Friday, January 14, 2022

The 1910 Riviera - 790 Riverside Drive


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Construction of Riverside Drive began in 1872.  Snaking along the landscaped Riverside Park above the Hudson River, it saw the rise of lavish mansions that rivaled those of Fifth Avenue.  By the turn of the century, when the Drive had reached 155th Street, high-end residential hotels and apartment buildings had become fashionable among affluent Upper West Side residents.  In 1908 engineer and historian Reginald Pelham Bolton described the area in the Real Estate Record & Guide as suitable "for the highest class of institutional buildings."

Among the flurry of apartment buildings that went up was The Riviera, designed by Rouse & Goldstone for the Riviera Realty Co.  Engulfing 13 building lots between 156th and 157th Street, the Real Estate Record & Guide predicted on March 12, 1910 that "when completed [it] will be one of the largest and most magnificently constructed and equipped apartment houses in the city."  The writer said the location "on the turn of the new Riverside Drive extension," provided "an unsurpassed view of the Hudson and magnificent scenery to the west and northward."

Completed later that year, the Renaissance Revival style, 13-floor structure held 12 apartment per floor, ranging from five to 10 rooms.  Construction cost $1.7 million--or about $47.8 million in today's money.  Residents would enjoy luxurious surroundings.  The spacious entry hall, or lobby, was finished in Bottocino marble with a heavy, plaster coffered ceiling.

A pierced stone parapet originally crowned the structure.  from the brochure The Rivieria, 1910 (copyright expired)

Rouse & Goldstone deftly managed the downward slope of West 156th as well as the massive footprint of the site.  The deep light courts that provided ventilation and sunlight into the apartments gave The Riviera the first impression of four structures.

A marketing brochure boasted:

The arrangement of the apartments is unsurpassed, the parlor, library and dining room being en suite at the entrance of the apartment and separated by glass folding doors.  Bedrooms are entirely apart from the living rooms, thereby insuring quiet and privacy in the sleeping chambers.

Among the cutting-edge amenities were clothes driers in the kitchens, telephones, mail chutes, and "electrical outlets for small electric stoves or heating irons."  On the roof were the laundry and "steam drying" rooms. 
The Riviera filled with a variety of residents.  Among the initial occupants was Edward Rovde Fearn, an advertising agent.  His would be a short residency.  On the night of September 13, 1911 the 21-year-old felt ill and a friend gave him some tablets to help him "straighten up."  He died of bichloride of mercury poisoning in Harlem Hospital two days later.

That year, lithographer Gustave Cerf and his wife, the former Frederika Wise, moved in with their 13-year old son, Bennett.  Frederika was wealthy in her own right, having inherited a fortune from her father, tobacco distributor Nathan Wise.  Bennett became friends with two other teens in the building, Howard Dietz and Merryle Rukeyser.  All three would go on to prominent careers: Cerf would found the publishing firm, Random House.  Dietz became the director of advertising of Goldwyn Pictures and, later, MGM (often credited with creating that studio's mascot, Leo the Lion), and collaborated with composer Arthur Schwartz for decades in songwriting.  And Rukeyser became a well-known financial journalist and author.

What appeared to have been a lamentable accident occurred on December 7, 1913.  Florence McGregor had been an actress, known as Florence Worden, before her marriage to Shubert Theater manager Edger J. McGregor in 1904.  McGregor was a member of exclusive clubs like the Lambs and the Friars' Club. 

That evening the couple argued.  Later McGregor said that Florence, "had been deeply hurt by a conversation at the dining table."  According to him, around 10:00 he realized that Florence had been in the bathroom an inordinately long time.  He knocked on the door and she told him she would be out soon.  After another ten minutes he knocked again, but got no response.

The New York Clipper reported, "The body of Mrs. McGregor was discovered a few moments later by the superintendent of the building in the courtyard.  Death was instantaneous."  Although police appear to have been satisfied that Florence threw herself to her death, modern minds might suspect foul play.  The McGregor apartment was on the second floor.

The comfortable financial status of The Riviera residents was reflected in a law suit filed by Caroline M. Frame in March 1913.  She was the widow of broker Charles P. Frame, who died in 1903 and a granddaughter of Samuel Willets.  Caroline had inherited large amounts from both men.  Now she (and several other women) filed suits against her lawyer, Frederick Prentiss Forster, of Forster & Forster.  She had entrusted him with the administration of her $948,549 estate (more than $25.6 million today) and, according to her, he had absconded with $270,000.

photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of The Museum of the City of New York

Retired merchant J. L. Doherty and his family lived in The Riveria in 1915 with their son and daughter.  That year 24-year old Lionel got into serious trouble.  On April 22, he left Jack's Restaurant on Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street "in an intoxicated condition," according to the New-York Tribune, and got behind the wheel of his automobile.  In his car were two men and three young women.

Lionel made it only three blocks northward before he smashed into a truck at the corner of 45th Street.  One of his passengers, Daisy Hawkins, was taken to the hospital with a broken collar bone.  Lionel was arrested for drunk driving.

J. L. Doherty appeared in court to beg for leniency for his son.  Justice Herrmann was unmoved.  "The situation in New York is dangerous enough for autoists who are sober without having it made worse by drivers who are intoxicated," he said.   Doherty was sentenced to three months incarceration.  Justice Herrmann explained, "We are sending him to prison, not only as a punishment to himself, but principally as a determent to others of his kind."

The New-York Tribune reported, "The prisoner's mother fainted when sentence was passed...Mrs. Doherty was carried unconscious into an adjoining room and there revived."

Ironically, it was Lionel's parents who were involved in a car wreck later that year.  The Dohertys' summer home was near Montclair, New Jersey and on the night of September 26 the couple went for an evening ride.  The following day The New York Times reported, "Oscar Frahn, who has a garage in Park Ridge...heard a crash last evening and ran out to the stone bridge at Glenn and Spring Valley Roads, where he found a wrecked automobile, which had skidded and crashed into the bridge."

In the car with the Dohertys and their chauffeur, Henry Henkle, was "Harry Jackson, a negro living in Allendale, who had been hired there to guide the New Yorkers to Park Ridge after they had lost their way."  Henkle had lost control at the turn in the road.  He was cut on the face by broken glass and Doherty was cut on the back.  "Jackson was hurt so badly he was hurried to the Patterson Hospital," said the article.  Once again Doherty made excuses, telling a reporter, "the accident was due to the condition of the road, which was full of ruts that set the car skidding."

Resident M. E. Berry offered her piano music for social affairs in 1915.  The New-York Tribune, September 19, 1915 (copyright expired)

Former United States Senator Charles A. Towne lived here in 1917.  Now a partner of the law firm Towne & Spellman, The New York Times described him saying, "He has always been noted for his oratorical powers."  On March 3, 1917 his apartment was the scene of his wedding to Alice M. Elkin.  The affair may have raised social eyebrows in New York and Washington, D.C.   While both had previously been married (Alice had divorced Ernest Elkin two years earlier), it was their age difference that was a bit startling.  Towne was 58 years old and his bride was 29.

Another Riviera tenant to have a socially visible wedding was Maria Esther Tallez, the daughter of a Havana sugar plantation owner and niece of the Cuban Minister to the United States, Carlo de Cespedes.  On July 29 1919 she married operatic tenor Eduardo Ferrari-Fontana, who had sung with the Chicago and Metropolitan Opera Companies.  Maria's new husband had a complicated domestic past.

The 40-year-old had married Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Mme. Margarete Matzenauer in June 1912 in Buenos Aires.  According to The Sun, they "lived happily until the outbreak of the war brought conflicting opinions, as she was an Austrian and he an Italian."  He returned to Italy to fight in the war in January 1916, and she filed for divorce.  "The diva alleged misconduct on the part of her husband with two servants," said The Sun.  

The divorce was finalized in January 1919, just six months before Eduardo's and Maria's wedding.  But the terms of the divorce precluded his remarrying in New York, so they had to cross the river to New Jersey for the civil service ceremony.  The New-York Tribune noted, "For the same reason it was impossible to have a church ceremony."

The marble and caen stone clad lobby exudes Edwardian taste.  image via

In 1919 electrical engineer and inventor William Dubillier and his wife, Marie, lived in The Riviera.  The young couple's only child was born in July that year.  Dubillier was the head of the Dubilier Condenser Company, Inc. on Centre Street.  

On the night of January 25 the couple prepared to go to dinner with a friend, Joseph M. Berlinger.   Berlinger arrived at the apartment around 7:o0 and after speaking for a few minutes, Marie (whom the New York Herald described as "twenty-two years old and handsome) excused herself and went into her bedroom.  The New York Herald reported, "Her husband and the guest waited for her reappearance and when after some time she failed to return, the husband went into the bedroom to hasten her.  She was gone, and a window of the room was open."

The New-York Tribune took up the story, saying, "Cries and shrieks from the street caused William Gubillier [sic] to open a window of his apartment on the eleventh floor of 790 Riverside Drive last night and look out.  He saw several persons, among them a patrolman, clustered around the body of a woman that lay on the sidewalk."

Policeman Loughram reported the case as a suicide.  The New York Herald reported, "No possible motive for suicide, however, could be ascribed to Mrs. Dubilier.  Their neighbors in the apartment...declare that they were apparently most happy."  The article noted, "The husband was prostrated by the tragedy and could not be seen during the evening."

Concert violinist and conductor Alexander Bloch and his pianist/accompanist wife, Blanche, moved into The Riviera in October 1922.  The couple had a daughter, Janet, and a son, Alan.  They were on tour when their furnishings were brought from 57 West 87th Street and so a relative supervised the move.  When they arrived at their new apartment about a week later, a horrible mistake was discovered.  Four valuable violins had been left behind.

One of them had been loaned to Bloch by musician and broker E. E. Levenson.  The New York Times said, it "is said to be the work of an Italian master named Montegarcia" and was valued at $2,500, or around $38,600 today.  Another was a family heirloom "which had been in the family of Mr. Bloch for four generations."  When the vacated apartment was checked, there was nothing there.

The New York Times said, "Mrs. Bloch was sure the instruments had been picked up as abandoned property and not actually stolen."  She explained that the Montegarcia violin could not be sold "because a dealer with enough knowledge to place a true valuation on the instrument would insist on a complete history of it."

Living in The Riviera was not inexpensive.  Rents in 1921 ranged from $1,600 to $3,800 per year--or around $4,575 a month for the most expensive apartments.

A peculiar incident occurred on April 28, 1930.   That day 17-year old Selma Seigenfeld, the daughter of Henry (known as Harry) Seigenfeld and his wife, the former Helen Retner, went to school as usual.  But she did not come home.  Selma had never been late or had gone missing, so her parents were understandably panicked.  The following day there was still no trace of her.

In the meantime, the night before Patrolman Manuel Borgoes found a confused girl walking along the Bronx River Parkway.  She was taken to the Lawrence Hospital where she was unable to identify herself, nor remember anything about where she was or where she came from.  The Yonkers Statesman reported, "Doctors said she was not suffering from any injuries, and that there were no marks of any kind upon her.  She complained of a pain in the head, back of the right ear, when the spot was pressed by physicians."

For nearly 24 hours, physicians and nurses tried to pull information from the girl.  Finally, Police Sergeant Elmer Tewey of the Parkway police was put on the case.  He worked on clues like clothing labels and then found an eyeglass case imprinted with an optometrist's name and phone number.  The office identified the glasses as belonging to Selma Seigenfield.

Selma's brother arrived at the hospital to bring her home.  Two days after disappearing, she was resting in her bed in The Riviera apartment.  But while "in an improved condition," according to her brother, she still said she could remember nothing.  The Daily Argus reported, "physicians said they believed she was suffering from amnesia."

In November 1937 two wings of the building were evacuated and extensive renovations begun.  On July 11, 1938 The New York Sun reported, "Alterations to The Riviera, large Washington heights apartment house...will be completed in time for October 1 occupancy."  Architect D. Everett Wald had been commissioned to reduce the size of the apartments in those sections from 7 or 9 rooms to "2, 3, 4 and 6-room layouts," according to an advertisement.  The Sun reported, "formerly composed of fifty-two apartments...[the section] will now contain seven apartments on a floor, or ninety-one in all, which raises the total of suites in the entire building to 191."

The Riviera continued to be home to white collar residents.  Among them were Justice Michael A. Ford and his wife, the former Margaret Rogers.  A son of Irish immigrants, Ford worked his way through Cornell University, graduating in 1902.  He was appointed to the Magistrate's Court by Mayor James J. Walker in February 1930.  His no-nonsense approach to justice was described by The New York Times on August 10, 1944, which said that he was noted for "his paternal attitude toward both the defendants and their accusers, but:

Judge ford was known also to be tough on wife beaters, drunken drivers and the like, but any citizen who lost his temper in dealing with an overbearing policeman found a friend in him.  He once ruled that it was not disorderly conduct to "tell a policeman to go to hell."

One of his signature rulings was over the value of a stolen violin.  It would mean the different between grand and petit larceny.  Judge Ford picked up the instrument and played Turkey in the Straw from the bench.  When he was finished, he ruled, "This is worth $1,000--grand larceny."

Upheaval came in 1964 when The Riviera's management decided to automate the elevators--which since 1910 had been operated by uniformed staff.   The residents sued, claiming that the reduced staff would make the lobby "wide-open to intruders and virtually without security."  The residents lost their case.

The names of residents of The Riviera rarely appeared in newsprint for being arrested.  But that was the case for 21-year old student Alan Egelman on May 21, 1971.  He had joined a rally of 1,000 supporters of the United Federation of Teachers and the Municipal Employees Union outside of Governor Nelson Rockefeller's Midtown office to protest budget cuts.  As teachers' union president Albert Shanker was speaking, a man with a bull horn drowned him out, shouting for a strike.  Several fist fights broke out in the crowd, resulting in four arrests and many more summonses for disorderly conduct.  One of the unfortunate men arrested was Egelman.

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The Riviera still affords the "unsurpassed views of the Hudson."  And although the crowning parapets have been removed and the marble lobby is bereft of the welcoming Edwardian furniture and rugs the occupants enjoyed in 1910, it still exudes a commanding presence. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog
many thanks to reader Bruce Dennis for suggesting this article

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