Monday, May 17, 2021

The Lost Hotel Majestic - 115 Central Park West

 

When this photograph was taken in 1929, the monumental structure was scheduled for demolition.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Born in Rothenkirchen, Germany, Jacob Rothschild arrived in New York City at the age of 13 in 1856, "a fatherless boy," as The New York Times later commented.  The boy immediately went to work in a millinery store on Grand Street where he learned the business.  He saved his money for ten years, and then then struck out on his own, opening his own small shop.

By the time he retired from the millinery business around 1880, he had amassed a fortune.  He now turned his attention to real estate and in 1890 began what would be his crowning achievement in that field.   He started buying up the vacant plots along Central Park West between 71st and 72nd Street.  Finally, on January 24, 1891, the Record & Guide reported that he had acquired the last of the 12 lots.  "By these purchases, Mr. Rothschild secures the block front of 500 feet by a depth on each street of 150 feet.  On the plot Mr. Rothschild will erect, it is said, a fourteen-story hotel."

If Rothschild's grandiose plan seemed far-fetched to some, it did not phase him.  In May the Record & Guide updated its readers, saying that Alfred Zucker had filed plans for the $1 million "family hotel"--the staggering cost around 29 times that much today.  "It will be the most important improvement of years on the west side," said the article.

Construction on the Hotel Majestic took three years.  Guests entered the 30-foot wide main entrance on 72nd Street into a marble-lined lobby, or "main hall."  The 10,000-square-foot main dining room was on the 71st Street side of the first floor.   Also on the first floor were "the usual parlor, drawing-rooms, reception and billiard-rooms, with private dining-room and ball-room," according to the Record & Guide.

The main hall included a stained glass skylight, marble walls, a frescoed ceiling and grand marble staircase.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Its 12 stories were the equivalent of 14 floors in height.  That, of course, required elevators and there were seven of them--four for passengers and three for freight.   The Record & Guide described the finishes as being "of the finest description, marbles, hardwoods, bronze, brass and metal work of other kinds."  Architecture and Building applauded the arrival of a "first-class family hotel for the upper west side."  The article said, "The rooms in most cases will be rented in suites of drawing-room, bed-r0om and bath-room, or of five rooms, as the case may be."  In all there were 560 rooms and 268 bath-rooms.

On December 27, 1894 the Hotel Majestic was formally opened with, as reported by The New York Times, "a ball, for which 1,000 invitations were sent out by the guests and management of the hotel."  The article said, "The Colonial drawing room, the Empire room, and the large open hall were thrown open for the ball.  Music was furnished by the regular hotel orchestra in the conservatory.  Supper was served in the Winter garden from 10 o'clock until the end of the dance."

Munsey's Magazine described the massive hotel saying it "is certainly big enough to quarter a regiment."  The New York Times suggested that Rothschild intended for the Hotel Majestic to rival "in appointments and appearance" the Dakota Apartments directly across the street.  True or not, the two substantial structures formed an imposing gateway to Central Park.

In the background of this postcard of Central Park skaters the Hotel Majestic and Dakota Apartments vie for attention.

The Hotel Majestic accepted both transient and permanent guests.  Mrs. Horace Chenery took a suite here in the summer of 1899 on the advice of her doctor, William B. Pritchard, who lived nearby on West 73rd Street.

The 25-year-old's husband worked downtown in the Havemeyer Building.  They had been married for three years and "established themselves in a handsome home on Beach Avenue, Larchmont, where they entertained a great deal."  In March 1891 Mrs. Chenery had a baby daughter and developed what today we recognize as postpartum depression.  The New York Times said, "her illness developed into melancholia in an aggravated form, among the symptoms being a suicidal mania."

Dr. Pritchard recommended she be moved into a suite in the Hotel Majestic "where she could be under his constant care."  Two live-in nurses were on constant duty.   Each took an eight-hour shift.  

from the collection of the Library of Congress

At 3:30 on the morning of September 23 Mary Arbuckle was sitting in her patient's room, watching over her.  The other nurse, Miss Cox, was asleep.  "Miss Arbuckle left the bedside for a moment and stepped into an adjoining room for a glass of water...When the nurse returned to the room a moment later she was horrified to see Mrs. Chenery's bed empty and the window open," reported the New York Herald.  She looked out the window to see Mrs. Chenery's body, clad in her nightgown, on the sidewalk.

The tragedy of Mrs. Chenery was, indeed, an exception to the goings-on in the upscale hotel.  It was a favorite among the artistic community--most notably musicians.  On February 9, 1902, Jacob Rothschild hosted a dinner for the "artists of the Metropolitan Opera Company and several dramatic artists and their friends who are staying at the Majestic," according to The New York Times.  It placed the cost of the dinner at more than $61,000 by today's terms.  "Favors for the ladies consisted of bouquets of violets and orchids, each bouquet costing $20.  The souvenirs were miniature grand pianos, and the menus were of pink satin caught up with pearl tops."

The main dining room.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The great Austrian conductor and composer Felix Mottl was a guest of the hotel the following year.  He had just finished dinner in the grill room in the lower level on the evening of November 13, 1903 when, according to The New York Times, "he heard a burst of sound that made the walls of the spacious lobby echo."  Heinrich Conreid, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, had brought the entire opera orchestra into the lobby as a surprise reception.  

"The lobby, with the musicians sitting on one side, and gaily-dressed guests almost surrounding them, presented a brilliant sight.  Many eminent operatic stars were present, among them Mme. Gadski, Anton Von Rooy, Alfred Hertz, and Andreas Dipple," said the article.

An advertisement in 1904 boasted, "this hotel is singularly blessed with light and air...Every window offers a new panorama of delightful vistas."  It noted, "When the Hotel Majestic was erected men said the owner must be crazy to go so far up town.  It was the wisest forethought possible.  To-day this is the choicest residential spot in America."

In the warm months, guests and New Yorkers in general enjoyed the roof garden.  In its November 1899 issue, Munsey's Magazine recalled, "The Majestic was the first hotel to inaugurate a roof garden."

Munsey's Magazine, November 1899 (copyright expired)

On December 21, 1907 Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma, checked in.  The hotel provided two grand pianos for their 11th-floor suite where they remained for more than a year.   According to the Mahler Foundation's website, "It was from this apartment that Mahler [in February 1908] heard the muffled drum strokes of a funeral cortege that he later used in Symphony No. 10."

The Mahlers would be among many distinguished company in the Hotel Majestic.  Other well-known guests over the years included actress Sarah Bernhardt, operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and novelist Edna Ferber.  Lesser-known today were residents like actress Fanny Ward, a sensation on both the New York and London stages at the time.

Jacob Rothschild died on April 4, 1911.  In reporting his death The New York Times commented, "The Majestic Hotel was probably the greatest of his building undertakings."

The proprietorship was taken over by Copeland Townsend who made a few, subtle changes.  He renovated the roof garden, naming it the Hurricane Deck.  It opened on June 18, 1917 and The Hotel Monthly noted, "The Majestic Hotel in New York City employs a social censor to free its dancing floor of undesirables."

The war that was spreading across Europe in 1917 had effects on the Hotel Majestic.  On March 12 The New York Times reported, "Declaring that the tense situation between Germany and America makes it imperative that no society of Teutonic origin hold meetings of any nature at this time, Copeland Townsend, owner of the Hotel Majestic, yesterday asked Friedrich Michel, head of the German Society, to cancel reservations for the ballroom of the hotel, where the society has been holding its meetings."

At an earlier meeting in the hotel, Maria A. Stappert, a former Bryn Mawr student, criticized the current German "economic, social and moral conditions."  Dr. John A. Mandel, who was in the audience, wrote to the Ministerial Director in Berlin, according to The New York Times, "asking that she be suppressed."

Townsend wanted no more political controversy in his hotel.  He mentioned to a reporter, "It strikes me, that if every member of the society is an American, the name of the society should be changed to the 'American Society.'"

He was understandably more welcoming to The American Defense Rifle Club--an organization of women formed to defend the city while its men were away at war.  On April 7, 1917 work on installing a gun range on the roof began.  The New York Times explained, "The club was organized by Mrs. June Haughton, an expert rifle shot, and it is planned to teach women how to use rifles expertly."

Life returned to normal after the war and the Hurricane Roof was open for dancing again in the summers.   The unused southern rooftop gained new life in 1920 when it became an artists colony.  On April 18 The New York Times reported, "A group of New York artists are going to establish a 'Bohemia-in-the-Clouds,' and plans and specifications have been drawn up and contracts let for a group of skylight bungalows on the roof of the Hotel Majestic."

Copeland Townsend confirmed the rumors.  The article said the "aerial Macdougal Alley will consist of a series of fireproof studios, some to be used only for working purposes and others for homes."  Some of the artists who had already signed leases were relocating for the project.  Sculptor Prince Paul Troubetzkoy was currently in California, artists Frank Godwin and Ray Rohn were both living in Philadelphia, and illustrator Dean Cornwell was moving in from Leonia, New Jersey.  The New York Times noted, "Brinkerhoff, Webster and Briggs will have studio room there, but will live elsewhere."

Guests to the hotel in 1925 would have enjoyed the latest in decorative style.  
photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A significant transformation to Central Park West began in 1928 as plans were begun for no fewer than four massive Art Deco Apartment buildings facing Central Park.  On December 21, 1928 The New York Times reported, "Negotiations are reported to be well advanced for the sale of the Hotel Majestic."  The article added, "the buyers will demolish the structure, which was one of the first hotels erected in Central Park West."

Four months later the Chanin Construction Company announced plans for a 45-story replacement building to cost the equivalent of $239 million today.  Designed by Irwin S. Chanin and Jacques Delamarre, the twin-towered Art Deco structure was named The Majestic as a nod to its illustrious predecessor.

photograph by David Shankbone

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Edmund L. Baylies Mansion - 10 East 62nd Street

 


The family of Isaac S. Platt had lived in the 25-foot wide brownstone house at No. 10 East 62nd Street since its construction in 1880.  The president of Adriance, Platt & Co., manufacturers of harvesting machines, he and his wife, the former Mary jane Redfield, had two sons and two daughters.  Platt died in the house on November 15, 1904 at the age of 70.

At the time of Platt's death, the high-stooped brownstones along the block had become architecturally outdated.  In May the following year Edmund Lincoln Baylies purchased No. 10, demolished it, and hired the firm of Hoppin, Koen & Huntington to design a modern mansion on the site.

Two years after construction began the house was completed.  The architects had created a six-story, limestone-faced Beaux Arts palace.  Above the rusticated base three sets of tall, French windows opened onto a full-width iron-railed balcony.  Each of their frothy keystones took the form of a carved face.  An almost identical balcony graced the fifth floor.  The design was capped by a slate-shingled mansard with copper-clad dormers.


On November 25, 1907, the New York Herald announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies have taken possession of their new residence, No. 10 East Sixty-second street," noting that it "is one of the finest in that section of the city."

The Baylies' American pedigree was impressive.  Thomas Baylies arrived in America in 1737 and Edmund's relatives included Livingstons and Hamiltons.  His wife was the former Louisa Van Rensselaer, whose family was among the oldest and most prominent in New York.

The ballroom -- photo via zillow.com

A partner in the legal firm of Carter, Ledyard & Millburn, Baylies focused on real estate.  Soon after moving into his new house he began remodeling brownstones along the block into mansions as lavish as his own.

Louisa's entertainments were lavish.  On February 19, 1915, for instance, the New York Press reported, "Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies entertained forty guests at dinner last evening in her home, No. 10 East Sixty-second street."  But her attention soon turned from dinner parties and receptions to relief work as World War I devastated France.

European soldiers lost limbs, were blinded, and otherwise disabled in battle.  Louisa set out to provide them with a means of income after the war.  She organized the American Committee for Training in Suitable Trades the Maimed Soldiers of France and served as its chairman.  Her work for the cause was indefatigable.  The Sun reported on November 1, 1917, "To this one organization Mrs. Baylies has devoted all of her time since soon after the beginning of the war and has raised large amounts of money, with which schools have been established in Paris and other French cities.  There French soldiers are taught trades that will enable them to support themselves and their families."  In appreciation, on October 31, 1917 the French Government honored Louisa with the Legion of Honor.

The end of the war did not mean the end of Louisa's work.  On November 15, 1919, the New-York Tribune reported that she and Edmund had sailed for Europe "to spend three months abroad."  It was not totally a pleasure trip.  "She will inspect five new trade schools which her committee has established in and near the French capital," said the article.

Edmund and Louisa were snapped at the pier on January 22, 1922 as they returned to New York after a two-months trip through England.  Daily News (copyright expired)

Edmund Baylies's first health scare happened in 1918 when it appeared he may not recover from pneumonia.  Newspapers published regular updates on his condition.  Then, on January 5, 1919, The New York Times reported, "Edmund L. Baylies, who has been critically ill with double pneumonia at his home, 10 East Sixty-second Street, is slowly recovering.  Yesterday he and Mrs. Baylies left for the Virginia Hot Springs."

In 1931 Edmund began experiencing what The New York Times described at the time as "a general decline in health."  He and Louisa spent that winter season in Cannes, France "in the hope of improving his condition," according to the newspaper.  On April 29, 1932, two weeks after they returned, Baylies died in the 62nd Street mansion at the age of 74.  Within two weeks the New York Evening Post reported, "He left all his personal effects outright to his wife, Mrs. Louisa Van Rensselaer Baylies...and the remainder of his estate to her in trust."


photos via zillow.com

Louisa did not remain in the 62nd Street mansion for long, selling it to George Washington Kavanaugh and his wife, the former Maria Miller Haberle.  The couple's summer home, Ocean Edge, was in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

Ocean Edge was built in 1910.  original source unknown

Maria was the widow of brewer William Henry Haberle and had two daughters, Virginia and Leonora, from that marriage.  Although Kavanaugh was a millionaire businessman and former politician (he served in the State Assembly in 1897-98), it was Maria who stole the social spotlight.

On October 17, 1936 Maria returned home to discover a $10,000 pearl necklace was missing.  (The value would be closer to $135,000 today.)  It was the first of a nine-day period during which "she found some other article missing almost every day."  She reported the missing items--now amounting to $25,000--to the insurance company and an investigation was begun.  Maria launched her own probe and on November 27 The New York Times reported, "she found many missing articles, including silver, a valuable gold seal and clothing, hidden in closets."  As was the case in so many paperback mystery novels, the butler did it.

Maria's closest friend was Lady Decies, the twice-widowed "penny princess" born Elizabeth Drexel in Philadelphia.  She married John Beresford, the 5th Baron Decies in 1936.  When Lady Decies was in town, the two were nearly inseparable.

On February 5, 1938 the New York Post reported that Lady Decies had arrived on the Normandie the previous morning.  "With her French maid she went immediately to the residence of Colonel and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh at 10 East Sixty-second Street, where she will make her home during her brief say in New York."  The following day The New York Times reported "Mr. and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh gave a large reception yesterday afternoon at their home...for their house guest, Lady Decies," and on February 11 the newspaper wrote, "Mrs. Leonara H. Warner gave a dinner last night at the home of her mother, Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh, 10 Eat Sixty-Second Street, for Lady Decies, the house guest of Mr. and Mrs. Kavanaugh.  Later the party went to the El Morocco."  The whirlwind continued the next day when Maria hosted a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton.

Maria Kavanaugh and Lady Decies arrive at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night 1943.  photograph from The Critic

On May 1, 1942, the Detroit Evening Times hinted that the Kavanaughs were considering moving to Beverly Hills.  "For several years past Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh has passed up the mid-winter social season on Manhattan Isle in favor of a holiday in the vicinity of Los Angeles."  The writer noted, "It would be a suitable background for Mrs. Kavanaugh, who has a showplace at Spring Lake, N.J., and who, several years ago, purchased the stately mansion at 10 East Sixty-second street for her metropolitan headquarters."

In a catty aside, the journalist took a swipe at Louisa Baylies.  "The East Sixty-second street house formerly belonged to the once social Mrs. Edmund L. Baylies, born to superior New York social prestige as Louisa Van Rensselaer, and who now, late in life, is in what is politely known as 'reduced circumstances.'"

The Kavanaughs, along with Leonora and her family, remained in New York, however.  The wedding of Leonora's son, William Whiteside Warner, to Kathleen Berryman McMahon took place in the Church of St. Thomas More on June 14, 1951.  

Three months later, on September 6, 1951 George Washington Kavanaugh died at the age of 89.   Maria survived him by three years, dying in January 1954 at the age of 87.  The Miami News noted, "she attended at least 30 openings of Metropolitan Opera seasons."

photo via zillow.com

In 1973 the Fleming School purchased the mansion for $4 million.  Alterations, completed in 1974, converted the interiors to classrooms.  As was the case with other exclusive private girls' schools, however, much of the opulence of the former mansion was carefully preserved.  The school remained until 1994 after which the house was converted to three apartments, a triplex and two duplexes.  The triplex was put on the market in 2020 for $55 million.


photographs by the author
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Friday, May 14, 2021

From Shirtwaists to Genomics - 14-16 Waverly Place

 

photo by Beyond My Ken

On February 11, 1892 Isabel Lathrop sold the old three-story house at 14 Waverly Place to Frank A. Seitz.   The president of the Frank A. Seitz Realty & Construction Co., he was on a mission.  The following month he spent $21,667 (about $628,000 today) for the similar house next door at 16 Waverly Place.

Prior to the Civil War years the area had been one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in Manhattan.  But now its once-elegant homes were being rapidly replaced with loft buildings.  Seitz demolished the two structures and hired the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel to design two identical structures.  Each would be 25-feet wide, six-stories tall, and cost the equivalent of $2 million today to construct.

Completed early in 1893, the architects had created two imposing tripartite structures in a modern take on the Romanesque Revival style.  The piers of the cast iron storefronts upheld faux balustraded balconies that fronted an arcade of deeply-recessed windows.  The engaged brick columns that separated them wore carved medieval-style capitals which were echoed in the massive capitals of the three piers that flanked the stores.

The mid-sections were faced in beige brick encrusted with stylized chain bands of terra cotta.  Energetic brick-and-terra cotta voussoirs capped each opening like sunbursts.  The sixth floors sat above a common cornice, each window separated by engaged columns.



Seitz seems to have hoped to quickly liquidate his investment.  On March 16, 1893 the Record & Guide reported he had sold the structures $250,000--a satisfying $7.3 million in today's money.   If so, the deal fell through and it was not until 1898 that Seitz sold the buildings to William Lauterbach.  

Lauterbach moved his clothing firm, Andur & Goodman Co., into one of the buildings.  Other millinery and apparel firms leased space, as well.  Among them in 1897 were clothiers S. Beller & Co., L. Herschfield & Brother and Max Hurvick, and "hats and caps" manufacturers Philip W. Crawford, E. E. Francis & Co., J. Rowland & Co., the Pioneer Hat Works, and T. C. Millard & Co.

At the time, both industries were experiencing pushback from employees, prompted by the new labor organizations.  Apparel workers labored in oppressive conditions, normally working six days per week for low wages.  On September 2, 1897 The Standard Union reported, "Over 2,600 cloak makers quit work in shops working for six manufacturers of cloaks in New York City, yesterday evening and this morning."  Among those was the entire staff of S. Beller & Co. 

In a related matter, the article noted that women garment workers were "agitating" for a separate union.  "They are mostly, it is said, of Hebrew, Italian and Irish origin.  A mass meeting of the women for organization purposes is to be held later on."

At the turn of the century the "waist," or "shirtwaist," was the most popular women's garment in America.   The tailored blouse was originally modeled on men's shirts.

Despite the tortuous corsets required to maintain the hourglass figure, the shirtwaist was touted as "liberating."  original source unknown
 
The Danzig Waist Co. operated from 14 Waverly Place in 1901 and, as is the case with fashion companies today, used live models when working on designs and patterns.  On July 23, 1901 the firm advertised in the New York Herald for a "Stylish 36 figure for shirt waists."

Until the last quarter of the 20th century employees were paid in cash.  It was a practice that routinely made clerks carrying the payroll from the bank a target of robbers.  But it was not street thugs who were the threat on September 17, 1906, but an insider.

The Success Publishing Company was one tenant here not involved in millinery or clothing.  On that afternoon Kenneth McKenzie left the office with a $1,900 payroll check  to cash at the bank.   The amount would be nearly $56,000 today.  The Standard Union reported, "As McKenzie did not return the police were notified."

Detectives learned that the 24-year-old was seen at Coney Island that same night during the Mardi Gras festivities.  (The annual event had nothing to do with the Lenten celebrations held in New Orleans every spring.)  The Standard Union reported that the detectives "went to the big health resort last evening armed with a bench warrant in the hope of arresting him."  Unable to find him among the throng, undercover officers then "shadowed McKenzie's home."  Finally, just after midnight on September 20, he was seen sneaking out of the basement door.

McKenzie was arrested, but the money was gone.  The article in The Standard Union was entitled "Think Man Spent Firm's Money At Mardi Gras."

In 1918 William Lauterbach joined the two buildings internally.  His company was still operating here and in June the following year it was looking for a "boy as learner in shipping room."  The pay was $150 per week in today's money, and the company wanted to ensure that the applicants were both literate and neat.  The ad insisted that applications be addressed "in own handwriting."

Following William Lauterbach's death, his widow, Mattie, sold the buildings in 1945 to the Eastern Control Corporation.  While a few apparel-related tenants, like Service Wear, Inc., were still in the buildings, the garment center had moved north of 34th Street.  More typical of the firms in the buildings now was the Howard Adams Brush Co.

A horrifying incident occurred on January 8, 1952 while a team of five workmen were installing a 5,000-gallon oil tank in the sub-basement.  While four of the men were working on the tank, welder John Nagy was using an acetylene torch on the iron grating at street level to create an opening for a vent pipe.  Sparks fell to the basement, igniting cardboard cartons.  By the time the workers noticed the fire it was out of control.

One of them rushed to the street to tell Nagy to stop work while the others tried to fight the blaze.  The flames and thick smoke eventually forced them out, but two had been overcome by smoke.  It was not until the three men reached the sidewalk that they realized that Seymour Washowski and Raleigh Jordan, both 25-years-old, were missing.

The New York Times reported, "The rescuers went down and were able to penetrate only a short distance before the intense smoke and flames drove them back.  It was not until two hours later that the bodies were found in the sub-basement."

The second half of the 20th century saw major change come to the Noho neighborhood.  In 1961 the Young Concert Artists Recital Hall was in the building and in 1967 the Playwright's Workshop Club operated here.  It staged off-Broadway productions like Clyde Ellsworth's 1967 The Sleeping Beauty or Can A Call Girl Find True Love and Happiness.

The upper floors were converted to nine sprawling residential lofts.  Moving in in 1964, for instance, were artist Dan Christensen, his wife, and their two sons.  Their 4,o00-square-foot space accommodated Christensen's studio and the family's residence.  (His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.)

At the time Harouts Greek restaurant was a favorite gathering spot for New York University students.  The restaurant closed in 1969 and was unofficially taken over by a campus group, Transendental Students, described by The New York Times on September 22 that year as "a party-throwing organization of hedonists."  They held parties called "freak-outs" in empty classrooms and study halls, and in the now-vacant restaurant.

The New York Times said "The freak-outs were billed as attempted to 'make N.Y.U. livable'" and "usually featured wine, marijuana, movies, political satire, and acid-rock music."  Uninvited attendees were often the New York City Police Department who were called to end the festivities.  The article noted, "Even the N.Y.U. administration has acknowledge the group's influence.  This term the administration allocated $5,000 for the group to renovate Harouts."

After living in their third-floor loft for three decades, the Christensens and the other tenants were told to leave by New York University in June 1998.  A spokesperson for the school explained "various university departments need space for their programs."  Although the tenants, described by The New York Times as "four painters, a sculptor, a filmmaker, a food designer, a martial-arts teacher and a furniture marker" hired a lawyer, they were unsuccessful.


A subsequent renovation, completed in 2010, resulted in the building's being home to New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology.

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

The 1913 Hamilton Theatre - 3560-3568 Broadway

 

photo by Jim Henderson

Both Benjamin S. Moss and Solomon Brill were major players in the New York City vaudeville theater industry in the early years of the 20th century.  Moss had begun his career with William Fox and Marcus Loew before striking out on his own, and Brill was among the first to establish theaters specifically for motion pictures.  The two entered a short-lived partnership around 1910 and on February 27, 1912 broke ground for a combination vaudeville-motion picture theater on the northwest corner of Broadway and 146th Street.

Moss and Brill commissioned one of the foremost theater architects of the time, Thomas W. Lamb, to design what they intended to call the Lafayette Theatre.  Before the doors opened they would rename it the Hamilton.  Construction was completed by the year's end and the opening was scheduled for January 23, 1913.

Lamb had created an imposing three story structure clad in gleaming white terra cotta atop a polished granite water table.  A grand bronze and glass marquee stretched over the Broadway sidewalk and a smaller version covered the 146th Street exit.  Majestic windows within two-story arches dominated the design, the spandrels of which were upheld by cast iron caryatids painted to mimic patinaed bronze.  The terra cotta cornice was topped with theatrical masks.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

It appears that Benjamin Moss was the driving force behind the 1,857-seat Hamilton Theatre.  Two years after its opening The Evening World said, "Mr. Moss, with business sagacity and common sense, placed his houses where theatre-going is not regarded as a luxury, but rather a part of the regular life of the community--people who look upon the theatre with clean amusements as one of the necessities of life because of the rest and recreation it gives them...It was when Mr. Moss realized the growth as a neighborhood of the Washington Heights section that he built his first theatre, the Hamilton, at One Hundred and Forty-sixth Street and Broadway, which proved successful from the beginning."

The Hamilton Theatre, like all the great silent picture houses, was fitted with an organ, this one manufactured by the M. P. Moller Pipe Organ Company.  But motion pictures were not the only thing audiences came for--it was vaudeville that took center stage at the Hamilton in the beginning.  And for that purpose the Hamilton Theatre had an in-house orchestra.    

Two days after the theater's opening The Evening World reported on the next week's acts, "May Elinore, the Clemenzo Brothers, Klein Brothers and Schall, Benson and Bell and others."

Spacious theaters were often leased for benefit performances and such was the case in December that year when a fund-raising drive was initiated to erect a new building for the Washington Heights Hospital.  On December 11 a buffet supper at Healy's restaurant a block to the south was held, during which Anna K. Silverstein announced "that she had secured the Hamilton Theatre...for Saturday matinee and that all receipts would go to the fund," according to The Sun.

Moss and Brill went separate ways in 1915.  Brill was no longer interested in vaudeville entertainment and wanted to focus solely on films.  Benjamin Moss continued his successful blend at the Hamilton Theatre.  On February 9, 1917 The Evening World reported that "Pride," the second in the series of McClure Pictures "Seven Deadly Sins," would begin the following Monday, and that on Wednesday night, "Shirley Mason will appear in person."

Motion Picture News, November 11, 1916 (copyright expired)

In 1920 Benjamin Moss partnered with E. F. Albee of the Keith & Proctor chain of vaudeville theaters to form the Greater New York Vaudeville Theaters Corp.  The Hamilton was renamed B. F. Keith's Hamilton Theater, although the mix of live vaudeville and "photo-plays" continued here until Moss's retirement in 1928.  Thereafter the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio Pictures (RKO) leased the venue and eliminated live acts.  A sound system was installed, making the RKO Hamilton Theater one of the first real "talking picture" theaters in New York City.  The organ was removed in 1940.

An electric blade sign announces "Vaudeville - Photo Plays."  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1947 RKO redecorated the interior.  The Foot-Rite shoe store was operating from the commercial space at 3560 Broadway in April that year.  By the summer of 1951 Wafex, Inc., makers of diet pills, and the Cushman Bakery operated from the location.  Thomas Lamb's ornate lobby was modernized in 1954, when the end of the line for the motion picture theater was on the near horizon.  The curtain closed for the last time in 1958.

RKO first leased the venue for sporting events like boxing, and later as a discotheque.  The building was purchased by a church in 1965 which used the auditorium continuing to lease the storefronts.  In 1985, for instance, the Broadway Fried Chicken was in 3560 Broadway.  The church left around 1989, selling the property to real estate mogul Alex DiLorenzo.

According to the Daily News on March 29, 1990, "DiLorenzo is the heir to one of the city's biggest family real estate fortunes.  Real estate records show that he owns scores of buildings."  The spotlight was focused on him that year because of the fatal fire that broke out in the illegal Happy Land social club in one of his buildings, killing 87 people.  Investigators probed into his holdings and found other illegal nightclubs, including one in the former Hamilton Theater building.  DiLorenzo was served with a vacate order from the Buildings Department in March 1990.

DiLorenzo sold the building to investors who walled off the auditorium.  In 1995 the grand marquees were taken down.  At some point the ornate cornice was removed and a brick parapet installed.  The auditorium has sat empty since then, its paint peeling and dust settling on the plush chairs.

In July 1998 the Hamilton Palacio opened in the front section of the building.  The New York Times reported, "Signs written in English and Spanish direct shoppers to discounted toiletries, clothing, luggage and furniture.  Bedframes with mattresses begin at $250, briefcases $10 and T-shirts 3 for $5."  The 2008 book Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in New York City was more direct, saying, "this ornately designed building now houses a three-story compound of cheap stuff.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen, wouldn't you agree Mr. Hamilton Theatre?...It's like Kmart, but shittier."

Topless caryatids pose below a rusting spandrel panel at the second floor.

The property was purchased in November 2012 by the 146th Upper Broadway Holdings LLC, putting the fate of the relatively intact auditorium in question.  (The exterior was given individual landmark status in 2000.)  In 2014 The New York Times columnist Christopher Gray mused, "It might become a big box store or a...well, it is hard to imagine what might pay the taxes, let alone the rent."

In 2020 developers Omni New York and Brisa Builders announced competing plans for the property.  Omni proposed to demolish the theater while leaving the façade intact (a practice known as facadism), and erecting two 14-story buildings on the site which would include around 200 affordable housing apartments.  Brisa's proposal called for an 18-story tower and a 10-building on the adjoining vacant lot.  The two structures would include 250 affordable housing apartments.

photo via loopnet.com

Both developers had decided that rehabilitating Thomas W. Lamb's auditorium--still largely intact--was not cost efficient.  The fate of the historic structure has apparently not been decided.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Amos F. Hatfield House - 120 East 19th Street


 

Despite its 25-foot width, the house has an abnormally narrow entrance.

Amos F. Hatfield and his family were living at No. 92 Lexington Avenue in 1851, several blocks north of the recently-completed Gramercy Square.  Hatfield was president of the Pacific Insurance Co. and a director in the Pacific Bank.  Within two years the family would be living in the new brownstone residence at No. 78 East 19th Street (renumbered 120 in 1865).

The 25-foot wide Italianate style home reflected the affluence of the new neighborhood.  The windows sat within molded architrave surrounds.  A cast iron balcony most likely fronted the long parlor openings.  Interestingly, the entrance was rather understated.  Rather than the more expected foliate brackets upholding an arched pediment, the doorway received the exact decorative treatment as the windows.  Also surprising in a house intended for a wealthy owner, the entrance was narrow, with room enough for just one door (and barely wide enough to get large furniture inside).

Hatfield filled the house with the best quality furnishings and decorative items.  An inventory listed custom made furniture by Alexander Roux and Léon Marcotte, two of the foremost cabinetmakers in America, as well as "magnificent bronzes, clocks and other costly furniture."

Shortly after the family moved in a burglar attempted to break into the house.  The scare prompted Hatfield to arm his servants.  Then, on the night of August 24, 1854, a thief (most likely assuming the family was at their country home) tried again.  The Evening Post said "an audacious attempt was made to force open the hall door of the residence of A. F. Hatfield, Esq...by means of a 'jimmy,' or some similar implement of burglars."  The article served to warn other would-be crooks.  "Had the gentlemen succeeded in gaining an entrance, a warm and rather unexpected reception was awaiting them, which would have astonished their proverbial cool."

The Hatfields left East 19th Street in 1857.  Dry goods merchant Samuel T. Addison lived in the house for one year after which time it was purchased by James Madison Plumb and his wife, the former Jeannette Frances Yale.  The Plumbs had one son, James Neale Plumb, who was a partner in his father's extensive importing firm, J. M. & J. N. Plumb & Co.  

In 1861 James married Sarah Ives, the daughter of the president of the Manufacturers and Merchants' Bank, Abram Ives.  The marriage nearly did not happen.  Sarah's affairs were handled by Alexander Masterson who tried valiantly to derail the romance.  He denounced Plumb to Sarah and her father "as a professional gambler," according to The New York Times.  Later Plumb complained "From that time on, Masterson intrigued against him, endeavoring to undermine his wife's confidence in him."

James brought his bride to the East 19th Street house.  Sarah's personal fortune would soon outweigh her husband's after she inherited part of her father's estate of about $18 million in today's money.  Their son, J. Ives Plumb was born in the house in 1863.  His sister Marie would be born in 1865,  and Sarah Lenita in 1870.  

In the meantime, Alexander Masterson was relentless and, according to The New York Times later, he paid "a governess in Plumb's employ to poison the minds of the latter's children against him."

J. M. & J. N. Plumb suffered serious financial troubles in 1868.  The following year the extended Plumb family left the East 19th Street residence.  

The Plumb-Masterson drama was not over by any means.  Sarah died in 1877.  J. Ives was married in 1885 and on April 20, 1888 Maria and Sarah Lenita left their father's house never to return.  Both commenced litigation against him to remove him from any control over their financial affairs.  It was eventually too much for Plumb to contend with and on May 3, 1899 he arranged a meeting with Masterson during which he emptied a revolver into the man he felt had "conspired to ruin him."  Plumb's lawyer said "his mind had become unbalanced by brooking on his wrongs."

In the meantime, beginning in 1870, the former Plumb house was being operated as an upscale boarding house run by Allen M. Hopkins.  The refined tenor he intended to set was reflected in his professional listing in city directories.  While he placed "boardinghouse" next to his name in 1876, by 1879 he was calling himself a "steward."

His tenants were professional, including clerk Lloyd F. Montgomery and his wife, Nina T. who were here from at least 1872 through 1874.  They were the victims of a slick thief, Jacob Stuyvesant, alias De Pyster, alias Comstock, alias Shanksmare, in the fall of 1872.  The Evening Telegram explained on November 1 that he "was in the habit of engaging rooms at what is generally known as a fashionable boarding house.  While the boarders were at their meals, he would make a tour of inspection through the house, and quietly pick up all the valuables he could find in the several rooms."  His mannerly demeanor and fine clothes kept him above suspicion.

On one evening in October Stuyvesant disappeared from No. 120 East 19th Street, taking with him jewelry belonging to Nina Montgomery worth $5,000 in today's money.  (He was arrested later that month after having robbed several other boarding houses.)

Around 1897 No. 120 became a private home again when it was purchased by Bernard C. Amend and his wife, Bertha.   Amend was born in Germany in 1821 where he studied chemistry under Baron Justus von Liebig.  He came to the United States in 1846 and a year later was employed in the drug store of Dr. William H. Milnor.

After Milnor's retirement Amend and a partner, Charles Eimer purchased the business, renaming it Eimer & Amend.  Bernard Amend transformed the small drugstore into a much larger concern, the New York Herald later explaining, "the business developed from a retail store into a small jobbing concern, the firm being among the first importers of crude drugs and specialties from Germany, high grade chemicals and Norwegian cod liver oil."  By the time Amend purchased the 19th Street house, his company was known nationally for importing glassware and supplies for laboratories.

Bernard and Bertha had a daughter and four sons.  In 1897 Eimer & Amend was reorganized with Bernard as senior partner and his sons, Otto P., Robert F., Charles, and Adolph L. as directors.  Charles Eimer was no longer involved in the firm.

Bernard G. Amend New York Herald, April 7, 1911 (copyright expired)

Bertha died in the house on February 2, 1903 at the age of 80.  At the time only Robert was still living in the house with his parents.  

In 1904 Adolph's wife died and he and their daughter moved into the home of his widowed mother-in-law, Pauline Drastler, at No. 59 West 87th Street.  Then, in February 1910, he remarried and brought his new wife and daughter to No. 120 East 19th Street.  Things were working out well for Adolph and his family, but uptown Pauline Drastler was emotionally devastated.  The New York Times said Adolph's marriage "seems to have grieved Mrs. Drastler."

On July 31 Adolph received a letter from Pauline "telling him of her intention to commit suicide," as reported by The New York Times.  By the time it arrived the 62-year old had already died by inhaling gas.  A reporter arrived at the 19th Street house that evening and spoke to the new Mrs. Amend.  The New York Times said simply, "Adolph Amend, the son-in-law of the dead woman, could not be seen."

In February 1911 Bernard Amend hired architect James Spence to install an elevator in the house.  The expensive project, costing more than $83,000 in today's money, was no doubt a result of Amend's advancing age.  He would not have the opportunity to use it very much, however.  He died in the house on April 6 of "infirmities to age," according to the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, at the age of 90.

The Amend house soon became a high-end rooming house.  Among the earliest and most colorful residents was Ida Minerva Tarbell, who moved in around 1913.  By then Tarbell already had a brilliant career.  Educated in the Sorbonne, she was hired by McClure's Magazine in 1894.  Her series for that magazine, "The History of the Standard Oil Company," was perhaps her first investigative reporting and it contributed to the breakup of that monolithic firm, found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

With World War I raging, No. 120 East 19th Street became the Red Cross House for Nurses in September 1918.  The News Letter published by the American Red Cross explained it was "where recreational facilities will be provided for the Army, Navy and Red Cross nurses passing through New York...It will be arranged as a clubhouse, and will be fitted up with lecture rooms, writing rooms, reading rooms and sleeping quarters."

Through it all, Ida M. Tarbell retained her rooms.  During the war she served on President Woodrow Wilson's Women's Committee on the Council of National Defense. 

Ida M. Tarbell from the collection of the Library of Congress

The Red Cross left No. 120 following the end of the war, but Tarbell stayed on for decades.  She became part owner and publisher of The American Magazine and was a prolific author.  Among her works were eight books on Abraham Lincoln.  In 1921 she was appointed a member of President Warren G. Harding's Unemployment Conference.

Ida Tarbell was working on her autobiography, All In The Day's Work, in 1937.  That year, on November 4, a reporter from The New York Times visited her here.  He opened his article (which appeared the next day on her 80th birthday), saying "Ida M. Tarbell, biographer of Abraham Lincoln and historian of the Standard Oil Company, sat yesterday in the old-fashioned apartment at 120 East nineteenth Street."

She told him that she was enthusiastic about Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, but was worried that he "has probably gone too fast and undertaken too comprehensive a program, for she pointed out that the government can move no more quickly than it can educate the people towards its aims."

Tarbell moved permanently to her summer home in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1940.  She died in the Bridgeport Hospital on January 6, 1944 at the age of 86.

At some point the stoop was removed from No. 120 East 19th Street.  Rather amazingly, at a time when Victorian detailing was routinely shaved off, none of the crisp window enframements were destroyed.




A renovation completed in 2000 resulted in the stoop being restored.  There were now a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor levels, two apartments each on the second and third floors, and another duplex on the fourth and new penthouse level (unseen from the street).

photographs by the author

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The John E. Burris House - 38 West 94th Street

 



By 1888 the 64-year old Increase M. Grennel was well-known in New York City real estate circles.  He most often worked as a one-man operation--acting as developer, builder and architect.  That year, on February 25, The Record & Guide, noted that Grennel "intends to erect about ten private dwellings on the south side of 94th Street."  The journal's estimate of 10 houses was based on an expected width--especially in this upscale neighborhood just off Central Park West--of 20 feet.  But Grennel squeezed in two more residences by shaving two feet off the width of each plot.

The long row was completed the following year, a playful collection of Queen Anne style houses splashed with elements drawn from a historic grab bag.  No. 38 was a bit more somber than most of its neighbors.  Romanesque Revival influences appeared in the rough-cut cladding of the basement level and stoop, in the chunky, undressed quoins and keystones of the windows, and in the pensive Viking portrait of the entrance keystone.   The double dormers of the slate-tiled mansard, with their pressed metal pediments (now replaced), were pure Queen Anne.


It became the home of the well-to-do R. W. Myer family, who maintained a summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey.  Two grown sons lived with their parents, one of whom, Alfred J. Myer, joined the well-known Pach photography studio as an assistant operator in 1880.  A young woman, Georgiana Hilke, also worked in the studio.  The World commented, "Those who came in daily contact with Myer say that he was much in love with Miss Hilke."

Early in 1895 Alfred was diagnosed with heart trouble following a frightening attack.  He recuperated at the home of his physician, Dr. Anna G. Hilke.  It was most likely not a coincidence that Dr. Hilke was the sister of Georgiana, who also lived there with their mother.  

Alfred soon returned to work and on Saturday afternoon, February 16 he was taking a group photograph of Columbia University students when a fire broke out elsewhere in the studio.  "Miss Hilke was the first to give the alarm and ran into the room where the young operator was at work," said The World.

The following Monday, Myer returned to the studio, and "spent most of the day among the ruins."  Afterward he went to the Hilkes house where his already odd behavior became problematic.  "He attempted to embrace Miss Hilke and threatened her mother and the doctor," said The World.  He became violent to the point that the women called for help.  After a few men quieted him, Myer's brother was called for who took him home to the West 94th Street house.

The next morning, at around 6:30 Alfred again became violent.  The family was forced to call an ambulance and he was put in a strait-jacket and taken to the Manhattan Hospital.  The World entitled an article "Photographer Insane" and reported, "He was removed to the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital and will be committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island to-day."  The prospects for a young man committed to an insane asylum in the 1890's were grim.

The house soon became home to Dr. John E. Burris and his wife, Catherine C. (known as Kate).   Born in 1849, Burris had served in the Civil War and received his medical degree in 1876.  The couple had a daughter, Madeline Grace.  A twin, a  boy, had died during childhood.  

Like many well-heeled families, the Burrises took in a boarder.  Living with them in 1899 was stockbroker William H. Leaves who had recently separated from his wife.  Leaves was despondent over his marital problems.  On October 13, 1899, the Morning Telegraph reported, "Leaves, who is about 50, came home last night delirious from the effects of liquor.  He raised a great disturbance and went through the house, shouting and pounding on the doors."  He was finally quieted and put to bed.  But early in the morning he started up again on the stoop.  "In the interests of comparative quiet, Mrs. Burris succeeded in getting Leaves back to his room, on the third floor front," said the article.

The Burrises got him back to bed and had barely reach the parlor floor when Leaves began calling for the doctor.  They rushed back up to find he had slashed his throat with his razor.  The Morning Telegraph noted that he had "considerately held his head over his washbowl when he used the razor.  His shirt front was somewhat mussed up, though."

Leaves was not fatally injured and he was removed to J. Hood Wright Hospital.  The Burrises apparently began looking for a new boarder.

Kate's name appeared in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons in the spring of 1902.  The New York Herald reported on March 6, "Complaint was made by wealthy residents in West Ninety-fourth street last Monday to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that a little girl was being badly treated in the house of Dr. John E. Burris, of No. 38 West Ninety-fourth street."

A special agent had canvassed the neighbors, who told him that "the girl was forced to do most of the hard work in the house, and that she was cleaning the brown stone steps of the stoop Tuesday, when Mrs. Burris came out and kicked her," as reported by the New York Herald.  Agent Fogerty went to the house and was taken down to the kitchen to see the girl.  "There, perched upon a chair, stood a girl, who looked to be ten or eleven years old.  Her head was abnormally large and her body small and thin.  Laboriously she was washing a large pile of dishes, which were placed on a table beside the sink.  Whether the child had been brought up in ignorance or was demented Fogerty was unable to say," said the article, "but he found to his surprise that she could not even count her fingers, that she did not know how long she had been at the house, or where she had come from."

According to the New York Herald, the girl went along with Fogerty "with much pleasure" to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  A reporter knocked on the door of No. 38 West 94th Street that evening where "he met a man who said he was Dr. Burris, but who refused to make any statement."

Grennel's row was a variety of materials and styles.  The Burris house is at the far right.

Dr. John E. Burris died in the house on September 10, 1914 at the age of 68.  Kate, who received the bulk of his estate estimated at around $4 million in today's money, remained in the house and their "palatial" country home, as described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Madeline Grace was married by now, the wife of William H. Witte.  They lived on what The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described as a "small farm at Junction and Jackson avenues, Long Island City."  In the summer of 1917 Madeline fell ill and Kate temporarily moved in with the Wittes to take care of her.  Before long it was she who needed the help after she suffered a stroke which confined her to a wheelchair.

When Kate's sisters, Maria Sullivan and Georgiana Zeiner, learned that an attorney had been called to the Witte residence to amend Kate's will, they flew into action.  Fearing that they had been cut from the will, they sued.  It was the start of a very ugly court case.  

On September 21, 1917 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the sisters' testimony that following Dr. Burris's death, Kate "gave herself up to the influence of drugs and drink," that the Wittes held her prisoner in their home where she lived "in fear and dread," and that they had forced her "by fraud and deceit" to bequeath her entire estate to them.

Most shocking, though, was Georgiana's testimony that Madeline Grace was not even Kate's daughter.  The New York Times said she testified that "thirty-two years ago Mrs. Burris practiced a deception upon Dr. Burris by getting new-born twins from a mid-wife which she made the doctor believe were her own children."  The idea that a medical doctor would not have examined his own wife at any time during her pregnancy was ludicrous, of course.  The New York Times continued, "When this testimony was given Mrs. Burris could hardly be restrained.  She tried to get out of her invalid chair to reply to her sister."

Kate, now 70-years-old, was compelled to be wheeled into the Queens County Supreme Court on October 19, 1917 for a competency hearing before a jury.  The following day The New York Times reported that she had been declared sane and that the court dismissed the sisters' story of the substituted twins.

The West 94th Street house was sold to merchant Moses Greenewald.  His residency was short-lived and by the early 1920's the house was operated as a private boys' school.  According to the Daily News, Professor William L. Leonard "gives special tuition for Annapolis and West Point entrance examinations."  

Leonard's students came from prosperous families and were well trained in proper demeanor.  But that all gave way to chaos on the last day of the term on April 17, 1923.  The Daily News reported, "To celebrate the occasion the fifty boys...gave a display of egg-throwing and furniture smashing which upset the whole neighborhood."  The situation became an outright rampage.

"Policeman Joseph Epstein, who ran to the school on hearing the riot, was greeted with an egg," said the article.  "A chair followed, but he dodged."  Four boys were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.  One imagines that the punishment they received at home was as bad or worse than that meted out by Magistrate Goodman the following Monday.

In 1927 the school closed and sisters Camile F. and Alice S. Gerrard leased the house with an option to buy.  Instead it was purchased by Frank Barbieri in 1930, who resold it the following year to Alfred W. Herzog.  It appeared for a while that the end of the line for the former Burris house was on the horizon.

The cornice was lost and pressed metal pediments replaced in the 20th century

Herzog simultaneously purchased No. 36 next door.  He already owned Nos. 40 and 42, giving him a 71-foot long frontage--a potential site for an apartment building.  If Herzog intended to redevelop the parcel, it never came to pass and No. 38 survives as a single-family house.  The exterior appeared as the home of Jodie Foster's character in the 2002 film Panic Room.

Jodie Foster's character climbs the stoop in a scene from "Panic Room."  photo via brickunderground.com

photographs by the author
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