Friday, December 4, 2020

The Alexander McDonald House - 112 East 31st Street


The stone archway drops in front of the square-headed entrance.

Alexander McDonald ran a stoneyard at No. 259 East 17th Street in the early 1850's.  He almost assuredly supplied the brownstone for his Italianate house at No. 58 East 31st Street between Fourth (later Park Avenue South) and Lexington Avenues.  An eccentric take on the Italianate style, the 19-foot wide home featured large, paired windows with architrave frames and molded cornices.  The most unusual detail was brawny entrance where square-headed double doors were fronted by an arched stone curtain.

The house was completed by 1853 when McDonald appears in city directories at the address.  In 1855 the family briefly took in a boarder, Patrick Keary, who listed his profession as "paperhangings."  

It appears that McDonald's widowed sister-in-law lived in the house as well.  Listed only as "Mrs. Gray," she died of consumption (the mid-19th century term for tuberculosis) at the age of 59 on April 29, 1861.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.

In 1867 the city embarked on the massive project of organizing street and avenue numbers into a logical system.  The McDonald house received the new address of No. 112 in 1868, the same year that it was leased to the Rutgers Presbyterian Church for its new pastor, Nathaniel W. Conkling.

Reverend Conkling had come from Philadelphia where he had been pastor of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church since May 1863.  He resigned his position there on February 7, 1868.

Since 1842 the congregation of the Rutgers Presbyterian Church had worshipped downtown at the corner of Rutgers and Henry Streets.   The trustees sold that building in 1863, prompting The New York Times to sigh, "“Dr. Krebs has abandoned his dear old Church in Rutgers-street, and it has passed into Catholic hands."  Reverend Conkling would lead his flock from temporary quarters while a new edifice was erected not far from the East 31st Street parsonage.

Finally, on January 4, 1875, The New York Times reported "The new house of worship of the Rutgers Presbyterian Church, corner of Madison avenue and Twenty-ninth street, was dedicated yesterday."  During his dedicatory sermon, Reverend Conkling espoused religious equanimity.  "Dr. Conkling advocated the widest toleration, pointing out that there was no essential difference between the various denominations of Christians."

During the warm months prominent citizens closed their city homes to spend the summer at their country estates or fashionable resorts like Newport or Bar Harbor.  The churches of the well-to-do were also closed during the summer, since their congregants were away.  Reverend Conkling and his wife, like other well-paid clergy, left the city during the hot months.

While many of the homeowners left at least one servant behind to watch over their houses, others like the Conklings did not.  It was an opportunity that did not escape criminals.  In 1879 saloon owner John Sheridan devised a sideline.  He organized a ring of burglars who targeted unoccupied homes.  They then brought the loot at his saloon where they were paid for their efforts.

When the Conklings returned home that fall, they found their home had been entered and their silverware taken.   Little by little detectives gained enough evidence to point to Sheridan.  On November 25, 1879 The New York Times reported "The proceeds of the numerous burglaries in the residences of prominent citizens during the past Summer were traced to Sheridan's saloon."  Among the items found there were "several pieces of silverware that were carried away from the residence of Mr. Nathaniel W. Conkling, No. 112 East Thirty-first-street."  Sheridan was tried on November 24 and Mrs. Conkling was called as a witness.  The New York Times noted "Mrs. Conkling identified the property."

Rutgers Presbyterian Church laid plans to move northward yet again the following year.  On April 28, 1880 Alexander McDonald sold No. 112 to George D. Hilyard.  Because Hilyard was a contractor and builder, the two men most likely were well acquainted.  If Hilyard intended to move into the residence, he quickly changed his mind.  Five months later, on September 1, he sold it to Edward M. and Helene Ingoldsby for $14,000, about $361,000 in today's money.

Ingoldsby had been a partner in the mercantile business of Ingoldsby & Halsted since 1852.  He temporarily diverted his attention from selling clothing in 1885 to inventing a new model of elevator.  He received a patent for his invention in October that year.

The Ingoldsbys remained in the East 31st Street house through 1892, selling it in December that year to Thomas Hunt and his wife, Helen J., for the equivalent of $551,000 in today's money.

The Hunts took rooms in the Windsor Hotel while they made renovations to the house.  They hired the architectural firm of Ogden & Son to add a two-story extension to the rear.

The house next became home to Alexander D. and Jane C. Walker who purchased No. 112 from the Hunts in February 1899.  They remained only five years, selling the house to broker Herbert C. Lakin and his wife, Jane C., in 1904.  As the Hunts had done, they made improvements. In August 1908 they commissioned architect Robert E. Kelly to raise the Hunt's extension to three stories and update the interior stairs.  The well-to-do Walkers owned a Cadillac in 1910.

No. 112 had two more owners before the estate of Hetty S. Beaman sold it in April 1920.  The Record & Guide reported "The buyer will remodel it into small apartments."  Only four months later, on August 13, an advertisement in The Sun offered "Two and 3 rooms and bath, $1,100 to $1,800; one room, $900; unusually light; decorated to suit; long leases."  The rent for a studio apartment would equal about $960 per month today.

Among the tenants was Susanne K. Langer who was leasing an apartment by 1945.  She was the first American woman to achieve recognition as a philosopher.  She was the author of one of the earliest books on symbolic logic and went on to write numerous books, including The Practice of Philosophy, Philosophy in a New Key, and Feeling and Form, and articles in periodicals.   She remained in the building until 1954.

Susanne K. Langer original source unknown

Langer's leaving No. 112 most likely had to do with a second remodeling.  In 1954 it was converted to 11 apartments.  Two more renovations would come.  In 1973 the former house became offices throughout, and a renovation completed in 1999 resulted in one apartment on the two top floors and commercial space in the basement and parlor levels.  

photograph by the author

1 comment:

  1. Two comments:
    1) It is amazing to me that this structure has been through multiple and significant remodels and conversions with none of them resulting in shaved lintels or painted brownstone.
    2) Reverend Conkling feeling the need to espouse religious equanimity in 1875 reminded me of scenes from the PBS series 'Upstart Crow' where 16th Century Protestants burned Catholics or Catholics burned Protestants, depending on who was on the British throne, over "relatively minor differences in the sacrament."