Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The 1889 James C. Matthews House - 43 West 84th Street


The blank arched pediment above the entrance was originally filled with intricate carving.

The real estate development firm of George C. Edgar & Son hired Gilbert A. Schellenger to design four rowhouses along West 84th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue in 1888.  To ensure high-end tenor of the residences, the firm used six building plots for the four structures.  They were completed in 1889.

Shellenger designed the brownstone-faced row in the Renaissance Revival style with splashes of Romanesque Revival.  No. 43, like its neighbors, was four stories high above the tall English basement level.  A straight stoop with beefy stone railings rose to the double-doored entrance.  It sat below a carved entablature and an arched pediment that rose above the parlor floor cornice.  A gently curved bay at the third floor was the focus of the design.

Romanesque Revival panels with mythical beasts decorate the piers between the parlor windows.

No. 43 became home to the James C. Matthews family.  Since the early 1870's, according to the Boston Home Journal, Matthews was "conspicuously identified with some of the best hotels in New York City and in Saratoga."  He was the proprietor of the Sturtevant House hotel and managed upscale resort hotels.  

James C. Matthews  from The H. M. M. B. A. in California, 1896 (copyright expired)

Matthews's overseeing of the posh Sturtevant House was not surprising, considering that its owner, Albert P. Sturtevant, was his father-in-law.  But family ties would be strained two years after Matthews purchased the West 84th Street house.  

It all began when Matthews became so ill that, according to The Evening World, he "wanted to go away for his health."  He was suffering from Bright's Disease, a kidney affliction known today as nephritis, although the diagnosis was so far being kept quiet.  On October 11, 1891 he mortgaged the furnishings of the hotel to his father-in-law for $70,000--just over $2 million today--and appointed two trustees to run the operation.  Things quickly went downhill.

The Sturtevant House sat on the southeast corner of Broadway and 29th Street.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

On December 7, 1891 The Evening World reported "There is more trouble in the management of the Sturtevant House, this time between the trustees, who were appointed to run the hotel in the interests of Proprietor James C. Matthews during his illness."  Infighting led to a judge's removing and replacing one of the men.

The following month the newspaper began an article saying "The affairs of the Sturtevant House were again the subject of legal proceedings this afternoon."  James C. Matthews's recuperation in the country was interrupted by his necessary appearance in court.  In his absence a receiver had been appointed who now demanded to see the books.  The Evening World explained, "It is understood that the books are wanted in order to find out what became of $65,000 worth of goods for which claims have been made by creditors."

The tangle of litigation was still ongoing in the summer of 1893 when Matthews--no longer proprietor--was being personally sued by some of the hotel's creditors.  Happily for him, on August 7 the judge dismissed those claims.

Matthews's medical condition had forced him to give up the proprietorship of the Sturtevant House.  His good friend, hotelier James H. Breslin, gave him the management of the Gilsey House hotel, ironically on the opposite corner of Broadway and 29th Street from the Sturtevant House.  But his illness continued to interfere with his ability to work.

On November 17, 1894 The Evening Telegram reported, "So rapidly has been the recovery of James C. Matthews, of the Gilsey House staff, during the last few days, that his return to his post of duty is expected within a week.  'Gentleman James,' as he is called, has been critically ill from acute Bright's disease, complicated with erysipelas, and, to universal distress, it was even reported that a fatal termination was imminent."  The article celebrated his improvement and said "complete restoration to health is now hoped for."

James C. Matthews survived until 1901.  By then he and his family had been gone from No. 43 West 84th Street for several years.  In 1894 the family of stock broker C. A. Kolstede, Jr. called it home.  He and his wife, Annie, had a son, Alfred G., who was also a broker.

Kolstede was a member of the New York Athletic Club.  Its members were wealthy, respected businessmen.  But the innate racism of the period resulted in the club's creating sub-groups that would be seen as abhorrent today.  In its May 1903 issue, for instance, the New York Athletic Club Journal reported:

Forest glades environed the feast of more than a hundred dusky braves on Saturday evening, April 18, in the big council house of the club.  The tribe of the Huckleberry Indians of the N.Y.A.C. were gathered together for their annual pow wow, dances, songs and feasting.  The feast was spread on a long table on a dais where sat great Indians mighty in the chase, in council and war and six other long tables were surrounded by the tribesmen.  The tables groaned under their load of succotash and every known Indian and paleface delicacy.

Included in the list of "Indians present" that evening was C. A. Kolstede, Jr.

Alfred brought unwanted attention to the family in March 1902 for his failed attempt at illegal gambling.  The Sun reported that "a gang of alleged wire-tappers...fooled him with the old, old story that they could beat the handbook men by tapping the Western Union wires from the racetracks."  The article poked fun at Alfred, saying he apparently "did not know that no handbook man takes a bet after a race has been started.  Nor did he know that the wires that were to do the tapping were just twenty feet long, reaching from the middle of a cheap furnished room to the outside of the nearest window sill.  But he knows now."

Alfred had answered an advertisement in the New York Herald offering anyone with $1,000 the opportunity of making $20,000 quickly.  He was taken to a secret back room where a man was ticking away on a telegraph instrument.  He was told that a conspirator within the Western Union office would hold up ticker reports for four or five minutes before sending to the "handbook men," during which time Alfred could place a guaranteed winning bet.

The gang played Alfred along, giving him $800 winnings on his first bet.   He placed bets every day for a week, eventually losing a total of $265,000 in today's money before getting wise to the scam.

In November 1905 Annie Kolsted sold the house to John F. and Mary J. Lynch.  The couple, who had two daughters, Marie Arline and Claudine E., maintained a summer home in New Jersey.  

In May 1906 a man knocked on the door of No. 43 West 84th Street and asked if there were any odd jobs he could do.  The New York Herald reported "Because of the illness of a servant employed to wash windows and feed the furnace fires," he was told he could wash the basement windows.  After finishing, he asked Mary if he could do the upper floor windows, as well.

Her charitable act went unrewarded, however.  "She noticed after he had left the house that a bureau was in disorder," said the New York Herald.  The vagabond had taken a pair of diamond earrings valued at $600--in the neighborhood of $17,600 today.  The article noted "in his haste to escape he overlooked a diamond necklace valued at $2,000 which lay near it."

Mary J. Lynch died in the family's summer home on August 17, 1918.  Following John's death, Marie Arline sold No. 43 in September 1921 to a buyer "for occupancy."  The unnamed purchaser may have been actor Morris Carnovsky who lived here in 1923 when he was arrested for participating in "an obscene show."  Carnovsky was among the stellar cast of playwright Sholem Ash's God of Vengeance which also included Sam Jaffe and Lillian Taiz.  The plot revolved around a Jewish couple's attempts to find a respectable match for their daughter while operating a brothel in their basement.

Morris Carnovsky - from the collection of the New York Public Library

On March 6, 1922 the Apollo Theatre was raided and the entire cast was arrested, charged with "unlawfully advertising, giving, representing, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play."  The case was widely covered by the press and well-known names in the theatrical and Jewish communities, like Eugene O'Neill and the Jewish Daily Forward, coming to the actors' defense.

The Depression years saw No. 43 West 84th Street being operated as a rooming or boarding house.  Its tenants were respectable, like cotton broker William Wieck and playwriter Joseph Roosevelt Lebo.  Among Lebo's works were the 1934 comedy Nudist of Mine and the 1937 Truth Pays a Visit.  As radio plays became popular, he adapted, writing radio scripts like "The Man Before Marconi" which aired in August 1948.

In 1983 No. 43 was converted apartments--one each in the basement through second floors, and a duplex on the top two.  From outside, other than replacement windows, nearly nothing has changed since James C. Matthews moved his family in in 1889.

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