Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The 1896 Charles A. Rich House - 257 West 91st Street


Rich simultaneously erected the house to the right.

Charles Alonzo Rich and Hugh Lamb established the architectural office of Lamb & Rich in 1880, with Rich as the main designer.  The team sometimes acted as its own developer--buying plots and designing the structures--cutting out the middleman and reaping increased profits.  In 1895 Rich began a project on his own by purchasing two vacant plots at Nos. 255 and 257 West 91st Street and designing upscale homes for the sites.  Both were in the currently popular neo-Georgian style, but each stood on its own architecturally.

At 50-feet wide, No. 257 would be twice the width of its neighbor.  Three stories tall above a basement level, it was faced in red brick and trimmed in limestone.  The entrance was recessed behind a columned portico, and splayed Georgian lintels graced the upper floor openings.  A striking, intricate stained glass fanlight crowned the parlor window.

The houses were completed in 1896 and Rich moved his family into No. 257.  He and his wife, the former Harriet Bradbury, had three daughters.  Their summer estate, The Studio, was at Bellport, Long Island.

The family remained in No. 257 until about 1904 when, interestingly enough, they moved into the smaller house next door.  The Riches retained ownership and leased No. 257, first to Mrs. F. C. Case, and then to Mrs. Henry Harmon Hendricks.  She was living in the house in the spring of 1908 when she issued invitations for the marriage of Alma Hendricks to Clarence Isaacs.

The following year the Riches got long-term tenants when William Knight signed the lease.  A member of the Produce Exchange, Knight's domestic affairs had been a sort of soap opera.  He and his wife had divorced in the beginning of the year and almost immediately both remarried.   Because his first wife was on her honeymoon, their two children, 1o-year old William, Jr. and 4-year old Kathlyn, moved into the West 91st Street house with their father and step-mother.

Their bags were barely unpacked when Knight was forced to bring the children into the court on March 18, 1909.  The New York Herald explained "The mother is on her honeymoon with Charles D. Orth...whom she married after her divorce from Mr. Knight a few weeks ago."  But before leaving, she left instructions that the children should be left with her aunt, Gertrude Murray King.   The article said "the father offered objections" to that proposal.

Other than that bump, the Knights' separation seems to have been quite amiable.  One letter showed that the new Mrs. Orth had released Knight from any obligation of alimony and another "from Mr. Knight [wished] his former wife happiness with her new husband."  The two had agreed on shared custody.

The new Mrs. Knight slipped easily into Upper West Side society.  She was was instrumental in organizing the bridge party held in the Plaza ballroom in April 1912 for the benefit of the Ely Club House for Young Women Students, for instance.  And when the Ely Club hosted a series of ten lectures at Delmonico's the following year, The Evening Post noted "Tickets for the series may be obtained from Mrs. William Knight, No. 257 West Ninety-first Street."

The Knight family got a new landlord in February 1919.  Charles Rich and Hugh Lamb had dissolved their partnership in 1899.  Rich was now partnered with Frederick Mathesius in the firm of Rich & Mathesius.  Harriet Rich continued to hold title to the side-by-side houses, but now gave her husband's partner a 21-year lease on the properties at an annual combined rent of $4,000 (just under $60,000 per year today).

Frederick Mathesius had other ideas for the houses.  At the end of the Knights' lease that fall, Charles Rich converted both houses to apartments.  He added a floor to No. 257 and remodeled the interiors to 15 non-housekeeping apartments.  The term meant that there were no kitchens and, in fact, the Department of Buildings noted "Cooking in more than two of the apartments will render this building liable to immediate vacation."

The tenants were professionals, like composer and conductor Louis Koemmenich and his wife.  On January 8, 1920 Musical Courier announced that he had moved his studios to the new address and noted "He will accept a limited number of pupils for score reading, orchestration and conducting."

Composer Louis Koemmenich and his wife were among the first residents of the newly-created apartments.  Daily News, August 21, 1922 (copyright expired)

Other initial residents included Ernest E. Arnold, a "stock salesman;" wood pulp merchant Folk Sundbland; and E. De Cernea, who had been made a Chevalier of the French Foreign Legion during World War I "for attacking a German submarine from an airplane."

Ernest E. Arnold got himself into serious trouble on May 17, 1921 when the 35-year old not only ignored the Prohibition laws, but got behind the wheel of his automobile while drunk.  The Evening World opined that "when he gets through explaining to the Traffic Court, [he] will have to face several irate chauffeurs and owners of vehicles damaged as he zigzagged up Broadway early in an auto which he drove himself."

There were two women and a man in his car when the adventure began.  Inebriated, he began banging into expensive automobiles prompting what the New York Evening Post called "A hurrying procession of fully two dozen automobiles, taxicabs, and buses" that rattled through the streets of upper Manhattan early to-day in pursuit of a fleeing automobile."  The chase had started at 90th Street and Broadway when Patrolman George Schmidt first saw Arnold driving erratically.

As Arnold sped ahead of the policeman, his car left "in its wake a line of upset traffic stanchions, scraped lamp-posts and damaged cars."  Behind Officer Schmidt was "a motley array of everything in the neighborhood that had four wheels and cylinders," said the New York Evening Post.

Somehow during the blocks-long chase Arnold was able to drop off his passengers, so when he was finally arrested at the corner of 81st Street and West End Avenue, he was alone in the car.  Dr. Bradoff of the Knickerbocker Hospital "gave one whiff and pronounced Arnold under the influence of contraband."

Louis Koemmenich took the position of orchestra leader of a road company of Aphrodite not long after moving into No. 257.  The Daily News noted that he was "once famed as musical director of the Oratorio Society" and this position "hurt his pride."  But "he found solace in the beautiful dancer," Vera Lehmann, who was among the cast.

In fact, the friendship became what Mrs. Koemmenich later described as a "strange infatuation."  In 1922 her husband of 35 years and the father of their three children was 55 years old and Vera was 22.  The Daily News said "His wife at first thought the friendship between the girl and her husband an innocent affair, but finally forbade Miss Lehmann to call at her home."

Vera Lehmann Daily News, August 21, 1922 (copyright expired)

The forced separation was too much for Vera and on August 20, 1922 she swallowed poison in her mother's dress shop.  Twelve hours later Koemmenich was found dead in his ground floor apartment from gas.  He left a note that read:

I have learned that Vera committed suicide.  This being a great loss to me, there is nothing else left for me to do.

The conductor's wife spoke to reporters later that evening.  "They were both foolish. But I do not blame the girl more than him," she said.  "I will not judge him."  She added, "I had my husband on a pedestal.  By not judging, may I can keep him there.  Isn't that the better way?"

Wesley Whitehouse brought some embarrassing press to the address on March 25, 1931 when the 20-year old and his 19 year old friend, Herbert Ramsdel were arrested at the Loew's State Theater on 45th Street and Broadway.  The New York Sun reported that the arrests were made "on the complaint of two usherettes" who said "the young men were trying to follow them into their dressing room."  They were bailed out by Ramsdel's father, motion picture director Leland Stanford Ramsdel.

The fanlight was intact when this photograph was taken around 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In 1957 the former Rich house was converted to a total of eleven apartments.  It was most likely at this time that the magnificent parlor floor fanlight was bricked up.

photograph by the author

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