Thursday, March 18, 2021

Troubling History - Charles B. Meyers's 1907 686-688 Third Avenue


In 1895 architect James Stroud designed two one-story buildings with cast iron storefronts for Charles W. Doherty at Nos. 686 and 688 Third Avenue.  Located just north of East 43rd Street, their small proportions suggest they were intended as "tax payers"--relatively temporary structures that brought in enough income to cover the real estate taxes.   Doherty died in 1906 and his extensive holdings, including the two 25-foot wide stores, were sold at auction in March 1907.

Isaac Cohen purchased the properties and immediately laid plans to replace them with a more profitable structure.  He hired architect Charles B. Meyers to design a "six-story tenement" on the site at a cost of $40,000--just over $1 million today.

Faced in beige brick, the building expectedly included stores at sidewalk level.  The upper floors, divided vertically into three sections, were decorated with stone and terra cotta.  The two-bay wide central section stole the limelight with carved, draped garlands over blind panels at the second floor, and Renaissance-inspired pediments over the paired windows of the four upper floors.

By 1920 the ground floor space was home to the Modern Dairy Lunch restaurant.  The three-room apartments upstairs were intended for working- and middle-class tenants.   Typical were 75-year-old John Keating, a retired trunk manufacturer, who shared an apartment with his unmarried daughter, Margaret, by the post World War I years.

Dementia was little understood at the time, but from a 21st century perspective it is apparent that John was suffering symptoms by 1922.  He disappeared on June 25 that year after withdrawing $200 from the Franklin Savings Bank on 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue.  It was a significant sum, more than $3,000 by today's standard.  He was found a few days later in the Municipal Lodging House with his money, watch and other possessions stolen.

He wandered off again on September 7, and, according to The Morning Telegraph, "when found later in Bellevue Hospital it developed that he had been robbed and thieves substituted old clothes for the good apparel he had been wearing." 

It happened again three weeks later.  Keating left the apartment on September 29 "wearing a new gray striped suit, a new dark overcoat and a new derby hat and with about $200 in his pocket," according to The Morning Telegraph.  On October 15 he was still missing and Margaret was frantic, worrying that he had again been robbed or worse.  Frustratingly, newspapers did not follow up on the story; although that fact alone suggests he was found safe.

Bernard Ricchebuono and his wife Rosa Helen lived in a second floor apartment here during the early Depression years.  Bernard held down two jobs, working for the Thrift Foundation Plan during the day and selling insurance at night.

The city was plagued with a glut of corrupt vice squad officers at the time and in the summer of 1930 Rosa Helen became the target of one of them.  At around 8:00 on the night of July 29, Bernard left home to make insurance collections.  Rosa Helen later explained that as she always did, she "leaned out of the window and waved good-bye to him, and he walked down the street."  Plainclothes officer Walter B. Ambraz saw this and knew Rose Helen was alone.  

The New York Sun later recounted, "It was a stifling hot night, and she had taken a cool bath and washed out some clothes.  She had washed her hair and to get a current of air for drying it had opened the hall door of her apartment, as all her neighbors did when they wanted the air to circulate."

The rear courtyard of the building was crisscrossed with clotheslines on pulleys.  Rosa Helen was in the kitchen, hanging laundry out the window when she heard someone enter the apartment and close the door.  Assuming it was Bernard, she went ahead with her task.  But when he did not say anything, she turned to face a strange man.

"What do you want?" she shouted twice.

Walter Ambraz accused her of beaconing him in from the window and, as Rosa Helen screamed for him to "Get out!" he attacked.  The New York Sun reported that later in court she said "the man had struggled with her, tried to throw her on a bed, put his hand over her mouth to stifle her shouts for help, and finally had held her against the wall and told her to shut up, that she was under arrest."

Hearing the ruckus, neighbors rushed to the doorway.  Despite their protests that Rosa Helen was a "good woman," Ambraz arrested her for prostitution.  She spent two nights in jail.

Ambraz and six other officers were suspended from the police force the following spring as accusations of similar actions piled up against them.  Both Rosa Helen and Bernard testified in court during the more a week-long trial regarding her arrest.  Newspapers made much of the fact that Rosa's brother was a Roman Catholic priest and her uncle was a bishop in Canada.

Ambraz took the stand in his own defense, telling the jury not only that Rosa Helen had waved him into the apartment after her husband had gone, but "had made a previous appointment with him."  Despite the testimonies of the Ricchebuonos and their neighbors, the jury sided with Ambraz.  On May 29, 1931 The New York Times reported "Ambraz was the seventh former vice squad patrolman placed on trial...and the third to be acquitted, after separate trials."

In the 1930's a grocery operated at street level, replaced by the Merit Paint Supply store in the 1940's and '50's.  The Hyman Photo Supply store occupied the space in the 1960's.

One of the apartments was rented to an "arthritis treatment clinic" in the fall of 1974.  But the description on the lease was not what Playtime was all about.  Advertisements promised "beautiful girls to pamper you" and charged $30 for a 20-minute massage treatment.

Other residents were outraged.  Some of the female tenants were offered jobs as "live-in masseuses," according to the Elmira, New York newspaper the Star-Gazette.  One resident, Eric Eidus, said that "the all-night squeaking heard through the walls made him think the building had rats."  The cause was taken up by 74-year-old Jeanette Acton who led an effort to have the parlor evicted.

On May 12, 1975 the Star-Gazette reported, "there was pleasure aplenty Saturday night around the groaning board at a party in a Grand Central area apartment, but the enjoyment was that of tenants celebrating the eviction of a massage parlor from the building."  In an act of poetic justice, "the tenants spread a smorgasbord over the abandoned massage tables and held a happy but restrained party."  Resident Nash Basom beamed, "It's the first quiet night in months."

Ellen Jane Hover lived in one of the small apartments in 1977.  An aspiring orchestra conductor, the 23-year-old was a graduate of Beaver College where she majored in biology and minored in music.  The New York Times remarked that she had "a reputation for being cautious and responsible."

And so when she disappeared after leaving home for a dinner and theater date on July 15, worried friends notified her mother in Yorktown Heights, New York.  Police were notified, but two weeks later no trace had been found.  Unwilling to wait, Ellen's mother and step-father, Yvonne and Rubin Schwartz, hired private investigator Nat Laurendi, a retired New York City detective.

In her apartment he found the name of the man she was to meet on July 15--John Berger.  He questioned neighbors who recalled that a "tall, shabbily dressed young man with a long pony tail" had knocked on her apartment door that evening.  A friend said Ellen had mentioned a man who matched that description, a photographer, whom she met at an unemployment office.

Missing notices with Ellen's picture were placed in the newspapers and a reward was offered, but the case seemed to go cold.  Then, three months later, on June 14, 1978, Ellen's skeletal remains were found in a Westchester County woodlands above the Hudson River, buried under heavy rocks.

That year Rodney Alcala was Bachelor No. 1 on an episode of the television game show "The Dating Game."  He was introduced to the audience as "a successful photographer."  As it turned out, Alcala's alias was John Berger and he was a serial killer.  In 2012 he was on California's Death Row for killing a 12-year-old girl and four women, including Ellen Jane Hover.  That June he was flown to New York City to face charges of two other murders.

The commercial tenant brought unwanted publicity to the building in 1994 when Federal authorities disclosed "that the Famous Original Ray's Pizza on Third Avenue near 43d Street was actually the headquarters for a major drug ring," as reported by The New York Times on September 15.  The article said, "the pizzeria gang didn't just import cocaine from Colombia to feed New York City's big appetite for drugs.  It also used New York as a transit point to deliver drugs to three longstanding organized crime groups in Italy."

The bust rocked the foundations of all the similarly-named pizzerias throughout Manhattan.  The owners of establishments like the One and Only Famous Ray's of Greenwich Village and the World Famous Ray's Pizza were bombarded with telephone calls.  Rosolino Mangano, who was the actual original and famous Ray, was devastated when he saw the televised news.  "Oh boy, I could not sleep all night," he told a reporter, "I think to myself, I know that's not really my store, but what are other people going to think.  Oh boy."

The handsome 1907 building with more than its share of troubling history is rather abused today.  At some point the cornice was removed, and while the Certificate of Occupancy still shows apartments on the upper four floors, the windows are boarded over.  

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Matt Kay for prompting this post

No comments:

Post a Comment