Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Harrison P. Liscomb House - 210 West 15th Street


In 1856 the family of Harrison P. Liscomb moved into No. 130 West 15th Street, one of a long row of recently erected Italianate brick homes between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  Liscomb purchased it from Margaret Christy, the widow of George Christy.

The Italianate style of the Liscombs' new house was the latest in domestic architectural fashion.  At three stories tall above an English basement and 25-feet wide, it spoke of the family's affluence.  The enframement of the elliptical arched double-doored entrance featured foliate brackets that upheld a triangular pediment--echoed in the pediments over the parlor windows.  Those were, in fact, French doors which opened onto a cast iron balcony.  The pretty cornice with brackets and rosette was identical to those of its neighbors.

Liscomb was the head of the coffee importing firm H. P. Liscomb & Co. at 64 Barclay Street.  He and his wife, Elizabeth M., had three children, Frances Jerusha, Emma Edgerly, and Charles G.  Their country home was in Belleville, New Jersey.

The house was the scene of Frances's wedding to Joseph Rudd, Jr. on September 19, 1865.  Joseph was a merchant, doing business at No. 147 Maiden Lane.  The newlyweds took up the lives together in the 15th Street house with France's parents and siblings.  The house became more populous when Charles's bride moved in.  Emma broke tradition when she married James H. Fullerton and moved out (possibly because her parents would not have Fullerton in their house--he was known to have "loose habits").

The renumbering of West 15th Street in 1868 gave the Liscomb house the new address of No. 210.  The following year, on February 20, 1869, Harrison P. Liscomb was in New Orleans where he died at the age of 55.  His body was brought back to New York and his funeral held in the parlor of No. 210 on March 14.

He bequeathed the house to Elizabeth, Charles, and Frances and her husband.  Interestingly, no mention of Emma nor James Fullerton was made; quit possibly because of Fullerton's already questionable reputation.  On May 8 Charles transferred his portion of the title to his mother.  The Rudds did the same, but were less generous, selling their one-third portion to Elizabeth for $5,318.66--just over $103,000 in today's money.

In 1870 Elizabeth took in a boarder, John A. Hillery, who was in the insurance business on Wall Street.  Money seems to have been getting tight by 1873, prompting Elizabeth listed the Belleville property for sale.  Then, on March 30, 1881, she sold No. 210 to Frances and Joseph Rudd for $7,000, not much more than they had sold their one-third interest to her 12 years earlier.  

Somewhat surprisingly, Emma and James H. Fullerton, who had not been listed at the address in decades, reappeared shortly afterwards.  James had been working as a "transfer clerk" for the Manhattan Beach Railway Company since 1880.  In that position he was responsible for transferring stock certificates to investors as well as handling the payroll of lesser employees like watchmen.

The reason that Harrison Liscomb had ignored his daughter and Fullerton in his will might have been explained by Fullerton's gambling addiction.  The Sun, which described him on March 13, 1884 as "of slight build, and quiet and courteous manners," said:

He was well known in certain resorts uptown, and so far as can be learned, spent the greater number of his evenings at card tables.  An acquaintance of his, in speaking of him last evening, said that he first met him about six years ago, when he was accustomed to play in a well-known sporting resort at a game of poker for $300 and $500 table takes.  He used to frequent a well-known gambling house on the west side of town, where he bucked the tiger as if possessed of unlimited resources.

Fullerton earned $1,200 per year with the railroad company--about $32,300 today.  But his gambling far exceeded his income.  One acquaintance said "Why, he apparently had more than that in his clothes every night."

It became evident where his gambling money was coming from on March 7, 1884.  An attorney for the Manhattan Beach Railway Company found discrepancies in the books that afternoon and brought it to Fullerton's attention.  Fullerton said that the account had not been completed and, according to the lawyer, "I told him he had no business to leave it that way, and to write the account up at once.  He said he would do so.  As soon as my back was turned he put on his hat and left the office, and we have not seen him since."

Fullerton went straight to the American Exchange National Bank and withdrew the $920 payroll (almost $25,000 today).  When he did not return to the office a more thorough examination of the ledgers was made.  Officials estimated he had obtained about $45,000 by forging and cashing out stock certificates--more than $1.2 million in today's money.

Fullerton never went home, either.  The Sun reported on March 13, "He lived at 210 West Fifteenth street.  Nothing was known of him at that number last night except that he had not been seen since Friday.  He leaves a wife and child."

Five years later the family's name appeared in the newspapers for a much less grave situation.  Charles's son Harry became a hero of sorts in December 1889 when he helped capture the male ringtail monkey that had caused havoc in the neighborhood for months.  It had all started that September when a servant girl in one of the houses on the block was "awakened one morning by two hands patting her cheeks," as reported by The World.  "She looked up, and by the morning light saw bending over her a strange and hideous face."

The girl jumped from her bed yelling "Murder!" and flew down the stairs.  The family checked her room and, finding nothing, assumed she had had a nightmare.  A few days later an upholsterer returned to his shop to find some of his tools gone, and then a boarding house landlady awoke to find her cupboard ransacked and several jars of preserves stolen.

Finally a woman walked into her rear yard to find the monkey perched on her board fence, eating from one of the stolen jars.  The monkey's vandalism and thefts from kitchens and bedrooms continued, but no one was able to catch it.

Harry Liscomb told reporters of the months-long episode.  "It was fun to see him crawling along the division fence with something that he had stolen in each of his front paws.  At times he would disappear for several days.  Where he would go no one knew; then back he would come hungrier than ever.  He soon learned to open doors of cupboards, and nothing was safe from him...Wash-day was his delight.  He would climb along the clothes-lines, pull the pins out and then sit on the fence and watch the clothes blow off the line."

But as the temperatures fell, the monkey spent more and more time indoors whenever he could find access.  Finally, one morning just before Christmas a servant of William Whiteman at No. 220 West 15th Street built a fire in the kitchen then went upstairs.  When she returned the monkey was sitting on the range, shivering.  Harry Liscomb and the Whiteman's son captured him.  Thinking back on the damages and thefts, Harry told a reporter, "If any one should appear and claim the monkey there will be some reckonings to be made before the monkey is taken away."

Joseph Rudd died in 1895 and Charles G. Liscomb died on April 8, 1903.  Frances moved to Utica around the same time.  She retained possession of the house, leasing it to a boardinghouse proprietor.  Among the boarders in 1906 was Arthur Johnson, who was a con man of sorts.

On November 7 that year silk merchant Julius Shapera temporarily left his wagon loaded with goods in front of his home on West 34th Street.  When he returned, a $300 bundle of silks was missing.  Just as he was about to drive off, Johnson appeared, identified himself as a private detective, and said he would recover the goods for a $100 fee.  Shapera agreed and later Johnson returned with $75 of the stolen goods.  Shapera gave him a check for $34 but later, suspecting foul play, cancelled payment.  When Johnson came to his home on January 21, 1907 to get a cash settlement, a detective was waiting to arrest him.

On November 18, 1921 Frances Rudd transferred title to No. 210 to Daisy B. Rudd.  Like Frances, Daisy lived upstate and continued to lease the house.  (Frances died two years later at the age of 78.)

In 1941 the cast iron balcony and the upper floor lintels survived.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

By the Depression years the house had declined to a rooming house, operated by Anna Benhart.  It was the scene of tragedy early on the morning of June 30, 1939.  Madeline Kelly fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand.  Sometime later Mrs. Benhart was awakened by the barking of her dog.  Smelling smoke, she "yelled to give the alarm," according to The Daily Worker.

Three of the roomers rushed to the roof before the fire fighters arrived.  In the chaos and panic, one occupant collapsed from shock in the hallway.  The fire fighters extinguished the blaze, which was confined to Madeline's room, and raised a ladder to rescue the roomers on the roof.  A doctor from St. Vincent's Hospital treated Anna Benhart for shock.  Sadly, the 36-year old Madeline Kelly was found dead in her bed.

Although some of the detailing has been removed, the entrance is intact as are the cornice and Italianate ironwork.

Against all odds the Liscomb house was not converted to apartments until 1968.  The alterations resulted in a duplex in the basement and parlor floor, and one apartment each on the upper floors.  At some point after mid-century the cast iron balcony was removed and the pediments and lintels over the windows shaved flat.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The David Penfield Austin House - 12 West 95th Street


Builder George Holliday acted as his own developer and, most likely, as the architect of the four high-end residences at 10 through 16 West 95th Street, just west of Central Park.  He began construction on the Beaux Arts style homes in 1888.  Configured in an A-B-B-A configuration, they were completed the following year.  The mirror-image center houses, Nos. 12 and 14, featured arched openings at the parlor level, a bowed bay at the second, and pedimented windows at the third.  The fourth floor took the form of a slate-shingled mansard with windows grouped within a single dormer.

No. 12 is second to left among the handsome row.

Holliday seems to have had problems selling the homes.  On February 28, 1892, two years after construction was completed, he advertised:  "For sale, or might rent to a prospective buyer--Two elegant four story private Dwellings, 10 and 12 West 95th st...G. Holliday, Builder."

It would be another year before he found a buyer for No. 12.  On March 25, 1893 the Record & Guide reported that he had sold it to for $45,000--in the neighborhood of $1.32 million today.  It became home to the widowed Mrs. S. B. Smith whose daughter, Estelle Marian, was married to John J. Radley the following January.  The St. Patrick's Cathedral ceremony was officiated by Archbishop Michael Corrigan "in the full robes of his office," according to The Sun on January 17, 1894.

The following year the house was sold to Dr. David Penfield Austin and his wife, Sarah Adelaide.  As was common, the title to the property was put in Sarah's name.   Austin was an 1866 graduate of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He and Sarah had a daughter, Adelaide.

In July 1898, a single-line announcement appeared in The New York Press: "Sarah A. Austin sold No. 12 West Ninety-fifth street, a four-story brownstone front dwelling."  No one who read the notice was more surprised than the Austins.

On July 15 the New York Herald reported, "Dr. Austin, of No. 12 West Ninety-fifth street, denies the reported sale of that house.  He says the statement must have been given out by mistake for not only has the house not been sold, but it is not in the market."

Dr. David Penfield Austin, Empire State Notables, 1914 (copyright expired)

The population of No. 12 increased by one following Adelaide's marriage to Oscar Falk.  The Austins now shared their home with the newlyweds.

When he awoke on March 19, 1918 Dr. Austin complained to Sarah that he felt dizzy.  Later that day he was found unconscious at the foot of the main staircase.  The 83-year-old had fallen down the stairs and fractured his skull.  He died shortly afterward.  The New York Times pointed out that he had practiced medicine for 55 years and "had lived at 12 West Ninety-fifth Street, with his wife, his daughter, and his son-in-law, Oscar Falk, for twenty-three years."

By the end of the year the Sarah leased rooms in the house to the family of Clarence Bloss Rogers.  The well-to-do Rogers had recently returned from serving in World War I.  A member of the American Institute of Engineers, he was now working in the Engineering Department of William Steele & Sons.  The family remained with in the Austin house until 1920 when they placed an advertisement in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle seeking: "Six or seven room apartment desired; residential or suburban section; adult Christian family.  Rogers, 12 West 95th St., NYC."

On February 22, 1923, Sarah Austin died.  Her funeral was held in the West 95th Street house two days later.  Adelaide Falk sold her home of nearly three decades later that year for the equivalent of $525,000 today.

The house was operated as unofficial apartments for a decade.  On January 25, 1926, for instance, The New York Evening Post reported that Rose Johnson and Lilah W. Hughes had rented "furnished apartments" in the house.  It was officially converted to apartments in 1933 by architect F. A. Burdett.

The occupants were middle class and respectable, like Murray C. Smith, "an advertising man," who lived here in 1937; and private nurse Helen Reilly, here by the early 1940's.  

Helen Reilly took a job tending to the Mabel Maxwell Reed soon after the death of her husband, Kenneth M. Reed, in August 1943.  Mabel was described by the Daily News as a "socially prominent hostess."  She lived in a sumptuous apartment at No. 988 Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and maintained a summer home in Prouts Neck, Maine.

Mabel's grief over her husband's death was severe enough to warrant a private nurse, although Helen did not normally stay overnight.  At around 1:30 on the morning of September 20 Helen was awakened by a telephone call from Mabel, who said she had swallowed iodine.  Helen rushed to the apartment where she found Mrs. Reed's lips burned.  She administered an antidote and, according to The Sun, "after Mrs. Reed seemed calmed down and otherwise all right, she retired."

The cook, Nina Stephens, entered Mabel's bedroom after 8:00 to wake her for breakfast.  She found her employer dead, "a plaited dog leash wound tightly around her neck."

The former Austin house appeared in the 1982 film Kiss Me Goodbye as the mansion of Sally Field's character, Kay.  In the film she shares the house with the ghost of her former husband, Jolly, played by James Caan, while trying to move on with her fiancĂ© played by Jeff Bridges.

A renovation completed in 1996 returned the house to a single-family residence.

photographs by the author

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Lost 1833 Colonnade Houses - 714 and 716 Broadway


from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the 18th century Elbert Herring's vast land holdings, known as the Herring Farm, stretched west from The Bowery to Christopher Street, and north from approximately today's Houston Street to Waverly Place.  His estate was divided among his heirs, with Nicholas Herring inheriting the section of land bounded by Broadway (then known as Great George Street at this point) east to Lafayette Place.   He quickly sold the land on May 12, 1789 to Anthony L. Bleecker for $812, who divided it into fourteen building lots.

The two northernmost lots were purchased by Elisha Bloomer, a hatter, on June 1, 1833.  The price, equal to just under half a million in today's dollars, reflected the fact that the former pastureland was gradually transforming into a fashionable residential district.  Federal style mansions were rising along Broadway and the adjacent streets.

In 1831 Seth Geer had erected a stunning row of marble mansions, La Grange Terrace, on Lafayette Place based on the English model of grand homes built to appear as a single structure.  Elisha Bloomer now constructed a miniature version of Green's striking project--two mirror image, white marble mansions at Nos. 714 and 716 Broadway which he called the "Colonnade Houses."

Completed in 1836, Bloomer sold the 25-foot wide homes for $30,000 each--about $850,000 today.  He included restrictive covenants into the deeds, demanding "whereas the two houses are built in such style and manner as to present an entire front of great beauty and elegance, and the marring and defacing or alteration of either might depreciate the value of the other," neither could be altered without the consent of the "neighboring owner."

from Early New York Houses, by Williiam Smith Pelletreau, 1900 (copyright expired)

No. 714 was purchased by Smith Ely.  A member of the legal firm Bartlett & Ely, he was married to the former Abigail Belknap Bartlett.  The couple had a daughter Adelaide V.

The Ely family were members of the Second Congregational Church.  As fashion flowed northward, a new church building, now known as Church of the Messiah, was erected at Nos. 728-730 Broadway, conveniently close to the Elys' home.  It was completed in 1839, and its congregants purchased their personal pews, the prices depending on the location.  On May 14 the Morning Herald reported on the sale.  Smith Ely had paid $1,050 for his family's pew--just under $30,000 in today's money.

In the meantime, John Moon had purchased No. 716, and immediately leased it to Philip and Catharine Dunscomb Hone.  Hone had served as mayor of New York City in 1826-27.  A wealthy merchant, he was a founder of the Mercantile Library Association and the first president of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company.  Like his neighbors, he and Catharine had moved northward with the tide of fashion.  They had previously lived in an elegant residence on Broadway across from City Hall Park.

Living with their parents were the still unmarried John P. and Margaret Hone.  There were four other adult children, Mary S. (who had married John Jones Schermerhorn four years before her parents moved into No. 716), Robert Swartwout, Philip, and Catherine Blatchford.

New York newspapers did not hide their political affiliations.  The Morning Herald was staunchly anti-Whig and took every advantage to disparage Hone.   When a marble bust of the broker and politician by Shobal Clavenger was unveiled at the Apollo Gallery in July 1839, for instance, the newspaper managed to combine its praise for the sculptor for its disdain of the sitter:

It is a marked, peculiar, and striking likeness of the original--with great and extraordinary merit as a work of art.  The young artist has thrown into the features of Mr. H., a great deal more intellectual expression than we ever saw the original breath forth in Wall street or at the dinner table.

And when the Whigs nominated Hone for office four months later, the newspaper let loose its animosity.  Saying that the party's "connection with abolition" was enough "to ruin any party" it added, "But, as if this was not sufficient to disgust the people, the Wall Street clique nominated Philip Hone, one of the most unpopular candidates that could have been selected in New York...The consequences of the arrogant, unwise, fooling stock-jobbing management is thus before us."

A separate article went even further, saying the Whigs "put up Philip Hone, a most obnoxious man, as their particular candidate, which caused the disgust of many and the defeat of the whole ticket."

John Wesley Jarvis painted Philip Hone's portrait in 1809.  from the collection of The Athenaeum

In fact, most New Yorkers admired Hone and he and Catharine were important members of high society.  Known for their considerable travels and sophistication they were on the guest lists of every ball and important social event.  Among Hone's close friends were Daniel Webster, John Jacob Astor, Washington Irving and Presidents Martin Van Buran and John Quincy Adams.

The Financial Panic of 1837 seriously affected Smith Ely and John Moon.  Both houses were lost in foreclosure in 1841.  On April 30 auctioneer E. H. Ludlow auctioned the Elys' "elegant furniture" on the premises of "No. 714 Broadway, Marble Colonade Building."  Included were mahogany parlor furniture, two pier mirrors which had cost $365 in 1836 (more than $10,000 today), and a "city-made Piano Forte."

On February 4, 1842 the City Fire Insurance Company advertised: "Dwellings in Broadway--For Sale.  Those two Collonade [sic] marble front Houses, Nos. 714 and 716 Broadway."

But the effects of the financial depression prevented their being sold for several years.  Finally in 1844 attorney Charles Goadsby Ferris and his wife, the former Catharine Young, purchased No. 716.   The couple had one daughter, Caroline Adelia.

Charles's father, Edward Ferris, was one of the founders of the Tammany Society.  His mother, Elizabeth Goadsby, was the daughter of Sir Thomas Goadsby of England.

Not surprisingly, Ferris was a Democrat.  He had served in Congress in 1841-43 and was instrumental in appropriating funds to erect the first telegraph line.  The year he purchased No. 716 he was nominated for the position of Collector of the Port of New York by President John Tyler, but was rejected by the United States Senate.

Like the Philip Hones, Charles and Catharine Ferris had notable house guests, such as inventor Samuel Morse.  But none was more noteworthy than Napoleon III.  According to Charles's great-nephew, Charles E. Crowell, in his 1898 Partial Genealogy of the Ferris Family, Charles Ferris "introduced the late Napoleon III, to President Tyler, and the compiler's mother has told him that she frequently dined with Napoleon at her Uncle Charles' house on Broadway, opposite West Washington Place."

Charles Goadsby Ferris died in his marble mansion on July 10, 1848.  Catherine and Caroline Adelia remained in the house, joined by Caroline's husband Glover Clapham whom she married in 1850.  Clapham died within a year of their wedding and in 1851 Caroline married Samuel Lewis

In the meantime, No. 714 had been home to physician Francis E. Berger, who sold it in 1852 to another doctor, Samuel S. Fitch.   Drs. Calvin M. and Josiah P. Fitch worked in their father's practice, and Calvin lived in the house with his parents.

Samuel Fitch was the author of the well-known book Dr. S. S. Fitch's Six Lectures.  On December 14, 1852 he announced in the New York Herald:

Dr. S. S. Fitch, author of six lectures on the prevention and cure of consumption, asthma, diseases of the heart, &c, has removed his office from 787 Broadway to 714 Broadway.  All examinations of the chest and heart and whole case, and medical opinion and advise, always gratis.

Fitch wrote a second book in in 1859, and another in 1861His lecture work demanded that he be away from New York and in 1866 he took on two associates, Drs. L. E. King and E. B. Chambre.  His announcement explained, "During my absence I submit to them with complete reliance the conduct of my practice."

Dr. Samuel S. Fitch, from Dr. S. S. Fitch's Six Lectures on the Function of the Lungs, 1859 (copyright expired)

On March 29, 1873 Fitch was returning to New York from Massachusetts when the train in which he was traveling wrecked.  Newspapers widely reported on his death.  A month later an announcement appeared in the New York Herald saying in part, "Some out-of-town papers having stated that his injuries were fatal, we desire them to deny the statement, as he is rapidly improving and out of all danger."

Meanwhile, Samuel and Caroline Adelia Lewis continued to occupy No. 716.  In 1874 son Samuel Ferris Lewis was a sophomore at Columbia University and his brother Charles Ferris Lewis was studying at Columbia University's Law School. 

Dr. Fitch left No. 714 in 1878.  By now this section of Broadway had seen the encroachment of business for more than a decade.  The elegant marble house was renovated that year for business purposes and became home to the bookseller A. C. Armstrong & Son.  The firm sold religious books like the Introduction to the Study of Philosophy, The Expositor's Bible, and The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration.  Also in the building were the Monarch Skirt factory and wholesale clothiers Morris, Davis & Saloman.

The Lewis house remained unchanged, an anachronism next door to its drastically altered former twin.  from the collection of the New-York Historic Society

On August 14, 1888 Caroline Ferris Lewis died at the age of 69 in the marble residence she had called home for more than four decades.  Eight months later, on April 26, 1889, The New York Times reported "The old mansion at 716 Broadway will soon be torn down.  It was sold yesterday...together with the other real property of Charles G. Ferris."  The article noted, "The house was occupied by his daughter until her death recently" and said the buyers, Scholle Brothers, "will have it torn down without delay and a new building put up."

A. C. Armstrong & Son remained in the altered No. 714 until its sale in 1893.  It was replaced by an 11-story commercial building designed by Buchman & Deisler.  It and the Alfred Zucker-designed building at No. 716 survive.

photograph by the author

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for prompting this post

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The 1873 William C. Traphagen House - 14 East 63rd Street


Robert B. and James G. Lynd were described by the Record & Guide as "well-known builders."   The firm J. G. & R. B. Lynd often acted as its own developer, as well, with Robert B. Lynd as the architect.  Such was the cast in 1872 when the brothers began construction on a 25-foot wide brownstone dwelling at No. 14 East 63rd Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenue.

Completed the following year, the four-story Italianate style structure featured Renaissance-inspired pediments over the parlor windows and the center openings of the upper floors.  A stately columned portico protected the arched entranceway.

The Lynd brothers targeted well-heeled buyers, as evidenced in their sale ad:

Near Fifth Avenue, 14 East Sixty-third street--For sale, brown stone full front House; thoroughly well built and carefully finished in artistic cabinet work throughout; has French mantels, wardrobes, Mirrors, gold and bronze hardware, electric bells, &c; inspection desired.

The electric bells mentioned in the ad referred to the system of servants' call buttons connected to the service areas.

Charming carved bouquets decorate the arched lintels of the second and fourth floor openings.

The house became home to attorney William Conselyea Traphagen and his wife, the former Caroline Ross Maxwell (better known as Carrie).  Born in New Jersey in 1837, Traphagen was educated at Rutgers College, and by now had a successful private practice. 

The couple had a two-year-old son at the time, John Maxwell, but would have four more children, John Conselyea, Eleanor Van Vorst, Caroline, and Ethel.  The family's summer home was in Nyack, New York.

Daughter Ethel, who was born in the townhouse in 1882, went on to study at the National Academy of Design, becoming a fashion designer.  In 1923 she opened the Traphagen School of Co-operative Fashion, one of the first schools dedicated to fashion design and illustration.

Decades before that, the East 63rd Street house was shuttered for a two-year period starting in 1887 when William Traphagen was elected to the State Senate.  In May 1893 his ill health prompted him to move his family permanently to the "spacious and attractive" Nyack home, as it was described by The New York Times.  He died there a year later, on October 27, 1894.

Traphagen had sold No. 14 East 63rd Street the wealthy, 71-year-old bachelor Alonzo Castle Monson for $71,000--just over $2 million today.  A former judge of the California Supreme Court, he was a founder of the Knickerbocker Club and was the treasurer of the New York Jockey Club.

Born in 1822 on Varick Street, he was the son of Captain Marcena and Eliza Monson.  Among the family's neighbors were the Hamilton, Lydig and Minturn families.  The New York Times later recalled that Captain Monson "was fond of entertaining, and many noted persons were guests under his hospitable roof.  Charles Dickens was once a guest at the old mansion, as were Commodore Perry and Gov. Marcy, who was afterward Secretary of State."

Bachelorhood did not mean that Monson lived alone.  Moving in with him were his sister, Ann Eliza Morris, the widow of former Mayor Robert Hunter Morris, and his great-nephew and niece, Monson and Helen Van Cortlandt Morris.

Alonzo C. Monson (original source unknown)

The aging Monson did his best, with the help of his sister, in properly rearing his young wards.   When they moved into the 63rd Street young Monson Morris was attending Columbia College and Helen's debutante season was only a few years off.   On December 28, 1894 The Evening World announced, "Judge Monson, of No. 14 East Sixty-third street, gave a dance for the younger set last evening at his home."

The year 1897 was a significant in the household.  Monson graduated from Columbia that year, and that winter was Helen's debutante season.   On December 15 the New-York Tribune reported, "Miss Helen Van Cortlandt Morris was formally presented to society yesterday at a tea given in her honor by her uncle, Alonzo C. Monson, at his home, No. 14 East Sixty-third-st.  Mr. Monson will give a debutante dinner to-morrow night in honor of his niece."

This delicate ivory miniature was painted the year of Helen's debut.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1898 Monson began construction of a new country estate, Mon Repos (My Rest) at Southampton, Long Island.  On May 6, 1899 Brooklyn Life reported "Ex-Judge Alonzo C. Monson's new cottage, commenced last fall, is now ready for occupancy.  Miss Helen. V. C. Morris and Mr. Monson Morris will reside with Mr. Monson this summer.  Mr. Monson has lately been elected a member of the Meadow Club, by the way."

Mon Repos as it appears today.  Image via

Alonzo Monson and Helen sailed for Europe later that season.  On the night of September 6 a fire that broke out in No. 12 East 63rd Street spread to the cornice of the Morris house.  The World reported, "The firemen chopped away part of the roof of No. 14, and believed that the blaze was extinguished after a little water was thrown on it."

That was not the case, however.  As Monson, Ann Morris and their servants slept, the embers erupted into flames.  Two policemen noticed smoke rising from the roof and sent in an alarm.  "The firemen had to cut three holes in the roof before they could quench the flames," said the article.  It added that Monson and his aunt "got out unhurt.  So did the servants."

Early in April 1900 Ann Eliza Morris caught a cold.  The 91-year-old died a week later.  Her funeral was held in the Church of the Incarnation on Madison Avenue on April 11.

Within the year, in February 1901, Alonzo Monson sold No. 14 to real estate operators William and Thomas Hall for the equivalent of $3.4 million today.  The brothers were responsible for erecting scores of upscale dwellings under the firm name of W. W. & T. M. Hall.  They hired the architectural firm of Welch, Smith & Provot to do $20,000 worth of interior renovations--about $621,000 today.  Included were new stairs and walls and an elevator.  Interestingly, at a time when out-of-date brownstones were being remodeled into modern American basement residences, the exterior appearance of No. 14 was not altered.

The remodeled residence was sold to Elizabeth Millan Stevens, the widow of John Rhinelander Stevens.  With her in the house was her 23-year-old daughter, Lucille Millan Stevens.

Although young society women tended to marry soon after their debuts, it would be more than a decade before Lucille wed.  In March 1912 Elizabeth announced her engagement to U. S. Navy Lieutenant Edward E. Spafford.  The Sun noted that he "is on duty at the Ordnance Office in Washington."

The wedding took place in St. Bartholomew's Church on May 22.  Tragically, less than two years later, on February 20, 1914, Lucille died in her Washington, D.C. home.

The loss of her only child may have been too much for Elizabeth to bear.  Two months later, on April 18, she died in the 63rd Street house at the age of 74.  The New York Times noted, "Mrs. Stevens was prominent in society until her husband died in 1889, when she became interested in philanthropic work."

Elizabeth left her estate, about $22 million in today's money, in trust to her granddaughter, Lucille Spafford.  The tiny heiress was not yet two-years-old, prompting the Washington D.C. Evening Star to dub her "the million-dollar-baby."

Included in the inheritance was No. 14 East 63rd Street.  Edward E. Spafford and his daughter moved in by 1916.  Still in the United States Navy, he was now an officer in the American Society of Naval Engineers in New York.  

Little Elizabeth was tended to by servants when the United States entered World War I.  In 1919, after her father returned home, he was awarded the Congressional Medal for Bravery in 1919.  He was again honored on February 5, 1929 by Paul Claudel, the French Ambassador, who awarded him the Legion of Honor.  The New York Times noted, "the honor was conferred by the French Government for services during and after the World War."

In 1944 No. 14 was renovated into a four apartments.   The well-to-do residences over the next few years included the family of Cord Meyer,  Naval Admiral and oil magnate Andrew Francis Carter, and former race car driver and vice president of the Marnier-Lapostolle, Inc. wine and liquor importing firm, Jules Pierre Ortieg.

The house was returned to a single-family dwelling in 1994, with a commercial space in the basement.  In the first years of the 21st century it was home to the David Lawrence Studio, the Gering & Lopez Gallery and most recently the Sandra Gering art gallery.

The 18-room house was sold for a staggering $22.5 million in June 2015.  The New York Times mentioned that "it has retained many original architectural features, including the front stoop, grand staircase, detailed high ceilings and wood-burning fireplaces."  The article noted seven bedrooms and five baths.

photographs by the author

Friday, March 26, 2021

The 1831 Benjamin Lee House - 33 Bond Street


In 1831, shortly after builder Timothy Woodruff completed construction on the 25-foot wide brick house at No. 33 Bond Street,  it was purchased by Benjamin F. Lee and his wife, the former Jane Lawrence.  Sitting in one of the most exclusive residential districts of the city, their new Federal style home was three-and-a-half stories tall.  A short stoop led to the parlor floor and one or two dormers originally poked through the peaked roof.

Lee was described by Valentine's Manual of the City of New York as "one of New York's famous old merchants."  He had been a pioneer in the development of vulcanized rubber "under the Goodyear patents," according to Valentine's Manual, "and made a fortune in that business."  Lee had recently been a partner with Thomas Lord in the firm of Lord & Lees, but was now engaged with Paul Babcock in Lee & Babcock.  (The location of Lee's new house may have been a bit awkward, since Thomas Lord lived directly across the street at No. 32 Bond Street.)

Jane Lawrence Lee was known as "a celebrated beauty," according to the manual.  Her portrait by Charles Cromwell Ingham, entitled The White Plume, became famous within her lifetime.

Charles Cromwell Ingham was a founder of the National Academy of Design.  His portrait of Jane Lee created a sensation.  from The Moss Rose, 1854 (copyright expired)

The Lees did not remain on Bond Street for especially long.  It was advertised for sale in The Evening Post on January 16, 1834.  It was purchased by attorney Jonathan J. Coddington, who resold it in 1836 to Amelia Staples.

Amelia was the widow of John Staples.  Living with her in the Bond Street house were her son, William J. Staples, and his wife Hanna.  William was a well-to-do attorney and developer.  When the family moved into No. 33 he was actively involved in developing a section of Staten Island in partnership with politician Minthorne Tompkins.

In 1832 they had acquired a large parcel of land from the Vanderbilt family--part of the family farm where Cornelius Vanderbilt I was born.  They laid out streets for a new village named Stapleton.  Four years later they began marketing the new community and initiated a ferry service from Manhattan. 

In 1847 William was appointed Consul to Le Havre, France.  With her son and daughter-in-law gone, Amelia took in a boarder that year, broker William M. Clarke whose office was at No. 62 Wall Street.   She died in 1852 and the following year William Staples listed "the first-class dwelling."  His ad offered "with furniture, if desired."  

Amelia's mother's personal wealth was reflected in the other properties being sold to settle the estate.  Included was a house on Cherry Street, and three lots on Ninth Avenue and 16th Street.  William Staples apparently changed his mind about selling No. 33 Bond Street and in 1854 the title was transferred to Hannah.

Catharine Taylor purchased No. 33 in May 1885 for $16,000--about $435,000 in today's money.  She was the wife of Washington H. Taylor who operated a hotel on Park Row.  Catharine purchased the property as an investment, and in September 1888 transferred the title to her sister, Margaret Barnes.  The problem was that Washington Taylor was not aware of the transactions nor that the women were using his money.

In February 1889 he discovered that his wife, who had access to his safe, had absconded with more than $1.15 million by today's standards.  He left her and then filed suit against the two women to "recover property which he claims his wife purchased with money misappropriated from his safe."  Included, of course, was No. 33 Bond Street.

Catharine Taylor's purchase of the house as an investment was a wise move.  At the time the Bond Street neighborhood had changed from residential to commercial and small businesses filled the once-elegant homes which had not yet been demolished and replaced.  By 1896 Joseph Lowenstein's feather business operated from the building.  That year he employed six men, six women and two teen-aged girls who worked 55 hours each week.

Lowenstein's premises were protected by an early example of an electric burglar alarm which proved its worth on August 11, 1897.   The Sun reported "A burglar alarm saved the feather factory of Joseph Lowenthal [sic] early yesterday morning, not from looting by robbers, but from destruction by fire."  A fire had started in the room where dyed feathers were laid out to dry at around 1:00 in the morning.  It spread up the woodwork to the office on the floor above.  

"The flames snapped the tiny wire of the alarm and the bell rang furiously in the offices of the burglar alarm company," said The Sun.  Private detectives rushed to the scene to surprise the burglars.  "Instead they found the fire, and by giving the alarm had the firemen there soon."  Lowenstein's losses were about $64,000 in today's money.  But his burglar alarm had prevented the possible complete destruction of his business.

The anachronistic Lee house was surrounded by modern loft buildings at the time.  In 1901 real estate agent J. Jamison Raphael appeared in court regarding a property dispute in the neighborhood and was asked to assess other buildings.  In testifying he said in part, "I know the premises 33 Bond Street.  The building upon that property is of no particular value."

It was owned by Bernard H. Smith in 1908, who leased it to David Birnbaum for his fur factory.  Smith owned several buildings along the block and was apparently more interested in the rental income than the working conditions.  A factory inspector that year slapped Smith with three violations for Nos. 33, 27 and 23 Bond Street for the unsanitary conditions of the restrooms.

In November 1908 Harry Gorrfine and an accomplice were foiled in their attempt to rob Birnbaum's fur factory.  They were both sentenced to a year in prison, but Gorrfine quickly escaped.  Astoundingly, two weeks after his first attempt, a detective spotted him slipping back into No. 33 Bond Street on the afternoon of Saturday November 28.  What Detective Wilbur did not realize that Gorrfine had two cohorts already inside the building.

Wilbur rushed to a telephone and called headquarters for help.  As he ran back to No. 33 Gorrfine was just coming out with a large bundle.  Wilbur "nabbed him and took him back into the hallway," according to The Sun.  When two other officers arrived, they took their captive back upstairs.  "The minute they opened the door the other two thieves made a rush to get by, but were collared."  Police reported that inside Birnbaum's factory were bundles of furs worth $10,000 that the thieves had prepared to be remove--more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars. 

In April 1911 the architectural firm of Cleverdon & Putzel was hired to renovated the old house to an efficient loft building.  They raised the attic to a full fourth floor and added a pressed metal cornice that harkened to the Italianate style of a decade earlier.

In 1941 B. Rosen's remnant store occupied the parlor level.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Throughout most of the century the building would house small businesses like the Forlin Hat Company, here in the 1920's.  Then in 1996 a renovation resulted in an art studio in the basement and first floor, home to 33 Bond Street Architecture Design, and living-working quarters on above.

The commercial space became home to Vitsoe in September 2009.  The gallery-type store offered shelving systems and chairs designed by Dieter Rams.  Vitsoe remained until around 2017.  Today the basement level is home to Dashwood Books, which arrived approximately in 2010, and the physical therapy studio Body Evolved occupies the first floor that was once filled with the elegant furnishings and paintings of Benjamin and Jane Lee.

photographs by the author

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Catholic Girls and White Russians -- 315 East 10th Street

Around 1847 builder James C. Whitlock and Franklin Baylies began construction on four Greek Revival houses on East 10th Street facing the newly landscaped Tompkins Square.  Faced in brick, each was 25-feet wide and rose four stories above an English basement.   The brownstone piers which flanked the double-doored entrances supported a heavy entablature, and the parlor windows stretched to the floor.

No. 315 10th Street ("East" was not added to the address until around 1868) was purchased by Robert Hogan in 1848, but it appears he bought it for investment purposes.  On April 20 the following year an advertisement appeared in The Evening Post offering:

Tenth street--The 4 story brick house known as No. 315 Tenth st, opposite Tompkins Square...finished in modern style.  $5700 of the purchase money can remain on bond and mortgage.

Although Hogan did not reveal the total purchase price, the $5,700 "on bond and mortgage" would equal about $197,000 today.  The buyer ordered all new furniture, "made to order" for the residence.  But the family would not enjoy their new home for long.  Possibly struck by financial difficulties, they put it back on the market in 1851.  The new furniture was offered "at a fair valuation to the purchaser."  The modern amenities in the house included, "hot, cold and shower bath, range water closet, wash basins, gas fixtures, &c., &c."  The ad noted the house was "finished in the best manner."

It was next purchased by John Conway, a well-to-do butcher with businesses on Avenue C and in the Catherine Market downtown.  He and his wife, Catharine, had two sons, William and Michael, who worked in the family business.

Once again the family's residency would be relatively short-lived.  On May 13, 1855 Catharine died and her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  In 1860 the Conway family left the East 10th Street house and it was acquired by the Sisters of Charity.  It was converted for use as one of three Sisters of Charity Schools operated in the city.

By 1881 the Sisters of Charity had acquired the abutting house at No. 313 East 10th Street and operated the two properties as St. Bridget's Academy.  The houses were not combined internally, suggesting they were separated by grade or age level.  In 1881 there were 115 girls enrolled in the school.

In 1885 the country, and especially New Yorkers, were excited about the monument that was being completed in New York Harbor--the gift from France of Auguste Bartholdi's colossal Liberty Enlightening the World statue.  Long before it would be known by its nickname, The Statue of Liberty, and the eager anticipation of the monument made its way into the graduation exercises of St. Bridget's Academy in Chickering Hall on June 30, 1895.

The New York Times reported, "The tableau 'Unveiling of the Bartholdi Statue' received much applause.  Nearly 100 little children attired in French, American and Spanish costumes marched about a tall object that stood in the middle of the stage.  A young lady representing the Goddess of Liberty escorted George Washington to the statue, which, being uncovered, revealed a young woman with a torch in her right hand."

In 1892 architect Franklin Baylies was commissioned to remodel the exteriors of the two former houses.  He added Gothic Revival touches--applied square headed drip moldings over the windows, quatrefoil decoration to the entrance entablatures, offset engaged columns at the top floor which visually gave balance to the two facades, and a muscular parapet above the new cast metal cornice.

St. Bridget's Academy remained in the house for decades.  Then, on June 29, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported "The Academy property of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, at 313 and 315 East Tenth Street, has been resold by Leopold Horowitz to the Independent Stryjer Benevolent Society.

The Tompkins Square neighborhood was the center of the Eastern European community at the time.  The interiors of the former school were altered into a clubhouse for the Russian Erudition Society, "Nauko," by the architectural firm Fred Morton & Co. at a cost of $152,000 in today's money.  A new entrance was installed at the basement level that provided direct access to a large restaurant and meeting hall.

A wave of support for Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover swept through the Russian community in 1928.  Signs reading Golosuite za Xuvera, or Vote for Hoover, were written in chalk and printed on handbills throughout the district.  The New York Evening Post explained on October 17, "All because 'Xuvera' is a man who once was identified with the saving of more than 5,000,000 Russian lives--and because the Russian people's gratitude has lasted for seven years."  

A political debate on Hoover and Smith was held in the meeting hall on October 18.  J. J. Lissitzyn, founder and director of the Russian Lawyers' Association debated a Columbia University student, V. D. Kazakevich.  The New York Evening Post noted, "The Russian Society Nauka's hall at 315 East Tenth Street, which seats from 500 to 700 persons, is expected to be jammed with interested Russians."

Other activities within the clubhouse were less benign, at least from the viewpoint of the United States Government.  In 1930 the Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities in the United States turned its attention the Russian Liberals' Association which was headquartered at No. 315.  A letter received by one member dated April 7, 1930 tipped the committee off on "Bolshevist propaganda in New York City, especially among the Russian."  Among its findings was the upcoming annual conference of the Russian Consolidated Mutual Aid Society to be held on April 12 at 315 East 10th Street.

The charming entrance to the restaurant and meeting hall can be seen in this photo from around 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Ironically, the Russian Mutual Aid Society was neither Communist nor Bolshevik at all, but its members were what was termed "White Russians"--those who were interested in preserving the culture of pre-Revolutionary Russia.  That was reflected in the Society's school, founded in 1919, which now also found space in the building.  

On February 8, 1934 The New York Sun reported on the 15th anniversary of "this strange other-worldly school, where traditions and culture of a regime that no longer exists are kept alive in the minds and hearts of young, flaxen-haired Russians, who, perhaps, never will return to the land of their ancestors."  There were about 200 children enrolled, ranging from 7 to 16 years of age.  The two teachers, Madame Eugene Fovitzky and Madame Nadine Stemberg, were "vested with the responsibility for perpetuating the traditions of Czarist Russia."

According to the article, the school had just begun to use a modern map in teaching the geography of Russia.  Madame Fovitzky said "It hurts us older people who knew the old Russia to see it so changed.  But the present map is a fact, and it would be stupid for us to ignore the changes made upon it by politics."

Nevertheless, the teaching of history was another thing.  The New York Sun's article said "History, as taught on Tompkins Square, arrives only to 1917.  The schoolroom walls are decorated with colored pictures illustrating Imperial Russia's triumphs.  But of the deposition of the Czar and the exodus of so many thousands of his subjects, nothing is said."

The trefoil lintels and quatrefoil entrance decorations were simply applied over the existing elements.

The school was gone in 1951 by which time the Pushkin Memorial Home for the Aged shared the house with the Roova Aid Bureau.  In 1975 it was home to the Organization for Defense of Four Freedoms for Ukraine, and two years later the building was renovated for The Educational Alliance / Project Contact Crisis Center, an alcoholism and drug abuse treatment center.  There was now a lounge and dining room in the former meeting hall space in the basement, offices and counseling space on the first and second floors, and dormitives on the top two.

Another renovation completed in 2020 resulted in a total of 12 apartments.  The residents, most likely, have little clue to the amazing history that has played out within its walls.

photographs by the author