In 1860 painter John Turner paid $500 each (about $16,000 today) for the lots at 157 through 161 East 78th Street. He and builder Henry Armstrong partnered as Turner & Armstrong to erect three charming, brick-faced houses on the plots. Armstrong was, most likely, responsible for the design. Builders often referred to style books or, simply, relief on their own devices, rather than consulting a professional architect.
The identical two-story, 18-foot-wide homes were influenced by the Italianate style, with tall French windows at the parlor floor and handsome bracketed cornices. A stone stoop originally rose to the entrances.
The homes were completed in 1861, but it was not until 1863 that 157 East 78th Street was sold--possibly a result of the outbreak of Civil War. Henry Shaw paid $4,000 for the residence, about $85,000 today. It is unclear what Shaw's profession was. He retained possession until April 17, 1869 when he sold the house to Jacob Weinman for a stunning profit. The $11,500 Weinman paid would be equal to $225,000 today.
Jacob Weinman was a notions dealer. Notions merchants offered a variety of goods, many of which were related to sewing, like ribbons, buttons, and buttons. But other small items, like collar stays, pocket knives and mirrors were also offered. Weinman's was a large business and he operated three stores, at 149 Duane Street, 486 Second Avenue and First Avenue near 16th Street.
A some point Weinman added a third floor in the form of a stylish, slate-shingled mansard. Its three full-height dormers lined up with the openings of the lower floors.
As the end of the 19th century neared, the Weinmans took in a one or two boarders. Isaac Eisner, a dry goods merchant, lived in the house in 1899, and "Miss M. Krebs" boarded with the family in 1900. She apparently had no living family, at least not in New York. When she became engaged to William S. Eisenberg in June that year, the New York Herald could simply say that "Announcement is made."
Having lived in the house for more than three decades, Jacob Weinman sold it to Dr. George W. Sweeny and his wife, Helen, on April 21, 1904. Sweeny would not enjoy the house especially long, he died on August 3, 1908.
Helen sold 157 East 78th Street to Jacob F. Liebler before the year's end. He resold it to Charles W. Trippe, a partner in the brokerage firm Trippe, Thompson & Co., established in 1908. He and his wife, the former Lucy Adeline Terry, owned and lived in the combined houses steps away at 163 and 165 East 78th Street.
In 1914, Trippe seriously considered demolishing 157 East 78th Street. In April 1914 he hired architect Howard Major, Jr. to design a three-story replacement dwelling on the site. Major placed the cost of construction at about $535,000 in today's money.
But Trippe changed his mind. Instead, he had Major make $7,000 in "alterations." The changes included removing the stoop and installing a Gothic-style entrance at the former basement level. The 1861 French windows were converted to eight-paned replacements.
Major's brick entrance can be seen behind the parked car in this 1941 photograph. via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
The house was leased to Fanny Hart Vail Ashmore. Her husband, Sidney Gillespie Ashmore, had been a Professor of Latin at Union College until his death in 1911.
Fanny came from a prominent family in Troy, New York and maintained a country home in South Ashfield, Massachusetts. With her in the 78th Street house were her two children, Sidney Beckwith, born in 1898, and Betsy, born in 1903.
As World I raged in Europe, Sidney joined the U. S. Army. From July 6 through August 10 he was a private at the "on-duty military training camp" at Fort Terry on Plum Island, New York.
In Sidney's absence, Joseph Newman was renting a room in 1917. He could not have been more different than Sidney Ashmore. The 23-year-old was arrested on June 4, 1917 in a "conscription riot," as described by The Sun. The New York Times said it started out as a "protest against the selective draft law." But after the speeches, "several anarchists and other agitators jeered a passing detachment of unarmed National Guardsmen." When someone called the soldiers "a lot of bums," fighting broke out. Newman was held on $100 bail until his hearing in the Morrisania Police Court.
In the meantime, Sidney Ashmore had been deployed to France with the United States Army Ambulance Service. He returned to East 78th Street following the war. In August 1919 Fanny purchased the house from the Trippes.
Fanny Ashmore died on April 5, 1928 in the 78th Street house. Her funeral was held in St. George's Church two days later. Surprisingly, Sidney became engaged to Frances Grant Titsworth just four months later, in August. The wedding in fashionable Grace Church took place on October 26, despite the groom's being in mourning.
Dr. J. Ives Edgerton and his wife, Lillian, soon moved into 157 East 78th Street. Born in Aiken, South Carolina, Edgerton was an adjunct professor of gynecology at the New York Polyclinic Medical School.
While her husband tended to his medical practice, Lillian tended to her garden. She proudly opened them as part of the Exhibition of City Gardens on May 22, 1938 for the benefit of the Anne Brown Free Kindergarten and Nursery School. Her garden was among five in the category "Where the Owners are the Gardeners," covered by a $2 ticket. The announcement described Lillian's as a "Garden with outlook on two neighboring Gardens (House one of the oldest in this section)."
Dr. Edgerton died on May 8, 1941 "after a long illness," as reported by The New York Times. He was 70 years old. Three years later Lillian sold 157 East 78th Street to author Brendon Gill. In reporting the sale, The New York Sun mentioned, "It contains twelve rooms and four baths."
In December 2016 renovations to the exterior of the house were initiated. Today the awkward Gothic-style entrance is gone. The new doorway is harmonious with the other two houses of the 1861 row, both of which also lost their stoops.
photographs by the author
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