Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Dr. John T. Metcalfe House - 18 West 30th Street


Battered today, the house can only hint at its former elegance.

Born in 1818, John Thomas Metcalf graduated from West Point in 1838 and served in the military for two years before studying medicine.  Having gotten his degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1843, he spent two years in Paris and Edinburgh furthering his education.  Upon returning, according to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, "he quickly took and held, and that without much apparent effort, a place in the very front rank of medical practitioners in the city of New York."

In 1845, the same year he returned to New York, he married Harriet Augusta Colles.  The couple never had children and Harriet died after a short illness on April 20, 1863 at the age of 41.

Metcalf's well-to-do patients were moving uptown past 14th Street at the time of his wife's death.  In 1868 he purchased a newly-completed house at No. 18 West 30th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway.

It was one of a row of identical high-end homes.  Faced in brownstone, they rose four stories above high English basements.   The austere neo-Grec architrave frames of the openings and the angular lines of the pressed metal cornices were softened by the stylish slate-shingled mansard roofs, a nod to the Second Empire style.

The fish scale shingles survive on the mansard.

That Dr. Metcalfe was held in high regard by the medical community was evidenced in the spring of 1873.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, arrived in New York on May 3 for a short visit to his daughter Jeanette and son-in-law William S. Hoyt.  They lived near Metcalfe at No. 4 West 33rd Street.   

Three days later at around 6:30 a.m., he suffered a heart attack.  The family doctor, J. G. Perry, was called in and, according to The New York Times, "All that medical skill could suggest was done at once; but the patient continued unconscious and the apoplectic fit was speedily followed by almost total paralysis of the left side."  Dr. Perry sent for Dr. Metcalf to consult in the case.  Despite their valiant efforts, Chase died on May 7.

Metcalf's schedule was ponderous.  Besides his private practice which he operated from the 30th Street house, he was a professor of clinical medical at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal noted that he "was idolized by his classes."

The doctor was the victim of a clever scam in January 1881.  He took a family heirloom, a silver pitcher, to Tiffany & Co. to be repaired and on January 12 a messenger delivered the valuable piece.  Unknown to him, a wily crook had loitered outside the shop and followed him.  The Sun reported, "The carrier of the firm delivered the pitcher to Mary Green, the Doctor's housemaid, at about 6 o'clock...As she closed the street door she heard another ring at the door bell."

A second young man apologized and said that the messenger had made a dreadful mistake, and that the package was intended for a house on 31st Street.  Mary handed over the still wrapped bundle and the man hurried off.  The next day Detective Keirns noticed John O'Brien pawning scraps of "battered silver" in a pawn shop on Eight Avenue.  Immediately suspicious, he arrested the youth.  Later, said The Sun, "Dr. Metcalfe identified the silver as parts of his missing pitcher."

By 1883 a colleague, Dr. Charles S. Ward, lived in No. 18 West 30th Street with Metcalf.   The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal called him "for many years well known as a prominent gynecologist and general practitioner in New York."  He maintained a summer estate in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1886 Dr. Metcalf hired the architectural firm of D. & J. Jardine to design a four-story house at No. 147 West 57th Street.  Upon moving in in 1888 he leased his former home to The New-York Whist Club, organized in February that year.  On May 6 the New-York Tribune reported that the club had moved from the American Jockey Club building to "attractive new quarters at No. 18 West Thirtieth-st."  The article noted, "This is a handsome and spacious house, formerly used both for residence and office purposes by the well-known physicians, Dr. John T. Metcalfe and Dr. Ward, who have moved up-town."

The club was composed of some of the wealthiest men of Manhattan.  The New-York Tribune said it "is absorbing in its membership the best whist players of all the principal clubs of the city."  Among the New-York Whist Clubs members were J. Pierpont Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt, S. Howland Robbins, and William C. Schermerhorn.  Members paid an initiation fee of $50 (about $1,400 today) and annual dues of $25.

James Grant Wilson, editor of The Memorial History of the City of New-York, noted that the club "not only makes a specialty of the game of whist, but also of dinners that are served as if the members belonged to a private family."

The club experienced problems in 1891.  The Sun reported on March 26 that "About half a dozen men had got into the club two or three years ago who were supposed at the time to be suitable in every way as members.  But they developed traits after they had been in the club some time which made them objectionable to many of the members."  Of the six there was one "who proved himself peculiarly obnoxious in a social way, but all the hints which he received were of no avail, and he did not seem to show any desire to resign."

The Sun explained, "The objectionable members were to be found in the club house at almost any hour, and their actions were so boisterous at times that some of the other members who might be playing whist would stop their games and flee from the house."  As a result, the club's membership began to wane in 1890.  

A meeting was held on March 26, 1891 during which a drastic solution was conceived.  The Sun entitled an article "Dies To Kill Its Bacilli" and explained that the members decided to dissolve the club, and then form a new one to which membership would be denied to the "obnoxious" former members.  On March 23 the club ceased to exist and a small, easily-overlooked auction announcement was placed in newspapers.  It offered the furnishings and the lease on the house at a private sale.  There was only one bidder, former club member Matthew Morgan.  He resold the furnishings (including the wine and cigars) and the lease to the newly-formed Whist Club of New York.   On January 2, 1892 The World commented, "To outsiders the difference between the New York Whist Club and the Whist Club of New York, with the same home, at No. 18 West Thirtieth street, the same furniture, and to a large extent the same members, may seem less than the difference 'twist tweedledum and twedledee."

But the club survived only one more year, victim to a new game called bridge whist.  A gambling fad brought from Paris, the game infiltrated the leather-upholstered rooms of the Whist Club of New York.  The Sun reported, "This new game soon had such a hold on the club that the tables at 18 West Thirtieth street were almost exclusively devoted to its play...much to the disgruntlement of the gray-headed and gray-bearded members who belonged to the club and played whist for whist's sake."  At the time of The Sun's article 30 members had resigned and a dozen others had joined them to form a new club.  It signaled the end of the New York Whist Club.

In January 1895 Dr. John T. Metcalfe hired the architectural firm of James M. Macgregor & Son to convert his former home for business.  The stoop was removed and a new iron storefront was installed, and the upper floors renovated to apartments.

The store became home to Jacob Lichtenstein's upscale hat shop.  In October 1895 the Evening Post announced that the store "will exhibit this week the largest assortment of exquisite things n Trimmed Millinery ever shown in this city, consisting of Fine Hats, Bonnets, Toques, Pelerines, and Muffs, both imported and of their own design."  A Vogue journalist wrote:

In passing through Thirtieth Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway...I was struck by the appearance of a new store painted white, that had goods uniquely displayed in a window in a way which would remind one of a Paris milliner's.  The styles were swell and elegant, and something out of the ordinary, even nicer than those on Fifth Avenue.

The Evening World, September 30, 1895 (copyright expired)

The upper floors, described by the New York Herald in 1897 as "a bachelor apartment house," offered amenities like "light, heat and janitor service."  The apartments filled with affluent residents.  Among them that year was J. G. Creamer, a member of the Harvard and the University Club; and Dr. A. Bradley.   Bradley, who occupied rooms from 1896 to at least 1899, was, like his landlord, a prominent physician.

The remodeled house can be seen at the far left in this photo taken about 1911.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In May 1907 the "athletic goods" store of Wright & Ditson moved into the commercial space.  The firm not only sold sporting goods, but manufactured many of its items.  On May 10 Hardware magazine noted, "This will put them in the heart of the business section of the town and will be the means of giving them a large field."

Irving C. Wright, a partner in the firm, moved into one of the upstairs apartments.  He was a recognized tennis player.  The same year the store moved into No. 18 he won the Long Island Lawn Tennis Championship.

Irving Wright was living in 18 West 30th Street in 1908 when he played in the Crescent Club tennis match in June 1908.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

Wright & Ditson remained in the store until 1912 when it was leased to the Chu Wong Chuck Co.  The series of commercial tenants to come included the Kaycs Manufacturing Company in 1915; Beyerie Mfg., makers of "dress shields and sanitary aprons," by 1921; and the Aetna Carpet Company in 1931.

In the meantime, the once refined residential neighborhood had noticeably changed.  Most of the old houses were razed for modern loft buildings.  Several of the tenants of the upstairs apartments in No. 18 caught the attention of the Federal Government in the Depression years.  In 1936 both Josephine Headon and Alfred H. Hirsch were on the list of voters for the Communist Party.  And in 1940 resident Irving Mendell was added to the roster.

That year the estate of John T. Metcalfe sold the recently remodeled property.  The New York Times noted, "An ownership dating from 1868 has been terminated by the sale" and noted, "The upper floors of the building contain two and three room suites and the first and second floors a store and showroom."

The commercial space continued to see a variety of tenants, including Contemporary Color Transp. Dye, in the 1970's; publishers Ecco Press and the New York Antaeus, here from 1981 to about 1986, and P.A. C. Imports, Inc., which sold ladies' woven garments from India.

A renovation completed in 1990 resulted in one apartment each on the fourth and fifth floors and two on the top level.  More than a bit battered today, the John Metcalfe house is the sole survivor of the 1868 row and the last hint of a fashionable period along the block.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Ted Leather for suggesting this post


  1. The photo of the Long Island Tennis Championship being played at the Crescent (Athletic) Club deserves a footnote. The Club was located at Narrows Avenue and 85th Street, in Brooklyn. It is now the site of the Fort Hamilton HS Athletic Field. The 1902 International Lawn Tennis Challenge -- the second edition of what is now known as the Davis Cup -- was played there.

  2. Where can I find a list of items sold from Metcalfe's estate? I'm particularly interested in an unusual Colt revolver.