British actor Maurice Barrymore was a major star on the American stage. Each of his three children, Lionel, Ethel and John, would go on to stellar careers, as well. (As would his granddaughter, Drew Barrymore.) Barrymore and his second wife, Mamie Floyd, lived in a three-story brownstone-fronted house at 210 West 78th Street at the turn of the last century.
On March 28, 1901 Barrymore broke down during a performance, raging with emotional rants until he was taken off stage as the shocked audience looked on. He was committed to Bellevue Hospital. Soon thereafter, Mamie held an auction of the 78th Street house and its contents.
The Barrymore house and the three identical 18-foot wide homes at 206, 208 and 212 survived until 1925 when they were purchased to make was for a modern apartment building. At the time a fascination with the neo-Tudor style was sweeping the country. Anne Hathaway-ready cottages, suburban mansions, and even entire planned communities were being designed in the storybook style.
Architect Louis Allen Abramson joined the trend in designing 210 West 78th Street with a castellated entrance and parapet, rough-faced Flemish bond brickwork, and charming half-timbering. Completed in 1926, the structure rose nine stories plus a single-apartment penthouse unseen from the street.
The building filled with professionals like Henry Mendelson, president of the William Murray Coat Company, and physician Lewis G. Griffin. One resident, however, seems to have been a bit shadier.
Oscar Holub, his wife, Sophia, and their 16-year old daughter were among the initial occupants. Holub listed his profession as an automobile salesman but, in fact, he was in the "wholesale liquor business," as diplomatically worded by the Beacon, New York Daily Herald. More directly put, he was a bootlegger.
He also seems to have been a philanderer. On the night of December 14, 1926, shortly after moving into 210 West 78th Street, he was riding on the Albany Post Road outside of Fishkill, New York with a 27-year-old woman named Margaret Jackson. His driver, Abraham Lato crashed the car, which flipped over, killing Holub instantly. Lato and Margaret Jackson were taken to police headquarters.
Police found $9,000 in cash in Holub's pocketbook--the equivalent of $130,000 today. Margaret quickly changed her identity to the recently widowed Margaret Holub. As Coroner George Logan was taking her statement, another woman walked in, claiming to be Lena Holub--the actual widow. The Daily News reported, "She claimed the body and the $9,000. No sooner did the coroner set about the task of untangling the problem which the appearance of two women created than a third entered his office. This one was Sophie Holub."
The Newburgh News reported, "The problem was too great for Coroner George Logan, and he has turned the money over to Surrogate Southard of Putnam County. The women will have to argue their claims to court." A reporter from the Daily News went to 210 West 78th Street, where the doorman confirmed Sophia's claim.
The tenant list during the 1930's included some fascinating figures. Retired New York police detective Stephen J. Reardon was among them. Because he had worked in the Theater District throughout his career, he was close friends with celebrities, like George M. Cohan. Reardon's portrait by the well-known illustrator Harrison Fisher hung in his apartment here.
At the same time Paul N. Lazarus, Jr., advertising manager of Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., and Robert A Simons, music critic of The New Yorker lived in the building; as did Julius Rosenberg, one of the owners of the American Rug and Carpet Co., his wife, Anna, and their son Thomas.
Anna Rosenberg drew much more attention than did her businessman husband. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency called her "one of those highly efficient modern women of today." Born in Budapest as Anna Lederer, she had been involved in politics since 1922 when she managed the campaign of Walter Hagan for a seat on the Board of Alderman. She also managed the campaigns of State Senator James J. Buckley and Congressman Theodor A. Peyser. In November 1934 she was appointed to succeed Nathan Straus, Jr. as the State National Recovery Administration Compliance Director.
Aside from the untidy issue of Oscar Holub's bootlegging, there was only one instance of scandalous behavior within the building. In 1933 Flo Brown and her "sweetheart," Jimmy Fredericks, moved into an apartment here. Flo was known in Chinatown as Cokey Flo because of her drug habit. Fredericks was the reputed general manager of gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Flo retained her previous apartment on West End Avenue and operated her business from both locations.
On May 23, 1936 the Daily News reported, "A powerful chain of disorderly houses for the retailing of counterfeit love was the dream which Charles (Lucky) Luciano, Public Enemy No. 1, set out to make a reality here. He outlined his ambition before a gathering of his lieutenants and their girl friends in a smoke-filled Chinatown restaurant, one of his feminine party companions testified dramatically yesterday."
That woman was Flo Brown. The newspaper said, "Cokey Flo's nerves twitched for lack of the drugs she has used for five years, but she held the stand all day and proved by far the most important witness yet called."
Flo was asked about the West End Avenue and 210 West 78th Street apartments:
"They were both houses of prostitution, were they not?"
"And were they both five dollar places?"
"No, by that time I had lowered the price to three."
Understandably, Flo Brown and Jimmy Fredericks were no longer residents in 1937.
More upstanding tenants throughout the next decades were dentist Aaron Hirschenbaum; Edward A. Lipton and his wife, Blanche; and attorney-CPA Samuel Yamin. The residents' comfortable lifestyles were reflected in Lipton's mentioning in 1956, "During the winter I live at 210 West 78th Street," suggesting a country home.
The building was converted to co-ops in 1981. In 1990 architect Andrew Tesoro purchased the nondescript, 400-square-foot penthouse apartment which sat upon the roof almost like an afterthought. He wisely negotiated the air rights into the purchase. He enlarged the one-floor space to a two-story structure with a sloping A-frame style copper roof. The triangular shape created a third-floor attic, what Tesoro described to The New York Times journalist Barbara Whitaker as a "kind of treehouse bedroom for my niece and godson." The quirky and delightful structure can be spied from street level at the precise angle across Amsterdam Avenue.
Tesero was also responsible for the the sidewalk outside the building. Rather than using imitation bluestone as was common, the co-op board chose a lighter, limestone color. On October 5, 1997 The New York Times architectural columnist Christopher Gray reported that Tesero "also put in 11 decorative tiles--nine-inch terra cotta colored squares he salvaged from a remodeling job at the 1907 Hendrik Hudson apartment house, at 110th Street and Riverside Drive."
Externally, Louis A. Abramson's charming neo-Tudor fantasy is utterly unchanged since 1926 when the first well-to-do residents moved in.
photographs by the author
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