Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The 1901 Fontenay--310 West 80th Street


When real estate developer Michael Tully purchased the two vacant building plots on West 80th Street near Riverside Drive in 1899, the neighborhood was filling with upscale private homes.  He, however, had other plans for the parcel.  Early in December the architectural firm of James E. Ware & Son filed plans for a "brick and stone flat" at 310 West 80th Street.  It would be only marginally less luxurious that its neighbors, The New York Times reporting that the cost of construction would top $4 million in today's money.

Completed in 1901, The Fontenay was a dignified, reined-in version of the Beaux Arts style.  The entrance, recessed within an elaborate, closed portico was centered in the rusticated limestone base.  The upper floors were faced in ruddy red brick and trimmed in limestone.  The architects' rigidly symmetrical  design included two faceted bays that caught river breezes during warmer months.

Each floor held two apartments of eight rooms and bath.  An advertisement in 1900 boasted, "The woodwork, plumbing and general decorative effects of the apartments excel those of any similar house in the city."  It stressed the "virtual isolation" of the kitchen and servant's room and noted there was a separate servants' entrance and "special servants' toilet" in the building.  Rent for the most expensive apartments was $1,500 per year, or about $4,000 a month today.

There were two mirror-image apartments per floor, each with a private hall off the elevator.  New-York Tribune, September 9, 1900 (copyright expired)

Expectedly, the residents were professionals, like chemist and author Ferdinand Gerhard Wiechmann.  Born in Brooklyn in 1858, he was a chemistry instructor at Columbia University and the author of several academic books.  His wife, the former Marie Helen Damrosch, was the daughter of renowned composer and conductor Leopold Damrosch.

Around 1904 Jacob Henry Rothschild took an apartment.  The son of German-Jewish immigrants, his first wife, Eliza Annie Marston, had died in 1898.  He married Eleanor F. Lewis in 1900, but she died three years later.  A founder and partner in the cloak manufacturing firm of Meyer Jonasson & Co., he later became a partner in Bloomenthal Bros., a similar firm.  He was a member of the exclusive Progress Club and the Criterion Club.

Rothschild had four children, two sons and two daughters.  Both boys were young adults, but certainly Dorothy (known as Dottie), who was 11-years old in 1904, and Helen, who was 16, lived with their father.  (Dorothy, however, was seen little by The Fontenay residents until 1908.  Until then she was enrolled in Miss Dana's Academy in Morristown, New Jersey.)

Jacob Henry Rothschild died at the age of 62 on December 27, 1913.  The funeral was held in the parlor of the Rothschild's Fontenay apartment on December 30.  Reportedly Dorothy told friends she was now "an orphan."  Four years later she married Wall Street broker Edwin Pond Parker II.  Dorothy Parker would become legendary in American literature as a poet, writer, critic and satirist.

In 1912 Richard S. Steinhart and his wife hired a new servant, Sophie Beckendorf.   After working for the couple a few weeks (and living with them), Sophie disappeared.  A handgun belonging to Richard and $500 in jewelry and other valuables also went missing.

On November 19, 1912 The Sun reported, "This girl, who has been in the country two years, managed in that time to get the reputation of being one of the sharpest crooks in the country at the dishonest servant girl game."  The article explained, "Her method was simply to apply for a position as a cook, [and] do work which would lead a family to believe that they had at last obtained a real jewel of a servant.  When suspicion was lulled Sophie would take anything she could find and skip out."

The financial loss that the Steinharts suffered paled in comparison to some other victims.  Sophie Beckendorf was deemed "the dupe" of gangster Henry Vogel.  She turned over to him all the loot she stole.  She was arrested, admitted to the robberies, and gave police information as to Vogel's whereabouts.

The handgun Sophie had stolen from the Steinharts had tragic consequences.  On the night of November 18, 1912, police raided the seedy hotel called the Elsmere Wine and Liquor House where Vogel lived.  Vogel pulled out Richard Steinhart's gun and in the shoot-out that followed, two men--a police officer and a waiter--were instantly killed and three others fatally shot.  Vogel and a girl in the apartment with him committed suicide.

Other residents of The Fontenay at the time were jeweler Harry Z. Oppenheimer, and retired stock broker Jennings S. Cox.  Formerly a partner in John Davis & Co., Cox shared his apartment with his adult son, Arthur M. Cox.

Alfred Lewis and his wife, Ruby, lived here during the World War I years.  Ruby was collecting funds for the Red Cross in the lobby of the Ansonia Hotel, on Broadway and 74th Street, on the night of May 21, 1918, when, according to The Sun, "a man who for several years had been a friend of her family appeared and walked toward the elevators of the hotel."  She had earlier seen him on the street and he ignored her, so she now avoided him.

Another worker approached him at the elevator and he donated $5.  But then he caught Ruby watching.  He shouted at her, "What do you mean by looking at me?  You reported me as a spy."  Ruby attempted to walk away, but he followed.

The Sun reported that Ruby turned and said, "If you insult women that way, you must be a Prussian."  The comment was not well received.  The man spat, "You are a dirty liar!"

Witnessing the affray were several members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team.  Hoping to teach the lout a lesson about how to speak to a lady, they loitered around the lobby.  When he reappeared and he headed for the Broadway entrance, they "hurried past him and were waiting when he reached the street."  The players hailed a taxicab for him, and helped his female companion into the cab.  But then, just as the man was about to get in, "one player stepped forward quickly and shot the stranger a solid blow to his chin.  The man dropped into the gutter."

Ruby Lewis declined to identify the man (who had lost at least one tooth in the ambush).  The Sun added, "she became mysterious when she was asked pointedly whether she had reported him as a spy."

Residents Henry Bernstein and his wife suffered a horrifying incident early in 1923.  Among their friends was Dr. Carl V. Woegerer, a former Austrian baron who had renounced his title to become an American citizen.  The three were crossing West End Avenue at 80th Street on February 23, when an automobile swerved toward them while attempting to avoid a collision with another car.  They ran back onto the sidewalk, but the driver of the car, in trying to drive around them, also veered onto the sidewalk.  All three were hit.  They were taken to the A. R. Stern Hospital on West End Avenue where Dr. Woegerer died.

The Great Depression and World War II years were not kind to the once refined neighborhood.  In 1942 The Fontenay was converted to a single-room-occupancy hotel.  Where there had been just two commodious apartments, there were now 16 furnished rooms per floor.  When it was sold 1946, The New York Times described it as "a furnished rooming house," saying it "contains ninety-four rooms."

Among those living here in 1978 was Charles F. Brown, an unemployed plumber.  He made money by making and selling pipe bombs for $130 each.  The 25-year-old was the victim of a Treasury Department sting on June 19 after a three-month investigation.  Brown arrived at a spot in Riverside Drive at 80th Street that day to deliver five bombs to a buyer.  Two men lounging in the grass, two men sitting in a nearby car, and the buyer were all agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

The dark days of The Fontenay eventually passed and today there are six apartments per floor in the building.  The facade has been cleaned and its dignity restored.

photographs by the author
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