Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Alexander Hummel House - 207 East 17th Street


In 1855 Samuel Schiffer moved his family into the newly-built house at 106 East 17th Street (renumbered 207 in 1865).  Three stories tall, the 23-foot wide residence was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Overall Greek Revival in style, the architect had borrowed the full-height third story, the bracketed cornice, and the handsome ironwork from the Italianate style.

Schiffer was the principal in the wholesale grocery and commission firm of S. Schiffer & Nephews.  An inventory of the house hints at the luxurious decorations and furnishings.  Included were a "seven octave rosewood Piano," rosewood and walnut parlor and bedroom suites, "Turkish lounges," bronzes, paintings and etageres.

In 1871 Schiffer and his wife augmented their domestic staff.  An advertisement in the New York Herald sought, "A young girl to make herself generally useful, in a house where there are two other servants."

Schiffer sold the East 17th Street house to Abraham H. Hummel in 1873.   The bachelor lawyer brought with him his parents, his brother Mitchell, and sisters Bertha and Sophia. 

Moses Hummel had been a peddler in Boston where Abraham was born in 1850.  He and his wife, Hannah, brought the family to New York, where Abraham attended Public School No. 15 on East 5th Street.  

At the age of 13 Abraham had become an office boy for attorney William Frederick Howe.  It would result in an unlikely partnership and an infamous chapter in New York City legal history.  Howe, who was British by birth, had opened his New York law office in 1854, after having served a prison sentence in London for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.  

Howe took an immediate liking to the boy.  In 1908 New York Assistant District Attorney Arthur Train recalled, "Hummel's preceptor took a fancy to him from the start, and from that time until his death always called and referred to his diminutive ally as 'Little Abey.'"  Howe groomed him in law, and pushed to have him admitted to the New York Bar in 1869 at the age of 19.  The two formed a partnership, Howe & Hummel.

Moses died in the house on November 14, 1875 at the age of 64.  A "friend" (almost assuredly Howe) published a "tribute of condolence" in the New York Herald, which was as much an accolade to Abraham as to his father.  It said in part:

He had been an invalid for a long period, during which time his affectionate son Abe had ministered to him with true filial love and never dying affection.  He was much respected by a large circle of endeared friends, who now mourn his loss.

The tribune offered condolences to all the family members, including "the Samaritan Abe H. Hummel."  Moses's funeral was held in the parlor on November 17.

By 1876 Sophia had married and moved out, Bertha was teaching in the Primary Department of Grammar School No. 19 on East 14th Street, and Mitchell was associated with the prominent clothier Hammerslough Brothers.

Abraham was becoming well-known not only in New York, but throughout the nation.  Howe & Hummel made a specialty of finding legal loopholes to obtain the release of murderers, thieves, brothel owners and gangsters.  The firm kept no books, requiring that payments be paid in cash.  According to Arthur Train in 1908, "as fast as the money was handed over they stuffed it in their pockets.  At five o'clock daily the firm adjourned to a near-by saloon, disgorged, and 'divvied.'"

District Attorney William Travers Jerome would call the firm "for twenty years a menace to the community," and decades later it prompted books like the 1947 Howe & Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History and the 2010 Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe & HummelThe National Police Gazette included both men in its 1891 Hall of Fame edition (which was not an honor).

Abraham H. Hummel.  Cosmopolitan, May 1908 (copyright expired)

On January 17, 1891 the New York Herald reported, "The funeral of Mrs. Hannah Hummel, widow of Moses Hummel and mother of Lawyer Abe Hummel, was held at the home of her son, No. 207 East Seventeenth street, yesterday morning."  The Reverend Dr. Gottheil of the Temple Emanuel officiated.  "Dr. Gottheil eulogized Mrs. Hummel, referring to her many noble traits of character and her brilliant attainments.  The coffin was covered with flowers and the house was crowded by friends and relatives."

There would be another funeral in the parlor two years later.  Mitchell contracted pneumonia in the fall of 1893, and died in his room on September 27.

Abraham Hummel sold the house in December 1897 to sculptors Thomas Ball and William Couper.  The New York Times reported that they "will occupy the building as a studio after the completion of alterations."

Hummel moved into a grand home, steps from Central Park.  His famed career would come to a crashing end a few years later.  Howe died in 1902 and in 1907 Hummel was convicted on charges of conspiracy and subordination of perjury in the notorious Dodge-Morse divorce case.  He was sentenced to a one-year term on Blackwell's Island.  The New York Times said, "As sensational in defeat as in victory, Hammel [sic] gave a grand farewell dinner at his mansion at 52 72nd street, just off Fifth avenue, attended by many friends."

After his release he "expatriated himself, keeping his self-imposed exile in Europe," as later worded by The New York Times.  He died in London in January 1926.  His death was not reported for a week, an Associated Press release explaining he had directed, "I don't want publicity when I die; I have had enough in my life."

In the meantime, Ball and Couper made renovations to the house to create an art studio.  The exterior was left almost untouched, other than a striking leaded studio window which replaced the two parlor openings.  No stained glass was used, allowing natural light to flood in.

Born in 1853, William Couper had just arrived in New York after having studied and worked in Europe for 22 years.  He was known as a portraitist, creating busts in the "modern Italian manner," according to The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography in 1907.  Thomas Ball was older, born in 1819, and created more monumental works.  Among his significant works were the statue of Henry Clay for the United States Senate in 1858, the statue Daniel Webster placed in Central Park in 1868, and the equestrian statue of George Washington in the Boston Public Garden.

In 1907 sculptor Chester A. Beach returned to America after studying at the Ă‰cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Couper and Ball leased a portion of 207 East 17th Street for his studio, and he moved family moved into the upper floors.  Later that year Beach won the Barnett prize for sculpture at the National Academy of Design's exhibition.

In 1913 Charles Beach exhibited his The Unveiling of Dawn at the groundbreaking Armory Show in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.  That same year, on November 13, the New York Evening Telegram reported, "Chester Beach, a sculptor, who has a contract for much of the statuary to be used at the San Francisco Exposition, has purchased a studio building, No. 207 East Seventeenth street."  The Record & Guide added, "The house, which was formerly the home of Abraham Hummel, the lawyer, will be used by the buyer as a studio for work on some heroic groups."

Thomas Ball had died in 1911, perhaps prompting Couper and his wife, Elizabeth, to liquidate the property for estate purposes.  He nevertheless, continued to use the studio at least through 1918.  Beach leased space to other sculptors over the coming years, including Amory C. Simons, Berenice Langton and Walter Hancock.

Hancock was born in Philadelphia and in 1925 won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious art scholarship created in 1663 under the reign of Louis XIV.   Although he lived in New York, he remained a member of the Art Alliance of Philadelphia.  That affiliation put him in a most difficult position.

Antonio Salemme was "one of New York's most highly regarded young sculptors," according to The New York Age on May 31, 1930.  He had created a "huge black bronze figure of Paul Robeson, Negro actor and singer, who, according to London cables, has achieved an unprecedented success in England in 'Othello,'" said the newspaper.  Salemme had entered his Robeson statue into the biennial Philadelphia Art Alliance exhibition, but it was refused.

Salemme received a rejection letter, "written by Walter Hancock of 207 East 17th Street, New York."  It explained in part:

A very difficult situation has arisen regarding your beautiful statue of Paul Robeson, which the Sculptors' Committee of the Philadelphia Art Alliance was so eager to have for the exhibition in Rittenhouse Square.  It did not, of course, occur to us that there would be any objection to showing a nude figure of a well-known person.  The executive committee, however, expressed their apprehension of the consequences of exhibiting such a figure in a public square, especially the figure of a Negro, as the colored problem seems to be unusually great in Philadelphia.

Beach's daughter, Nathalie, was artistic, as well.  She studied at Le Grand Verger and the Villa Brillantmont in Lausanne, Switzerland, and then at the National Academy of Design.  She was married to John Ellis McLaury in the house-studio on January 30, 1937.  The New York Times commented, "Her father is a well-known sculptor."

Chester A. Beach (original source unknown)

Indeed he was.  His works were annually exhibited at the National Academy of Design, he was president of the National Sculpture Society in 1926-27, and taught at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design.  He repeatedly won awards for his sculptures and medallions. 

In the summer of 1947 Charles And Eleanor Beach were at their country home, Oldwalls, in Brewster, New York.  Charles died there on August 7 at the age of 75.  It is unclear how long Eleanor remained in the East 17th Street house.

A renovation completed in 1970 resulted in two duplexes.  The configuration lasted until 2013 when a penthouse, unseen from the street, was added, creating a triplex on the topmost floors.

The picturesque house with its amazing history is remarkably preserved after two well-known American artists installed the striking leaded glass window nearly 115 years ago.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Rosario Candela's 1929 75 Central Park West

Unlike Fifth Avenue on the opposite side of Central Park, which was lined with opulent private mansions, Central Park West saw the rise of hulking apartment buildings, or "residence hotels," in the last decades of the 19th century.  Among them was the ebullient Beaux Arts style Chatham Court at the northwest corner of West 67th Street.

The seven-story building had just three apartments per floor--two with 10 rooms and one with eight.  A brochure touted, "Uniformed elevator boy, footman, hallboy, porter and superintendent services are at the disposal of the tenants at all house of the day and night."

The Chatham Court -- from The World's Loose Leaf Album of Apartment Houses, 1910 (copyright expired)

Victorian apartment houses, no matter how well maintained, fell from general favor in the 1920's.  The decade saw multiple structures along Central Park West razed to make way for sleek, Art Deco buildings with modern amenities.   In 1928 Fred T. Ley & Co., Inc. demolished the Chatham Court and hired renowned apartment building architect Rosario Candela to design its replacement.  (Fred T. Ley, whose company would soon be at work constructing the Chrysler Building, formed the 75 Central Park West Corporation for this project.)

Candela's neo-Renaissance tripartite design included a three-story stone base decorated with massive terra cotta masks within brick panels at the third floor.   The nine-story, brick-faced midsection was sparsely decorated.  A single stone balcony at the sixth floor and a sprinkling of stone lintels and keystones on the fourth provided the only contrast to the blanket of brownish-red brick.  The top section was defined by an intermediate cornice and paired three-story stone pilasters at the corners.  Massive stone urns perched upon the capitals of each pilaster.

On September 1, 1929, two weeks before the building was opened and three weeks before the infamous Stock Market Crash, The New York Times reported, "A majority of the suites in 75 Central Park West, 100 per cent cooperative house, being erected by Fred T. Lery & Co., Inc...have been sold from the plans."  New Yorkers had scrambled to purchase the sprawling apartments which ranged from four room and two baths to eight rooms with three baths.  There were also duplex apartments of nine rooms and five baths.  

By today's standards, the prices were surprisingly affordable.  The cost for an eight-room apartment was $26,000 (about $388,000 today) with monthly maintenance of $200 (another $3,000).

The Great Depression little affected most of the well-to-do tenants.  Among them was Bess Masterson Brown, the widow of Paul Brown, Jr., and her son Paul Brown III.  The teen was as wealthy--or more so--than his mother.  Upon the death of his grandfather, tobacco tycoon Paul Brown Sr., in 1927, he inherited $1,180,000--around 17 times that much today.

The 17-year-old attended Worcester Academy in Worchester, Massachusetts where he was a member of the championship swimming team.  He returned home on March 8, 1930 complaining of a boil on his foot. 

Although painful, the somewhat common affliction should have been of little concern.  But infection turned to blood poisoning, which led to pneumonia.  Brown's condition deteriorated until he died in the apartment on March 18.  His funeral was held in the suite the following day.

Actress Barbara Blair lived here at the time.  Born in New York City in 1907, The New York Sun described her as the "blond comedienne of George White's 'Scandals' and often referred to as White's loveliest showgirl."  She took advantage of the building's location to go horseback riding in Central Park.  The pastime resulted in a break from the stage in the spring of 1932 after she was thrown from her horse and spent several weeks in the Reconstruction Hospital recovering.

Only a few months later, on July 27, she was much more seriously hurt.  The day after she was injured in an automobile accident in Bridgeport, Connecticut she was brought home.  A week later, on August 3, The New York Sun reported that she "is still in a critical condition at her apartment, 75 Central Park West, Dr. George B. Donabedian, her physician, reported today."  He added that, "her skull is fractured."

Barbara Blair - from the collection of the New York Public Library

Barbara Blair recovered fully and went on to a motion picture career, appearing in films like the 1938 The Hidden Menace and Bedelia, released in 1946.

Another highly visible resident at the time was John Dalzell Boyd, described by the Citizen Sentinel of Ossining, New York as a "prominent New York architect."  A graduate of Columbia University and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Boyd was a partner in Slattery & Boyd, responsible for buildings like Vernon Hall (today Dow Hall) on the campus of Yale University.  He maintained a "large country estate," as described by the Citizen Sentinel, in Rockland County, New York.

Alexander Konta signed a lease in 1932.  Born in Hungary, he had come to America in 1887 as a young man and was a founder of the Hungarian Loyalty League.  A banker, he had served as Consul General of San Marino and in 1925 was appointed to the State Parole Board by Governor Alfred Smith.

Konta's public reputation had not always been sterling.  During a Senate investigation into the Washington Times in September 1918, "Mr. Konta's name was brought in as the writer of a letter to a German propagandist discussing the possible purchase of a New York newspaper by German interests," as reported by the New York Evening Post.  Konta described that letter as "unfortunate."  Throughout the war he remained under suspicion of being a German sympathizer, but nothing was ever confirmed.

That was nearly forgotten now.  Now retired, Konta had multiple memberships in high-end clubs, including the Manhattan, the National Arts Club, and the Long Island Country Club.  He was a member of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Historical Association.  He would not enjoy his apartment here for long, however.  He died of a heart attack on April 27, 1933.

Another European transplant was renowned violinist Mischa Elman.  Born in Russia in 1891, he had played with the famous Colonne Orchestra when just 11-years old.  On November 3, 1936 the Buffalo Courier-Express said, "The name of Mischa Elman has not failed to this day to bring the multitude to hear him play the music of his masters.  He has just completed a triumphal tour of South America and is about to start on his winter schedule of Carnegie Hall, Boston and Philadelphia after which he will embark for the Orient in January."

Mischa Elman - from the collection of the Library of Congress

Elman and his wife, the former Helen Frances Katten, had two children.  The Buffalo Courier-Express mentioned, "At school in New York are the two Elman children, Nadia, ten, and Joseph, seven, who live with their famous parents at 75 Central Park West."

Apartment buildings along Central Park did not decline as the decades passed and 75 Central Park West was no exception.  Among the residents in the 1970's were the well-known architect Giorgio Cavaglieri and his wife, mental hygiene consultant Norma Sanford Cavaglieri; and trial layer Harry E. Kreindler and his artist wife, Doris Barsky Kreindler.  Examples of Doris Kreindler's works hang in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Collection of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.

Another well-known resident was lawyer and educator Charles S. Ascher, whose wife, Helen Shire, died in 1960.  He was best known as one of America's leading city planners and housing officials.  Not long after graduating from Columbia Law School he had become so fascinated with city planning that he gave up his law practice.  He had been a member of the team of architects, attorneys and developers who created two of the country's foremost experiments in progressive housing: the 1924 Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, and the community of Radburn, near Fair Lawn, New Jersey, completed five years later.

Ascher frequently participated in international conferences.  Although he was retired by 1976, that year he traveled to Habitat, the United Nations International meeting on housing in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The New York Times remarked, "he bunked not with his contemporaries, but with a group of young students who had hitchhiked to the conference."

At some point in the early 2000's the building took the name of its predecessor--Chatham Court.  Although perhaps not so architecturally conspicuous as some of its Central Park West contemporaries, the building holds its own in social history.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Lost New York and Criterion Theaters - Broadway and 44th Street

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

In 1895 New York City's theater district was centered along West 23rd Street.  But that year theater manager and impresario Oscar Hammerstein took a daring step.  On January 12 the Record & Guide reported he had 
purchased ten plots along Broadway between 44th and 45th Street, saying he "will erect a music hall and a theatre, possibly two of them, at a cost that will nearly equal the price agreed upon for the property.  This sale is peculiar inasmuch as the seller stipulates that work shall begin at once upon the proposed buildings."

The site sat within Longacre Square, known mostly for carriage building.  The idea that well-heeled New Yorkers would travel north to the area for entertainment was implausible at worst and surprising at best.  Nevertheless, Hammerstein declared that his creation would be a destination.  He said, "My theater will make a place for itself, because I will give the public what they have never had before."  

On February 16, 1895 the Record & Guide announced he had hired the architectural firm of J. B. McElpatrick & Sons to design his Olympic Theatre.  The firm placed the total cost of the project, including land, at $62.8 million today.

John Bailey McElfratrick was known for his theater designs both in the United States and Canada.  His focus on improving the audience's experience resulted in improved sight lines, fewer aisles and multiple exits.  His Olympic Theatre would be monumental.

from the Catalog of the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)

More than 1,000 men were employed in the construction, which was completed at lightning speed within ten months after ground was broken.  The New York Times reported, "The Olympia is a beautiful, massive gray stone building, extending 203 feet on Longacre Square, 154 feet on Forty-fifth Street, and 101 feet on Forty-fourth Street.  Its material is Indiana limestone, richly carved and ornamented, and it presents one of the most imposing facades on Broadway."

The Olympic was, in fact, three venues--the Olympic Music Hall, the Olympia Concert Hall, and the Olympic Theatre.  One fifty-cent ticket admitted a patron to all three.

Hammerstein had created a one-stop entertainment complex.  There was a lavish roof garden capable of seating 1,000.  On warm evenings, productions could be staged there on a fully-outfitted stage.  Below street level were cafes, billiard rooms, Turkish baths and bowling alleys.  Four large dynamos under the sidewalk provided electricity to the structure, including its elevators.

In his 1896 The Planning and Construction of American Theatres, William H. Birkmire said, "The architecture follows the lines of the French Renaissance period."  He continued, "The main entrance to the three through two massive carved doorways on the street-level in the centre of the Broadway front, leading to the marble foyer.  In the centre of the foyer there are two immense passenger-elevators, which run to the upper floors and the roof-garden.  To the right and left are marble staircases leading to the balconies and box-tiers of the music hall and theatre."

Birkmire made note of the decorations throughout the "immense amusement temple," saying, "The sculptural groups, figures, and designs which decorate the boxes and prosceniums in the various auditoriums make the interior appear very attractive."  In the Music Hall, a massive chandelier hung from a plaster rosette of dancing cupids.  "A heroic female figure upholds the forty-eight boxes, which are all different in design," he said.  

Each of the venues offered a slightly different fare--legitimate theater, music hall variety shows, and "operettic" productions.   The Music Hall, "devoted to vaudeville," as explained by The Sun, was the largest.  The 70-foot wide auditorium had six tiers of boxes, 124 in total.

The Theatre was only slightly smaller, its auditorium being 60-feet in width.  The Sun said, "The finish of the walls, ceiling, and boxes shows a blend of the severity of Greek styles with the more delicate treatment that characterizes the Louis XVI style.

Opening night, on November 25, 1895, was chaotic.  The New Y0rk Times reported, "Oscar Hammerstein had to call on the police last night to help him keep people out of his Olympia.  He had seating room for 6,000; he sold 10,000 tickets."  As the "well-dressed mob," as worded by the newspaper, grew to hundreds and then thousands outside the still-locked doors, tensions grew.  The patrons "finally, with the strength of a dozen catapults, banged at the door of the new castle of pleasure and sent them flying open.  Then the tactics were changed.  They had been those of mediaeval warfare; they became those of the modern gridiron, with nobody to retire the injured from the field."

Policemen were unable to close the doors.  Patrons inside "were packed in denser mass than was ever the crowd at an international wedding," said The New York Times.  Hammerstein shouted "Close the doors!" to which the newspaper said, "He might as well have said, 'Stop the tide!'"

Women's gowns were torn and men's top hats were crushed.  The newspaper said, "Boxes were filled by main force; to reach a seat, one had to be an athlete; to stand...implied torture such as is seldom witnessed at any performance or exhibition for which the public pays."  Eventually order was restored and the performances went on until late into the night.

The mayhem of opening night was followed by horrific tragedy the following morning.  At 9:30 a 10-inch steam pipe running from the boilers to the dynamos burst.  The explosion was heard blocks away and "a big crowd quickly gathered," according to the New-York Tribune.  Tragically, 12 men were seriously scalded.  One died almost instantly and another, 31-year-old Andrew Huggins died at Bellevue Hospital.

Despite the rocky start, as Hammerstein predicted, the Olympia and its three venues became a destination spot.   The 1896 season opened for the Theatre on September 24 with a new comic opera, Santa Maria, written and composed by Hammerstein.  The New York Times reported, "The house was jammed and the audience was particularly good looking and well dressed.  The applause throughout the night was vociferous."

Nevertheless, the explosion resulted in Hammerstein's financial ruin.  He told reporters in January 1897, "In the last year damage suits amounting to over $150,000 have been brought against me, most of them arising from the explosion of a steampipe a day after the opening...For reasons best known to myself, I transferred my Olympic to my wife."

Finally, on November 5 the New-York Tribune reported, "Nobody who knew Oscar Hammerstein and his affairs was surprised to hear yesterday that he had made an assignment for the benefit of his creditors.  Theatrical people have often of late expressed curiosity as to how long Hammerstein could hold out."

The New York Life Insurance Co. foreclosed on the Olympia complex eight months later.  On September 10, 1898 the Record & Guide reported that New York Life had sold the property "to an English theatrical syndicate...for about $1,000,000."  It was a humiliating fraction of the amount Hammerstein had laid out.

Changes would soon come.   The structure was closed and refigured as two theaters, the New York and the Criterion.  On April 25, 1899 The New York Times reported on the opening performance in "that the big place of public entertainment which used to be called Olympia, and is now named the New York Theatre" after "a long and disastrous delay."  The newspaper hoped the changes would be enough "to make the house pay."

But the bad luck of the seemingly cursed complex continued.  On the afternoon of December 7, 1899 auditions were being held for the upcoming "new extravaganza, 'Broadway to Tokio,'" as described by The New York Times.  The show was scheduled to open in January.  Among those auditioning was the Verdi Trio, composed of tenor G. Reis, basso August Wagner, and soprano, Madame Del Costo.   The New York Times reported, "After the trio had rendered several selections, Reis asked the privilege of singing a solo."  He chose to sing "Di Quella Pira" from Verdi's Il Trovatore.  He gave a "clear and clever" rendition "until he attempted to reach the high C," said the article.  

He suddenly grasped for a chair and had to be carried to the manager's office.  In the strain to hit the high note, he had burst a blood vessel in his brain.  The article said, "An attack of paralysis followed."

The foresight of Oscar Hammerstein's bold move to Longacre Square was evident by the end of 1900.  The Record & Guide commented on December 22, "Oscar Hammerstein's Olympia, now the New York and Criterion Theatres, like many of the schemes of that enterprising man, were a little in advance of the times.  Now, however, the pace has been quickened, and one project after another has been announced."  The area that would be renamed Times Square was quickly becoming the new theater district.

On the warm evening of July 25, 1900 a large audience was assembled in the Roof Garden when near a near disaster ensued.   At around 10:00, as Le Belle Rita was "gliding about the stage, a wheel attached to each foot," a fire broke out in the Summer House in a corner of the auditorium.  Le Belle Rita noticed it first and wheeled herself to the wings screaming.  The audience rose, but luckily, panic was averted by the cool-headed employees.  

The New York Times reported, "Ballet girls flying down fire escapes, some in tights, some in street dress, and some in a compromise between the two, and a compromise that was not entirely satisfactory, mingled with the more soberly clad of the New York Theatre roof garden audience last night."

After the fire was extinguished, the audience and the performers returned to the roof.  "There were black eyes and bruised elbows aplenty," said the article, "but, beyond the ready fainting of a few women, nobody was hurt, and the show went on."

In 1902 the two theaters were sold separately.  Famous impresario Charles Froham purchased the Criterion with partners Rich and Harris, while Kaw & Erlanger purchased the New York Theatre, which included rights to the Roof Garden.

Kaw & Erlanger did a massive renovation of the roof, resulting in the Cherry Blossom Grove.  It prompted The New York Times to say on June 17, 1902, "archaeology has so far progressed that we are able to reconstruct the nightly life in the hanging gardens of Babylon."  Nevertheless, the critic found the show uninspiring.  "There was no feature of commanding novelty, no feature of unusual excellence," he wrote.  On the positive side, the gardens were "a worthy pretext for those who wish to drink, smoke, and be merry in an atmosphere relatively cool."

The Roof Garden.  from the collection of the Shubert Archives.

Florenz Ziegfeld took over the Roof Garden in 1907.  It was here he first presented his Zeigfeld Follies.

Oscar Hammerstein got a taste of revenge, of a sort, on November 7, 1910 when he premiered Victor Herbert's comic opera Naughty Marietta at the New York Theatre.   The New-York Tribune said it "won an instant and distinct triumph" and said Hammerstein's "triumph was won in the very home of perhaps his worst reverse, the theatre that was cruelly torn from him nearly at the instant of its completion."

"Mr. Hammerstein built the Olympia Theatre when Long Acre Square was the habitation of bats and wolves," it reminded readers.  "It is said that until last night he had never re-entered his old theatre.  Long Acre Square is now the centre of New York's theatre world, and it welcomed back its father right royally."

In 1915 the New York Theatre was absorbed into the Loew's motion picture theater chain and the Criterion was leased to the Vitagraph Company.  Among that theater's first screenings was The Battle Cry of Peace.  On November 28, 1915 The Sun noted it "is still drawing large audiences."

The Daily News reported on June 8, 1935, "The New York Theatre, and the roof above it, will be dark on Monday for the first time in twenty years.  On that day the legend-laden structure on Broadway will pass into the hands of wreckers."  At 11:00 that morning, just before the demolition began a number of old Broadway performers gathered on the stage for a last good-bye.

The New-York Tribune reported, "Victor Moore will sing a chorus from "Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, in which, as Kid Burns, he made a hit in the early 1900's."  Also there were producer George B. Lederer, actor Gus Edwards, song writer and producer George M. Cohan, and Oscar Hammerstein's son Arthur.  The article noted that the Criterion "is also soon to come down."

Interestingly, seven decades later, in July 2016, demolition crews were working on renovations of the Toys 'R' Us building into the flagship store for Gap and Old Navy.  They uncovered the foundations of the theater and orchestra pit of the Olympia Theatre.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Richard Williamson House - 30 East 2nd Street


Ephraim H. Wentworth constructed a row of handsome Greek Revival homes along the northern side of East 2nd Street between Bowery and Second Avenue around 1835.  Faced in red Flemish bond brick and trimmed in brownstone, they rose two-and-a-half stories tall above basement level.  Solid stone wing walls flanked the stoops.

The first owner of 30 Second Street (the "East" designation would be added decades later) was grocery merchant Richard Williamson and his family.  It appears that in negotiating the purchase Wentworth offered to help rent the Williamsons' former home.  An advertisement on August 26, 1836 offered the three-story house at 220 Sullivan Street for lease and directed those interested to contact either Richard Williamson or E. H. Wentworth.

Richard Williamson & Co. was located at 19 Maiden Lane.  The term "grocery" had little to do with the word we commonly use today.  Williamson catered to the carriage trade, importing European wines and delicacies.  On a single day three separate ads appeared in the New York Evening Post, one touting "Rhenish Wines of the most approved growths and vintages," another announcing a shipment of "Mushroom Ketchup...of a superior quality," and the third advertising "Congress Water, in quart and pint bottles, in fine order, put up in boxes of 2 and 3 doz. each."

Williamson's business was apparently substantial.  On March 8, 1837 he announced the arrival of an enormous shipment of 
champagne.  "1203 baskets of a very superior quality, landing from ship Ann, from Havre, for sale by the quantity, or otherwise."

By the mid 1840's the family of fancy goods merchant Samuel B. Isaacs lived in the house.  He struck out on a new venture in 1848 when he partnered with Adolphus S. Solomons to form Isaacs & Solomons, "for the purpose of carrying on the Stationery and Fancy Good business, and manufacture of Account Books."

In 1855 the family of James D. McMann moved in.  At the time he owned a livery stables on Mott Street, but by 1864 his profession was listed as "liquors" at 597 Broadway.  The nebulous term could mean he ran an upscale wine and liquor store, or a saloon.   

Both of McMann's daughters, Catherine and Maria, were teachers.  Conveniently for them, they both taught in Public School No. 10 on Wooster Street.

At some point following the Civil War years the house was significantly updated.  The attic floor was raised to a full story in the form of a stylish mansard, an important element in the highly popular Second Empire style.  Although the Greek Revival entrance was preserved, the brownstone enframement was mostly removed, and pressed metal cornices were installed over the stone lintels.

The house originally looked like 26 East 2nd Street, to the left.

The widow of Francois Fraprie, owned the house in 1873.  Born Abigail Lang in 1796, she had two sons, George and Stephen.  The Fraprie's first son, Francis Tarradin, had died in 1825 at the age of 11.   Stephen shared the house with his mother.  Never married, he was in the jewelry business at 16 John Street.  

Abigail died in the house at the age of 86 on March 10, 1882.  Somewhat surprisingly, her funeral was not held in the parlor, but at the Church of the Nativity around the corner on Second Avenue.   Stephen remained in the house until his death at the age of 68 on December 16, 1889.

The George and Elizabeth Herrmann next occupied the house.  It was the scene of their daughter Tena's funeral on October 23, 1898.

The once fashionable neighborhood declined in the 20th century.  A renovation to 30 East 2nd Street, completed in February 1949, resulted in small factory and office space in the former home.  Small businesses came and went until 2011 when the building was converted to a total of two apartments.

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Friday, June 25, 2021

The 1850 Mary Bretell House - 113 West 10th Street


When Samuel Milligan purchased a section of the former Sir Peter Warren farm in 1799, Greenwich Village was a rural hamlet.  But by 1835 the population had rapidly increased, caused greatly by the influx of New Yorkers fleeing the yellow fever epidemic.  That year Milligan sold four plots on Amos Street (later West 10th Street) to his son-in-law, Aaron Darwin Patchin.  The two men would work together developing their plots, with Patchin the land surveyor.

In 1848, a year after Samuel Milligan initiated construction on Patchin Place--ten working class houses on a short cul-de-sac branching off of Amos Street--Aaron Patchin extended the project by erecting four houses-and-shops of his own at the entrance to Patchin Place.

Completed in 1850, the corner house was originally numbered 13 Amos Street.  Identical to the other three, it contained a store at sidewalk level and two stories of brownstone-trimmed brick above.  Patchin may have used style books in designing the row.  The understated elements were influenced by the current Greek Revival style.  

The upper floors became home to Mary Bretell, the widow of Edward C. Bretell.  Edward had been a smith, and now Mary made a living selling or making "bellhangings."  Her adult son, Edward, Jr., originally lived around the corner at 2 Patchin Place, but in 1855 had moved in with his mother.   It was possibly his failing health that prompted the move.  He died here that same year at the age of 49.

Apparently Edward Bretell's brothers, Francis and George, were in the lock business with him.  In 1856, the year after his death, both men (along with George's wife) moved in with their mother.  The following year the business, located at 198 Wooster Street, was named Bretell & Brother.

In the meantime, the store had been the butcher shop of Isaac Evans.  In 1856 it was taken over by John E. Recke for his grocery store.

In 1864, with Civil War raging, the population of 113 West 10th Street had decreased by one.  Sarah Bretell was now listed in directories as "widow of George."  And, interestingly, Francis is no longer listed here in 1867.  Mary and Sarah would remain in the house through 1873.

By then Dederick F. Recke had taken over his father's grocery store.  The long tradition would continue when Henry Ludermann moved his grocery in in 1886, followed by William P. Maack.  

Maack became fascinated with hot air balloons in the early 1890's, prompting the New York World to comment that his "ascensions [are] frequent in the neighborhood of Jefferson Market."  On July 9, 1893 the newspaper entitled an article, "Mr. Maack Is A Balloon Crank" and announced, "about 9 o'clock tomorrow night he will send skyward one seventeen feet tall inflated with gas."

The article said he had started his experiments on the Fourth of July with a 13-foot tall balloon that carried a red lantern.  His second trial ended disastrously.  On July 7 he announced he would sent another balloon skyward at 9:00.  "An hour before the appointed time the corner of Greenwich and Sixth avenues was crowded," said the New York World.  But high winds foiled the flight, driving the balloon "against a telegraph wire" where it was "consumed by fire."  Undaunted, Maack sent for a second big balloon and within two hours the crowds were rewarded as it rose above Greenwich Village.

Maack's aeronautical experiments sparked his creativity.  The New York World reported, "It is also proposed in the near future, when the breezes get stirring enough, to send up a monster kite from Patchen [sic] place ornamented with lanterns." 

Samuel Mulligan's extensive real estate holdings were liquidated at auction in May 1896.  The family was apparently not eager to relinquish the charming Patchin Place, however, and on May 14 The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Patchin and Mrs. Dorsheimer obtained at $81,000, the property at 113 West Tenth Street, and the land and buildings in Patchin Place."

Mark Alter lived at 113 West 10th Street at the turn of the century and ran his law practice from the address.  He remained at least through 1908.

The space was still a law office in the 1930's, but it was much less respectable than Alter's.  Jesse Jacobs' office was a meeting place for organized gangsters.  It played an important part in courtroom testimony of Peter Balitzer in 1937.  He described a meeting here two years earlier.  Colorful names like Tommy Bull, Hungarian Helen and Gypsy Tom were mentioned, along with familiar names like Davie Betillo, Jimmy Fredericks and Abie Wahrman.

Balitzer testified in part, "Well, another argument come up about the joints again.  They said the bookies were positively holding out joints; that there was about 30 joints that were off the list, that they have no accounting for."

More respectable during the second half of the 20th century were the tenants of the store space.  In the 1960's it was home to the Washington Square Book Shop, and in the 1970's to The Mad Monk.   That store sold one-of-a-kind pieces like hand-thrown pottery.  Most recently the space was The Common Ground, a Native American and African Art shop.

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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Engine Company No. 26 - 220 West 37th Street


The volunteer Protection Engine Company No. 7 occupied the firehouse at 220 West 37th Street until 1865 when the Metropolitan Fire Department was organized.  The house then became home to the Metropolitan Engine Company, No. 26.  In 1870, the Fire Department's Annual Report showed a roster of 10 fire fighters.  Housed within the station was a "steamer second size, built in 1867" and a "two-wheeled tender, improved pattern, with seats."

The city invested invested $4,200 (about $132,000 today) in  1895 to rebuild and modernize the firehouse.  It was at that time that the building acquired most of its present appearance.   It followed the tried-and-true configuration of fire houses--a cast iron base with a centered truck bay supporting, in this case, two stories faced in brick and trimmed in stone.  A tidy Italianate metal cornice--somewhat past its prime in architectural favor--finished the design.

Nineteenth century firefighters faced significant problems--lax building codes, stables filled with combustible materials like hay, and the volatile illuminating gas plumbed into almost every building in the city.   It was the latter that put the members of Engine Company 26 in peril on May 25, 1894.  The men were called to a smoke condition at 217 West 35th Street--a four story tenement with a grocery store at street level.

The tenants all made it out of the building, which had filled with black smoke.  Yet initially there was no other sign of fire.  The Evening World reported, "The members of Engine Company No. 26 finally found a fire smouldering among a lot of coal and wood in the cellar.  They had only been in the cellar two minutes, throwing a stream in the direction the fire seemed to be, when one of the men crept up the stairs on his hands and knees."

That man was Captain Andrew Gaffney.  He made it to the first floor before losing consciousness.   Right behind him was another man who, too, was overcome.  Eventually five fire fighters were carried unconscious to the street.  All were taken back to the station house to recover.

A later investigation found gas had been leaking from a meter in the basement of the baker's shop next door.  The Evening World reported, "In some manner, it is thought, the gas caught fire, and that the combination of gas and smoke was too much for the fire fighters."  That there was not an explosion is nearly miraculous.

Keeping his men in line was not always easy for the foreman of any fire house.  On October 14, 1896 The Evening Post reported, "Patrick J. Brennan of Engine Company No. 26 was fined five days' pay for intoxication, as was also John F. Fitzgerald of the same company, on the same charge."  Simultaneously, James W. Kelly was AWOL.  On October 1 he had been granted a five-day leave of absence, but never returned.  His wife said he went to Boston on October 8, and she had not heard from him since.  "The foreman thought Kelly had debts he was unable to meet," reported The Evening Post.  "The Commissioner decided to dismiss him."

The station got another update in 1906 when the city commissioned architect Alexander Stevens to extend the building to the rear, add skylights, and new toilets.  It was a major interior renovation, amounting to more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

It was not lighting gas, but ammonia fumes, which proved dangerous in a fire at the five-story Volunteer Meat Market at 573 Eighth Avenue on February 26, 1907.   The refrigeration plant in the cellar used the gas and when fire broke out there, the lines were broken.  This time the fire fighters were in even greater peril than at the 1895 fire.

Engine Company 26 was the first to arrive at the scene.  Captain Carlocks "broke his way through a huge door into the cellar," reported the New-York Tribune.  "Fireman [Albert] Dann went in after him.  He was overcome at once by ammonia fumes and died a few minutes later in a streetcar which had been turned into a temporary hospital."

One-by-one the other fire fighters were overcome.   And yet, the stalwart men managed to extinguish the fire before it could spread above the cellar.   Nine other fire fighters were transported to hospitals gravely ill, one barely clinging to life.  The article said, "At Bellevue Hospital it was said that Baker could not live much longer."

Motorized fire trucks required upgrading station houses across the city.  In March 1908 architect Edward L. Middleton filed plans for improving Engine Company No. 26, "including the installation of steel and concrete floors to support the apparatus and the building of a new hose loft," reported The Sun.

All fire companies, it seems, had a mascot and Engine Company No. 26 had Kid, "a large coach dog," as described by the New-York Tribune, which came along in 1898.  In 1904 the company's engine driver, Samuel Chapman, was the only member of the company to travel to Baltimore to help fight what would be known as the Great Baltimore Fire.  When he was asked to return to lead the city's parade, he took Kid along.

The New-York Tribune reported, "Before the procession ended Kid fled."  Unbelievably, three days later Kid appeared at Chapman's doorstep in the Bronx.  He never returned to the 37th Street station house, the New-York Tribune opining, "The life of a fire mascot evidently became too strenuous for the old monarch."

The void was filled on May 25, 1913.  The newspaper reported, "Another coach dog, younger and smaller, but otherwise much like Kid, walked into the engine company's home yesterday and acted as if he would like to stay.  In a few hours he was unanimously accepted as mascot, being dubbed Deacy, after one of the men to whom he seemed to take a special fancy."

By the 1920's the neighborhood around Engine Company No. 26 was seeing the rise of business buildings, creating another challenge for fighting fires.   On July 6, 1921 fire broke out in the McCall Company building, almost directly across the street at 232-234 West 37th Street.  It took three companies an hour to extinguish the blaze, during which 15 fire fighters were overcome, four of whom were rescued unconscious.

Similarly, when the men of Engine Company 26 rushed to the eighth floor of a West 39th Street building the following  year in September, they discovered 20 fire fighters from Hook and Ladder Company 21 "stretched out on the floor of the room."  They were all carried unconscious to the seventh floor where doctors from Bellevue and New York Hospitals worked on them, despite the burning conditions above.

New York City's Garment District was fully ensconced in the neighborhood by the second half of the 20th century.  The men of Engine Company No. 26 now had a much different problem with which to contend--traffic.  On May 26, 1983 David W. Dunlap, writing in The New York Times, reported on the worrying issue.  "Fire officials said that, for example, it was not unusual for the members of Engine Company 26, 220 West 37th Street, to go out on foot to avoid garment-center traffic."

The July 16, 1990 Empire State Building blaze was the most notable high-rise fire the company responded to to date .  The four-alarm fire broke out around 6:30 that evening.  While it was confined to the 51st floor, smoke and water affected at least 10 others.  Lt. George Lonergan of Engine Company No. 26 told a reporter, "We are very fortunate this was after business house.  It was a very difficult fire and could have been a real tragedy."  Nevertheless, before it was extinguished, 38 people, including 31 firefighters, were injured.

Of course, the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 were the most significant event the company would respond to.  Among them that morning were Captain Thomas Farino and 29-year-old Firefighter Dana Hannon.  Tragically neither would return.

In the spring of 2011 the Bloomberg administration was trying to find ways to fill a $600 million budget gap.  A list of 20 fire companies "it is considering closing" was published on May 5.  Included was Engine Company 26.  In a statement the Mayor said, "It will be great to have a firehouse or company on every corner, but that's not the real world."

Engine Company 26 squeaked through the elimination process and survives today, a Victorian anachronism among soaring commercial business.

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