Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The 1896 Edward Curtis House - 33 West 69th Street


Henry F. Cook was a one-man band when it came to real estate.  He acted as developer, architect and contractor in constructing speculative houses in the late 19th century.  In 1895 he embarked on an ambitious project of eight rowhouses on the north side of West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.

Cook designed his row in the Renaissance Revival style, arranging the dwellings in an off balance A-B-B-C-C-D-E-F configuration.  The mirror-image "C" houses, Nos. 31 and 33, were "of Long Meadow stone and coral brick," as described by The Record & Guide.  Side-by-side stoops rose to the balcony-topped entrances.  Rounded bays rose from the basement level through the second floor, terminating in a balustraded balcony.  Grouped windows at the top floor sat atop an intermediate cornice, their interior piers decorated with Renaissance-inspired carvings.

In May 1896 Cook sold four of the eight houses to real estate operator George F. Johnson.  If you anticipated a quick turn-around, it did not happen, at least not for No. 33.  It was not until January 18, 1897 that Dr. Edward Curtis purchased the 22-foot wide house, giving in part payment his elegant home at No. 27 Washington Place.

No. 33 West 69th Street became home to an impressive family.  Edward was born on June 4, 1838 in Providence, Rhode Island.  He was descended from two presidents of Harvard University--Samuel and Joseph Willard.  He graduated "with high honors" from Harvard in 1859 and during the Civil War he was assistant surgeon in the United States Army.  

Dr. Curtis in his Union uniform.  from the collection of the National Library of Medicine

On the night of April 14, 1865 he had been summoned, along with 13 other physicians, to the home of William and Anna Peterson in Washington D.C. where President Abraham Lincoln had been transported after being shot in Ford's Theatre.  The following morning he and Dr. Joseph Woodward conducted an autopsy on the martyred President's body.  Curtis resigned from the military in 1870 and took up private practice in New York City.  He was a lecturer and author, having written books like the 1883 Manual of General Medicinal Training.

He and his wife, the former Augusta Lawler Stacey, had five children, Constance, Marian, George De Clyver, Natalie, and Bridgham.  Augusta and her daughters were visible among society, The Sun reporting on January 16, 1898, for instance, that "Mrs. Edward Curtis and the Misses Curtis of 33 West Sixty-ninth street" would be holding an "informal tea from 4 until 7 o'clock" the next day.

Augusta was extremely active in social and charitable causes.  She was perhaps most involved in the Mary F. Walton Free Kindergarten for Colored Children, of which she was vice-president in 1903.  She held meetings in the house for various groups, like the Women's Municipal League.  

On November 6, 1907 one of the Women's Municipal League meetings addressed the problem of funding.  The New-York Tribune said the women decided "that what it most needs for the furtherance of its work is the sinews of war--namely, money."  A paid worker, they felt, would be able to patrol the Upper West Side to "watch for infractions of the law, collect evidence and see that persistent law breakers were brought to justice."

In 1904 Dr. Curtis retired from practice because of ill health, but he continued his writing.  In 1906 he published his latest book, Nature & Health.  In its preface he said in part:

This book has been written in great part out-of-doors.  Thought out under the open sky, it has been committed to paper by the wayside, on knee or on the flat tops of fences.  Brought forth in such fashion, it is offered not as learning, but as a lure--a lure for the wise living that shall gain from goddess fairer than Hera, than Athene, or than Aphrodite herself, that gift, all Hygieia's own, the priceless boon of health, happiness, and the usefulness of years.

The same year, on October 3, the house was the scene of Marian's wedding to Roger B. Whitman.  Still living with their parents were George and Bridgham, both graduates of Harvard, and Natalie.  With one bedroom now vacant, William Fuller Curtis, their cousin, moved in.  He had been living, interestingly, in the former Curtis house on Washington Place.  No. 33 was now replete with artistic talents.  

Natalie, who was born in 1875, was a member of the Archaeological Institute of America.  She had studied music in France and Germany.  In America she focused on the musical cultures of Native Americans and lectured "before scientific and educational institutions," according to Who's Who in Music and Drama.  Along with article for various periodicals, she was the author of the 1902 Songs From a Child's Garden of Verses, Songs of Ancient America, published in 1905, and the 1907 The Indians' Book.

Constance was a year older than Natalie.  She studied at the Art Students League and was a student of William M. Chase.  Her works were exhibited in the Philadelphia Water Color Exhibition in 1907, and the Paris Exposition, the St. Louis World's Fair.  

Constance Curtis entitled this work White Roses.

William Fuller Curtis had studied art in Paris.  Born in 1873, he had been awarded top prizes in the Corcoran Gallery exhibitions in 1902 and '03 and at the St. Louis Exposition.  Although he did oil paintings and murals, he was best known as a pyrographer.  Writing in House and Garden in 1903, Leila Mechlin said, "In a somewhat analogous way William Fuller Curtis has begun the development of the art of burnt wood, for, leaving behind the common usages of the craft, he has pushed on into the realm of the sculptor and the painter and created a new art.  Neither in Europe nor America, in the past ages nor today, has work of a similar character been done."

By combining painting and wood burning techniques, Curtis created astounding bas relief works.  Some pieces, like his The Golden Dish, incorporated inlaid materials like gold.

This untitled piece by William Fuller Curtis, 52 inches wide, was executed in 1904.  Kaminski Auctions of Beverly Massachusetts.

On November 28, 1912 Edward Curtis died in his home at the age of 75.  The New York Times called him "for years one of the most widely known physicians in this country."  Soon afterward Augusta sold the 69th Street house to Arthur M. and Frances Wolff.  

Their purchase was no doubt prompted by the recent death of their daughter, Emily Rebecca.  Their young son-in-law, Ernest Abraham Cardozo, now was rearing two children, one less than a year old, next door at No. 31.

Like Augusta Curtis, Arthur M. Wolff was highly involved in charitable causes.  He was a supporter of the Dispensary and Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases, and was secretary of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes.

The Wolffs did not remain especially long in the house and, while Frances retained possession, by 1917 it was being operated as a boarding house.  One resident, Benjamin Carter, was aboard the Cunard linter Laconia in February 1917 when it was torpedoed by a German submarine.  The Sioux City Journal ran the headline "Great British Liner Sunk By a Plunger / No Warning Given Liner."

While passengers were being hurriedly loaded into lifeboats, the submarine fired a second torpedo.  The vessel sank within 45 minutes.  On February 28 The Sun entitled an article "Laconia Survivors Hours in High Seas," and reported that two American women, Mrs. Mary E. Hoy and her daughter, Elizabeth, died of exposure in their life boat and were buried at sea.  There were 267 confirmed survivors, including Benjamin Carter, and 13 fatalities.

An incident of the war involved another boarder, Joseph J. Doherty, the following year.  Like so many of his countrymen, Doherty had enlisted for service.  On December 10, 1918 the New-York Tribune listed him among those wounded in battle.

The side-by-side stoops can be seen in this photo from around 1941.  NYC Dept of Records and Information Services

The tradition of artists in the house continued with Bertha Menzler Peyton and Bessie Potter Vonnoh, both of whom boarded in the house and exhibited in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts 115th exhibition in 1920.  They were still here the following year when their works were again accepted in the prestigious show.

Betty Van Dyke ran the boarding house at the time.  She leased the property from Frances Wolff for years, finally "surrendering" the lease in 1933.  Fred M. Howard continued operating it as a respectable boarding house until 1939 when Else Alba leased both No. 31 and 33 West 69th Street from Frances Wolff, buying the furnishings from Howard.

In 1955 the former Curtis house was converted to apartments in the basement and former parlor level, with furnished rooms on the upper floors.  The stoop was removed, the original entrance converted to a window, and a rather unsightly doorway installed at the basement level.

It became home to middle-class professionals, like Rita Mary Martin, here in the late 1950's.  She worked as a stenographer in the New Zealand Mission to the United Nations.

Although the fraternal twins have lost their stoops, their former elegance is apparent.

A renovation completed in 1997 resulted in two apartments per floor.  

photographs by the author

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