|The rounded bay of 626 West End Avenue was originally crowned by an iron railing, as seen in its identical neighbor to the right.|
Frank L. Smith and his wife, Magdalene, wheeled and dealt in real estate in the 1890's, buying and selling properties at a dizzying rate. In 1896 they began construction on a row of eight brownstone-fronted houses on the east side of West End Avenue, between 90th and 91st Streets, designed by George F. Pelham.
Pelham designed the 19-foot wide houses in the Renaissance Revival style and arranged them in a balanced A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A configuration. Among the B houses was No. 626 West End Avenue which, like its neighbors, rose four stories above a high English basement. Above the straight stoop the doorway was framed in delicate leafy carving and topped by an elaborate garnish of leaves, a shell-filled cartouche, and torches. A rounded bay rose from the basement through the third floor, and the fifth floor was distinguished by bulls-eye windows within carved laurel leaf wreaths.
Construction of the row had barely begun when, on June 22, 1896, Frank L. Smith sold them to real estate operators Crow & Taylor. William L. Crow and James W. Taylor sold the completed No. 626 to attorney and brewer William Forster on July 28, 1897.
Forster was born on July 16, 1858 and held a Ph.D. from Columbia College's Law School. A former assistant district attorney, he was a principal in the law firm of Forster, Hotaling & Klenke.
Forster, Hotaling & Klenke was, not unexpectedly, the attorneys for the John Kress Brewing Co.--considering that Forster was its president and treasurer. He was as well a director in the Globe Electrical Supply Construction Co., the New York and Brooklyn Malting Co., the Nineteenth Ward Bank and the West Gallitan Irrigation Co.
Although he was born in New York City, Forster held fast to his family's German culture. He was a member of the Liederkranz Club, the Beethoven Mannerchor, the German Hospital and the Arion Society. His social status was reflected, as well, in his memberships in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Academy of Political Science and the Columbia University Alumni Association.
Anna Forster seems to have been as involved in German interests as her husband. On February 1, 1900 the tenth German Charity Ball was held at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was a joint effort of the German Liederkranz, Arion and Beethoven Mannechor societies. The New-York Tribune noted "In the last nine years over $80,000 has been distributed to the various German charities from the net results of these balls." It reported "The ball will be opened by Mr. Kammerer and Mrs. William Forster."
William and Anna had two small children, Vera and Herbert. On the spring afternoon of April 20, 1900 their nurse, Ellen White, took them to Riverside Park for sunshine and air. As the children played, she sat on a bench with Jane Wilton, the nurse of Albert Strauss's children. Suddenly things took a terrifying turn.
The four children, "of whom none was over four years of age," according to The New York Times, were "running about on the narrow strip of sod next to the bicycle path, when down Riverside Drive came a steam automobile." Morris B. Thair was employed by an auto company and merchant James M. Stauer was taking the vehicle out for a test drive. He should have taken driving lessons first.
Stauer was driving so fast, according to police, "that it could be seen to swerve from side to side. When it was within a short distance of the little party the vehicle suddenly swerved to the right and dashed across the trotting path, over the bicycle path, and right into the centre of the group gathered about the bench." The car crashed into the park wall, throwing both occupants out.
William Forster was also out that day and hearing the "screams of the nurses and children" he rushed to the scene. Miraculously, none of the children nor their nurses were injured, although "all were prostrated by shock and required the attention of physicians," said The New York Times, and Ellen White and Jane Wilton "were both thrown into hysterics by the fright which they received." Forster had both men arrested.
On May 29, 1903 William transferred title to the house to Anna. It was most likely a move to prevent the property from being seized, since he was fully aware the the John Kress Brewing Company was in serious financial trouble.
It had been founded by John Kress in 1853. Following his death in 1877 his widow Susanna took over until January 1884 when she sold the firm to Forster and his partners. The Sun said "Up to the death of John Kress the business was very profitable." On April 26, 1904 newspaper ran the headline "John Kress Brewery Fails."
Soon afterward the Forsters moved out of their West End Avenue house, although Anna retained possession. She leased it first to the family of the well-to-do Dr. Frederick Schniewind. Not long after the Schniewinds moved in the neighborhood was plagued with a string of bold burglaries. On June 8, 1905 The Evening Post reported "The police of the upper West Side continue to be puzzled by mysterious robberies of dwellings."
The audacious thief entered the houses during the day when, even if the family members were out, they were staffed by servants. In one instance he noticed a basement service door at No. 738 West End Avenue which had been left open by a butcher boy. He slipped into the house of Alberic De Lavt and sneaked to the top floor where he chose an expensive painting. The artwork, in a gold frame, was painted on porcelain and valued at $30,000 in today's money. The Evening Post reported "The frame was too heavy to carry off, so the picture was taken out of the frame by the thief, who managed to elude the servants and get away."
A week after that heist, on the afternoon of June 7, 1905, the thief slipped into the Schniewind residence and carried off $6,000 of the family's silverware by today's valuation.
Anna Forster leased the house to two other families before selling it to Sarah Taylor in January 1907. Sarah, too, leased the house. Her first tenant was Abram Wakeman, Jr. and his family. Wakeman's father was a former United States Representative, one of the creators of the Republican Party, and a principal developer of Coney Island. The Wakemans maintained a country home in New Jersey.
The West End Avenue house was the scene of Hellen Annette Wakeman's wedding to Erskin Clark Rogers on October 24, 1908. Rogers would go on to became a New York Supreme Court Justice.
By 1914 No. 646 was owned by James O'Connor and his wife, Elizabeth. In October 1916 he and two partners incorporated The O'Connor Electric Company. The Electrical World announced "The company proposes to manufacture and deal in electric vibrators, immersion heaters, electric devices, etc."
The O'Connors moved out in 1919, but as Anna Forster had done, retained possession of the house and leased it. Their most colorful tenant was vaudeville entertainer Nora Bayes.
Born Rachel Eleanora Goldberg, she had appeared with the Florenz Ziegfeld Follies of 1908. At the outbreak of World War I composer George M. Cohan asked her to record his patriotic song "Over There," which was released in 1917 and became an international success. Another of her hit wartime records was "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?"
On April 7, 1925 The New York Times reported "The passenger list of the Leviathan, which docked yesterday, included Nora Bayes and her fifth husband, Benjamin Friedland, garage owner, returning from their honeymoon. They were married aboard the Leviathan on her eastbound on Feb. 28 by Captain Herbert Hartley."
Nora cooed, "This is the first time I've ever had a honeymoon. Before I always had to go right back to work after I was married. This also is the first time I ever went abroad and didn't pay for my passage and the clothes I bought in Paris. My husband paid for everything and we had a wonderful time. Didn't we, Mr. Friedland?"
Nora said her new husband "knows how to say 'no,' and I know when he means it." She said she had proposed that they live in her home at No. 626 West End Avenue but he refused to have his friends say that "he lives in his wife's house." So, Nora contended, "he bought the house that I owned and then gave it back to me for a wedding present."
Elizabeth O'Connor may have been surprised to read that item, since she still owned the property. It was not until June 1928 that she sold it to Charles S. Ross, who also owned the house next door at No. 628.
|The straight stone stoop survived when this photo was taken around 1941. from the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services|
In 1953 the house was converted to apartments, two each on each floor except the top, which had just one. The stoop was removed, the original doorway converted to a window.
Among the tenants in the ensuing years were the German-born Dr. Max Hamburger and his wife, Charlotte. A philosopher and educator, he had lectured at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University until his retirement in the 1960's. Among his books were the 1965 Morals and Law: The Groth of Artistotle's Legal Theory, and The Awakening of Western Legal Thought, published in 1969.
New owners hired MGM Architectural Consulting to initiate a renovation and facade restoration in 2005. The conversion, completed the following year, resulted in the Forster house once again being a single-family residence.
photographs by the author