Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Nahan Franko House - 296 West 92nd Street


Architect Clarence F. True rarely practiced outside of the Upper West Side district.  After having worked in the office of Richard M. Upjohn, he opened his own office in 1884 and within a few years was the most prolific architect within the developing neighborhood. True worked in historic styles, often playing with period accuracy either to create a slightly lighthearted air or simply to conform the structure to modern tastes and needs.  

His success was such that by the early 1890's he acted as his own developer for some speculative work.  Such was the case in 1894 when he designed an 18-foot wide residence at 296 West 92nd Street.  True loosely drew his inspiration from Elizabeth architecture, but the resulting structure was purely 1890's.

The English basement and parlor levels were faced in brownstone.  The lintels of the parlor windows were given graceful ogival arches and the entrance sat within a pointed Gothic arch.  Carved ribbons fluttered from a heraldic shield above the doorway.

The contrast between limestone and brownstone is lost under a coat of white paint.

Limestone shared the stage with brownstone in the two-story midsection and the windowless attic floor.  By extending the lines of the pointed pediment atop the roofline, True tricked the eye into seeing a full-height gable.

On January 16, 1894 Clarence True sold the house to Louis and Rosalie Bowsky.  Louis was an engineer whose office was nearby on West 87th Street.

The city had trouble keeping up with the infrastructure of the rapidly developing Upper West Side and Bowsky's clients found themselves sometimes stepping through mud to get to his office.  On August 20, 1901 he joined influential property and business owners--including Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark, Peter Gilsey, and Alexander Walker--in signing a petition to the Municipal Assembly asking "that the carriageway of [87th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue] be repaved with asphalt pavement."

He would be dealing with a problem much closer to home on February 18, 1904.  At around 4:00 that morning one of the largest water mains in the city broke at Broadway and 92nd Street.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Several basements were flooded, so that the water reached the ceilings.  Chairs, tables, trunks and everything that would float was carried by the water from room to room and windows were broken and walls injured by the contact of hard objects against them."

The article noted, "The house at 296 West Ninety-second street is owned by Louis Bowsky, engineer and inventor.  The water here rushed through from the rear yard, which was boxed in, and entered his private parlor, damaging relics and valuables.  The cellar was also flooded."

The following year, in October, Bowsky sold the house to well-known violinist and conductor Nahan Franko and his wife, German actress Anna Braga.   Born in New Orleans on July 23, 1861, Franko was a violin prodigy who toured the world with Adelina Patti at the age of 8.  In 1883 Franko became the concert master of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and a year before purchasing the 92nd Street house he was made its conductor.  His salary for the eight-month 1904-05 season was $4,045--or about $120,000 today.

The Frankos' housewarming was an event.  On November 12, 1905 The New York Times reported, "Nahan Franko was happier last night than a young girl in a conservatory whose instructor has acknowledged at least that she has taken high 'C' and sustained it as he would have her.  He ran up and down the stairs of his new home, 296 West Ninety-second Street, singing."

The party began at 11:00, conveniently after the closing curtain for the couples' musical guests.  The article said the neighbors soon realized that the night "promised grand opera, opera comique, and songs by singers of international repute...The neighbors sat at their windows in their furs to hear four tenors and twice as many bassos sing."

The New York Times listed three dozen celebrated musicians by name, including Enrico Caruso, conductor Willem Mengelberg, Antonio Scotti and Otto Wehl.  "The neighbors heard the popping of corks.  Selections from 'Goterdammerung' filled the streets with bass harmony.  There were 'Hochs' for this, that, and the other, mostly for the host.  There were vivas and bravos, too, now and then.  Then every man tried to imitate a trombone in rendering 'Oh, Thou So Fine, the Evening Star.'"  The party lasted until dawn.

Anna settled into her social routine in the new house.  On December 17 the New York Herald announced, "Mrs. Nahan Frank, of 296 West Ninety-second street, gave the first of her at homes for this season on Friday last.  Mrs. Franko will also receive on January 12 and February 9 from three until six o'clock in the afternoon."

In 1907 Franko left the Metropolitan Opera to form his own ensemble, the Nahan Franko Orchestra.  It performed regularly at the Plaza Hotel and at private, opulent balls in Newport and Manhattan mansions.

Franko had a well-publicized temper, one which often got the best of him.  On April 26, 1906, for instance, The New York Times reported on a incident at Grand Central Depot.  Franko was returning from San Francisco and Anna was at the station to meet him.  She was not permitted to pass through the gate leading to the inner platform.

"She protested, but the guard was obdurate.  When the train came in, Mrs. Franko, catching sight of her husband, ran to greet him.  The guard caught her by the arm," recounted the article.  Seeing his wife struggling with the guard, Franko dropped his satchel and rushed to her defense.

"He struck the guard, who struck back, and was soon joined by another guard.  There was trouble for half a minute.  Then explanations followed.  Nevertheless Mr. Franko said that he would do his best to have both of the guards arrested."

Two years later Franko attempted to break through the police lines to cross Fifth Avenue during a parade celebrating the 100th anniversary of the New York Roman Catholic Diocese.  When Patrolman Edward Xenodochious blocked his way, Franko became combative and was arrested.  At the station house he refused to apologize to the officer, preferring to pay the $2 fine instead.

Franko filed a complaint against the policeman and they appeared before Police Commissioner Hanson on May 12.  According to the New-York Daily Tribune, Franko charged that he was "grabbed roughly and shoved back" by Xenodochious.  He said that the wife of a prominent businessman would have testified on his behalf if her husband had not objected to the notoriety.

Xenodochious denied the charges, and said, "Why, Mr. Franko thought that he would have two hundred witnesses marching to the station house behind him, with slow music being played."  The jab was too much for the conductor.

"You have no right to comment on my profession, I would not exchange mine for yours.  Mine is more intellectual," he spat.

When he had restored order, the Deputy Commissioner made his decision.  "This complaint is dismissed.  You have lost your temper here probably in the same way that you lost it when the patrolman prevented you from going through the police lines."  Nahan Franko stormed out of court grumbling that "he could get justice nowhere," said the article.

Franko conducts his orchestra at the Sheepshead Bay Speedway on August 31, 1918.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

The Frankos continued to host glittering entertainments in their West 92nd Street home.  On February 19, 1911, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Nahan Franko, the musician, gave a reception and supper last night at his home, 296 West Ninety-second Street, to a number of his friends."  Among the musical celebrities present were Mr. and Mrs. Victor Herbert, Mr. and Mrs. Gustav Mahler, and Metropolitan Opera stars Andrés Perelló de Segurola and Giuseppe Campanari.  Others on the guest list were Mrs. Randolph Guggenheim and the German writer and expert on Richard Wagner, Baron Hans von Wolzogen.

In the spring of 1930 Franko suffered a stroke as he approached his 69th birthday.  He was left partially paralyzed and unable to speak.  He was taken to a sanitarium in Amityville, Long Island where he died on June 7 of a blood clot on the brain.  In reporting his death, The New York Times called him "one of the most colorful figures in local music circles during the last half century" and said he "met with varied experiences, which included shipwrecks and cyclones."

Although Anna Franko retained possession of 256 West 92nd Street, she left in 1937 and leased it to The Apostolic Faith Christian Church.  She moved to 55 West 94th Street, a few blocks closer to Central Park.  

On September 11 the following year Anna attended a musicale at the home of Mrs. Hugo Lieber.  The New York Times reported, "She collapsed during the evening and died before a doctor could arrive."  The article said that patrons of the old Irving Place Theatre, "will remember her as Anna Braga, the beautiful German-speaking actress, who reigned as leading lady there for many years."

In the early 1940's the unpainted facade still retained its upper floor carvings.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Apostolic Faith Christian Church continued to occupy the former house.  It applied for permission to install an electric sign on the building in 1938.  It remained here until the early 1950's when the property became home to the New York City branch of the United Pentecostal Church.

At some point the dual-colored stone facade was given a coat of white paint, disguising Clarence F. True's purposeful contrast in colors, and the intricate carvings of the top floor were shaved off.

Happily, the decorative carvings at the parlor level were preserved.

The house was returned to a single family residence in 2000.  Surprisingly, a few of True's 1894 interior details survive.  It was recently sold for just over $6 million.

photographs by the author
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  1. Unless they were ugly as sin, I can't see how removing the "intricate scrollwork" could improve a facade.
    Photo caption: "Frank" to "Franko".