Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The John E. Burris House - 38 West 94th Street


By 1888 the 64-year old Increase M. Grennel was well-known in New York City real estate circles.  He most often worked as a one-man operation--acting as developer, builder and architect.  That year, on February 25, The Record & Guide, noted that Grennel "intends to erect about ten private dwellings on the south side of 94th Street."  The journal's estimate of 10 houses was based on an expected width--especially in this upscale neighborhood just off Central Park West--of 20 feet.  But Grennel squeezed in two more residences by shaving two feet off the width of each plot.

The long row was completed the following year, a playful collection of Queen Anne style houses splashed with elements drawn from a historic grab bag.  No. 38 was a bit more somber than most of its neighbors.  Romanesque Revival influences appeared in the rough-cut cladding of the basement level and stoop, in the chunky, undressed quoins and keystones of the windows, and in the pensive Viking portrait of the entrance keystone.   The double dormers of the slate-tiled mansard, with their pressed metal pediments (now replaced), were pure Queen Anne.

It became the home of the well-to-do R. W. Myer family, who maintained a summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey.  Two grown sons lived with their parents, one of whom, Alfred J. Myer, joined the well-known Pach photography studio as an assistant operator in 1880.  A young woman, Georgiana Hilke, also worked in the studio.  The World commented, "Those who came in daily contact with Myer say that he was much in love with Miss Hilke."

Early in 1895 Alfred was diagnosed with heart trouble following a frightening attack.  He recuperated at the home of his physician, Dr. Anna G. Hilke.  It was most likely not a coincidence that Dr. Hilke was the sister of Georgiana, who also lived there with their mother.  

Alfred soon returned to work and on Saturday afternoon, February 16 he was taking a group photograph of Columbia University students when a fire broke out elsewhere in the studio.  "Miss Hilke was the first to give the alarm and ran into the room where the young operator was at work," said The World.

The following Monday, Myer returned to the studio, and "spent most of the day among the ruins."  Afterward he went to the Hilkes house where his already odd behavior became problematic.  "He attempted to embrace Miss Hilke and threatened her mother and the doctor," said The World.  He became violent to the point that the women called for help.  After a few men quieted him, Myer's brother was called for who took him home to the West 94th Street house.

The next morning, at around 6:30 Alfred again became violent.  The family was forced to call an ambulance and he was put in a strait-jacket and taken to the Manhattan Hospital.  The World entitled an article "Photographer Insane" and reported, "He was removed to the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital and will be committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island to-day."  The prospects for a young man committed to an insane asylum in the 1890's were grim.

The house soon became home to Dr. John E. Burris and his wife, Catherine C. (known as Kate).   Born in 1849, Burris had served in the Civil War and received his medical degree in 1876.  The couple had a daughter, Madeline Grace.  A twin, a  boy, had died during childhood.  

Like many well-heeled families, the Burrises took in a boarder.  Living with them in 1899 was stockbroker William H. Leaves who had recently separated from his wife.  Leaves was despondent over his marital problems.  On October 13, 1899, the Morning Telegraph reported, "Leaves, who is about 50, came home last night delirious from the effects of liquor.  He raised a great disturbance and went through the house, shouting and pounding on the doors."  He was finally quieted and put to bed.  But early in the morning he started up again on the stoop.  "In the interests of comparative quiet, Mrs. Burris succeeded in getting Leaves back to his room, on the third floor front," said the article.

The Burrises got him back to bed and had barely reach the parlor floor when Leaves began calling for the doctor.  They rushed back up to find he had slashed his throat with his razor.  The Morning Telegraph noted that he had "considerately held his head over his washbowl when he used the razor.  His shirt front was somewhat mussed up, though."

Leaves was not fatally injured and he was removed to J. Hood Wright Hospital.  The Burrises apparently began looking for a new boarder.

Kate's name appeared in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons in the spring of 1902.  The New York Herald reported on March 6, "Complaint was made by wealthy residents in West Ninety-fourth street last Monday to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that a little girl was being badly treated in the house of Dr. John E. Burris, of No. 38 West Ninety-fourth street."

A special agent had canvassed the neighbors, who told him that "the girl was forced to do most of the hard work in the house, and that she was cleaning the brown stone steps of the stoop Tuesday, when Mrs. Burris came out and kicked her," as reported by the New York Herald.  Agent Fogerty went to the house and was taken down to the kitchen to see the girl.  "There, perched upon a chair, stood a girl, who looked to be ten or eleven years old.  Her head was abnormally large and her body small and thin.  Laboriously she was washing a large pile of dishes, which were placed on a table beside the sink.  Whether the child had been brought up in ignorance or was demented Fogerty was unable to say," said the article, "but he found to his surprise that she could not even count her fingers, that she did not know how long she had been at the house, or where she had come from."

According to the New York Herald, the girl went along with Fogerty "with much pleasure" to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  A reporter knocked on the door of No. 38 West 94th Street that evening where "he met a man who said he was Dr. Burris, but who refused to make any statement."

Grennel's row was a variety of materials and styles.  The Burris house is at the far right.

Dr. John E. Burris died in the house on September 10, 1914 at the age of 68.  Kate, who received the bulk of his estate estimated at around $4 million in today's money, remained in the house and their "palatial" country home, as described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Madeline Grace was married by now, the wife of William H. Witte.  They lived on what The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described as a "small farm at Junction and Jackson avenues, Long Island City."  In the summer of 1917 Madeline fell ill and Kate temporarily moved in with the Wittes to take care of her.  Before long it was she who needed the help after she suffered a stroke which confined her to a wheelchair.

When Kate's sisters, Maria Sullivan and Georgiana Zeiner, learned that an attorney had been called to the Witte residence to amend Kate's will, they flew into action.  Fearing that they had been cut from the will, they sued.  It was the start of a very ugly court case.  

On September 21, 1917 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the sisters' testimony that following Dr. Burris's death, Kate "gave herself up to the influence of drugs and drink," that the Wittes held her prisoner in their home where she lived "in fear and dread," and that they had forced her "by fraud and deceit" to bequeath her entire estate to them.

Most shocking, though, was Georgiana's testimony that Madeline Grace was not even Kate's daughter.  The New York Times said she testified that "thirty-two years ago Mrs. Burris practiced a deception upon Dr. Burris by getting new-born twins from a mid-wife which she made the doctor believe were her own children."  The idea that a medical doctor would not have examined his own wife at any time during her pregnancy was ludicrous, of course.  The New York Times continued, "When this testimony was given Mrs. Burris could hardly be restrained.  She tried to get out of her invalid chair to reply to her sister."

Kate, now 70-years-old, was compelled to be wheeled into the Queens County Supreme Court on October 19, 1917 for a competency hearing before a jury.  The following day The New York Times reported that she had been declared sane and that the court dismissed the sisters' story of the substituted twins.

The West 94th Street house was sold to merchant Moses Greenewald.  His residency was short-lived and by the early 1920's the house was operated as a private boys' school.  According to the Daily News, Professor William L. Leonard "gives special tuition for Annapolis and West Point entrance examinations."  

Leonard's students came from prosperous families and were well trained in proper demeanor.  But that all gave way to chaos on the last day of the term on April 17, 1923.  The Daily News reported, "To celebrate the occasion the fifty boys...gave a display of egg-throwing and furniture smashing which upset the whole neighborhood."  The situation became an outright rampage.

"Policeman Joseph Epstein, who ran to the school on hearing the riot, was greeted with an egg," said the article.  "A chair followed, but he dodged."  Four boys were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.  One imagines that the punishment they received at home was as bad or worse than that meted out by Magistrate Goodman the following Monday.

In 1927 the school closed and sisters Camile F. and Alice S. Gerrard leased the house with an option to buy.  Instead it was purchased by Frank Barbieri in 1930, who resold it the following year to Alfred W. Herzog.  It appeared for a while that the end of the line for the former Burris house was on the horizon.

The cornice was lost and pressed metal pediments replaced in the 20th century

Herzog simultaneously purchased No. 36 next door.  He already owned Nos. 40 and 42, giving him a 71-foot long frontage--a potential site for an apartment building.  If Herzog intended to redevelop the parcel, it never came to pass and No. 38 survives as a single-family house.  The exterior appeared as the home of Jodie Foster's character in the 2002 film Panic Room.

Jodie Foster's character climbs the stoop in a scene from "Panic Room."  photo via brickunderground.com

photographs by the author
LaptrihX.com has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment: