Arts, which was falling from favor, Nash turned to the currently popular neo-Federal style.  He traded historic accuracy for homogeneity by facing it not in red brick, as would have been expected, but in limestone to match the earlier houses.

Unlike the high-stooped brownstone it replaced, the new mansion was designed on the American basement plan--with the entrance just two steps above the sidewalk.   It was framed by engaged Scamozzi columns which upheld a formal, dentiled pediment and wreath and swag carvings.  The three planar faced floors above the rusticated base were sparsely decorated, the significant interest being the two sets of French doors at the second floor, or piano nobile, fronted by iron Juliette balconies and set within arches ornamented with carved cornucopia.   The two uppermost floors sat back from the stone cornice.

On April 29, 1907 Blanche Le Roy Shoemaker was married to Alfred Wagstaff, Jr. in her parents home at No. 26 West 53rd Street.  Blanche had been presented to the Court of St. James following her debut and later, according to The Evening Telegram, "she was received in private audience by Pope Pius."

The socially-prominent newlyweds would not need to worry about where to live.  The New York Times reported "Col. Wagstaff has given a cottage at Islip to his son as a wedding gift," and Blanche's mother (also named Blanche) purchased a townhouse for her daughter at No. 24 East 54th Street.

But when things did not go well for the young couple Blanche Shoemaker stepped in again.  On February 24, 1916 the New York Herald entitled an article "Woman Buys Costly House for a Gift to Her Daughter," and reported that she had purchased No. 4 East 65th Street from Anna B. Bliss "as a gift to her daughter, Mrs. Alfred Wagstaff, Jr." for $275,000--more than $6.6 million in today's money.  The article pointed out the exclusive neighborhood, saying that it stood "opposite the [John Jacob] Astor mansion" and that Blanche would have as her new neighbors the Blisses, James J. Hill, M. Orme Wilson and William Watts Sherman.

This portrait of Blanche was painted in 1905 by French artist Theobald Chartran.  image via

It may have been the bride's youth that contributed to the failed marriage (she was 19 at the time), or simply her self reliance.  Blanche was already a recognized name in the literary field.  She had begun writing poetry as a child and her first poem had been sold to Town & Country magazine three years before the wedding.   Unlike other society brides, she insisted on a career and served briefly as the associate editor of the literary magazine, The International, and published volumes of her own poetry.  By the time she moved into the 65th Street house, she was editor of the Boston-based Poetry Journal and her play Alcentis had been produced.

Blanche's involvement with The International came to a crashing end when she butted heads with her close friend and the publication's founder, George Sylvester Viereck, over his ardent support of Germany as World War I erupted.  That heated rift may have contributed to her decision to join the war effort in 1917.  

Only a year after moving into her new mansion, she closed it.  On December 3, 1917 the New York Herald reported "Mrs. Alfred Wagstaff, Jr., has gone to France to drive an ambulance for the American Girls' Aid Hospital, twelve miles from the western front."  A thoroughly 20th-century woman, Blanche had obtained her State license as a mechanic.  The article said, "She has driven an automobile in nearly all parts of the world, and has ridden motorcycles, hence she thinks she is equipped to transport the wounded."  To make certain, Blanche financed her own "specially built ambulance."

Blanche's mother had retained the title to the 65th Street house.  While Blanche was in France she leased it to a succession of millionaires like the Moses Taylors, James A. Blaire and his wife, and in June 1919, to Thomas B. Yuille and his family.  

Yuille had been president of the American Tobacco Company until 1916.  He had stepped down to become president of the Universal Leaf Tobacco Company.   He and his wife, the former Nanny W. Long, had four daughters.  The Yuille's country estate, Quankey, was in Bronxville, New York.  

Once back in America, Blanche Wagstaff briefly returned to No. 4 East 65th Street.  She and her husband had never divorced, but it was most likely her romance with real estate Donald Carr that prompted her to take care of that detail in December 1920.  

Seven months later, on July 31, 1921 The Evening Telegram announced the Blanche and Carr had been married at her country home, Bide-a-Wee, in Manchester, Vermont.  The article noted "A feature of the ceremony was the reading by the clergyman of one of the bride's poems called 'Marriage.'"  The New York Times recounted some of the Blanche's exploits.  "She has traveled extensively in Italy and in the Orient and has made several campaign trips in the great Sahara desert."

Blanche Shoemaker sold No. 4 the following year to Harold C. Matthews who paid the equivalent of $3.2 million today.  He quickly resold it to Dr. Arthur Balwin Duel who installed a doctor's office in the first floor.  He lived and worked from the house until 1928 when he sold it to Henry "Harry" Pomeroy Davison, a banker with J. P. Morgan & Co.

Davison and his wife, the former Anne Stillman, had three sons, Harry, Jack and James.  Their country home, Appledore, was at Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Within months of moving in Davis hired architect Robert Cowrie to add a penthouse level to the mansion.  

The Davisons remained in the house for a decade, selling it in 1939 to a real estate operator.  The following year The New York Sun reported "The former town home of Harry P. Davison, at 4 East Sixty-fifth street, has been remodeled into nine suites of two, three and four-room duplex and triplex apartments."

The New York Sun, October 1940

Among the first of the well-heeled tenants was playwright and producer Moss Hart, who leased a duplex apartment in June 1942.  In December 1943 Hart left town for the weekend, as did his neighbor, Count Vincent Orssich.  Both men would come home to a shocking surprise.

On December 16 The New York Sun reported "Several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry, clothing, liquor and valuable mementos were stolen from the luxurious apartments of Moss Hart, prominent theatrical producer and author, and former Austrian cavalry officer, Count Vincent Orssich at 4 East 65th Street.  After briefly checking for missing items, Hart estimated the theft at $10,000, while Orssich placed his loss at $6,000--a total haul of about $235,000 today.  The article said:

Among the articles stolen from Mr. Hart were a number of souvenirs of sentimental value.  They included an expensive cigarette case given to him by Zeppo Marx, a pair of cufflinks which had belonged to the late Alexander Wollcott, a golden tray given to Mr. Hart by the cast of "Lady in the Dark" and a string of hearts which formerly belonged to Gertrude Lawrence.

Count Orssich had lost "clothing and several pairs of expensive shoes, jewelry and ten quarts of Scotch whisky."

On August 10, 1946 Hart married actress Kitty Carlisle and the couple continued to live in the 65th Street apartment.  Early in November burglars again tried force entrance into the suite but, according to The New York Times, "were frightened away."

The following month they would be more successful.  The Harts went to their country home in New Hope, Pennsylvania for Christmas.  On Christmas Eve their butler, Charles Mathies, returned to New York, "bringing with him expensive wedding gifts," according to The New York Times.  When the Harts walked into the apartment on Christmas night they found that "patient burglars during the early hours of Christmas Day thoroughly [had] thoroughly ransacked the duplex apartment."  This time they escaped with $25,000 "worth of clothing, jewelry, Christmas and wedding gifts."

As Hart looked over the wreckage of his apartment he pronounced it "A spectacular return engagement."  Police theorized that the crooks gained access by ringing the bells downstairs until someone buzzed them in.  Hart sighed, "They didn't miss a thing."

Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle Hart outside a theater in 1961.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

They had taken every item of clothing from the apartment, including 14 suits and six overcoats belonging to Hart and taking all of Kitty Carlisle's coats--a sable, a white fox, a broadtail, a mink cape and a beaver cape--leaving her with only the one she wore.  The New York Times added, "The thieves also took several gold cigarette cases, her father's diamond watch fob, a gold bracelet and a gold pin presented to her by the producers of a show."  

They also made away with a Georgian tea set and a silver service given them by the Ira Gershwins.  Because all of the silverware was now gone, the butler brought knives, forks and spoons from his apartment so his employers could have breakfast, and he loaned Hart two suits.

"The playwright phoned Danny Kaye, the comedian.  Mr. Kaye provided a suit and an overcoat.  Both have the same tailor, and wear the same size clothing," said the article.  The Sun placed the value of the lost items at $196,000 in today's money.

In February 1926 socialite Gertrude Nelson had founded the contract bridge group, the Nelson Bridge Club.  For the next 25 years until her death it "attracted some of New York's finest players," according to The New York Times.  On February 1, 1964 the newspaper announced, "Today the Nelson club will be reopened at 4 East 65th Street under the management of the founder's son, Carter Nelson, who hopes to revive the sociable atmosphere of the original club."

The basement and first floor were officially converted to a club in 1969, but returned to apartments in 1972.  Outwardly the sedate facade gives little hint that the building is no longer a private mansion.

photographs by the author