Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Ralph S. Townsend's 1900 303-305 West 80th Street


Architect Herbert Spencer Styne-Harde (who most often dropped the "Styne" from his surname, professionally) would partner with Richard Thomas Short in 1901 to form the firm of Harde & Short.  They would be responsible for 
lavish apartment buildings, like the Alwyn Court and Red House.  

But three years before that partnership began, in the summer of 1898, Harde began a significant project with Charles H. Lowen to erect two apartment buildings at the northwest corner of West End Avenue and 80th Street.  Surprisingly, the men hired Ralph S. Townsend to design the structures, with the plans listing Styne-Harde merely as "associate architect."

Completed in 1900, 303-305 West 80th Street was the little brother of the larger corner structure.  Narrower and one story shorter, it was architecturally harmonious with an identical enclosed portico, Roman brick and limestone facade, and rounded bays.  Townsend flexed the Italian Renaissance motif with heavily carved classical pediments at the third floor a romantic stone balcony at the fourth. 

There were two apartments per floor in the new building, containing either seven or eight rooms.  They filled with well-to-do residents.  Among the first was Peter Gilsey, the grandson of hotelier Peter Gilsey.  Although only 22 years old when the building opened, Gilsey was a highly-successful real estate operator and partner in Gilsey Brothers.  In 1903 The Finance and Commerce of New York and United States said, "Among the properties the firm controls are a number of large hotels, office buildings and apartment houses in the city, most of them situated along Broadway."

Peter Gilsey.  from The Finance and Commerce of New York and United States, 1903 (copyright expired)

In 1873 the British Consul to the United States, Thomas Henry Whitney, married Lucy Williams Hallam.  He had co-founded the firm of Suzarte & Whitney in 1877.  The wealthy importer died in their home on West End Avenue in February 26, 1907.  Lucy almost immediately moved into 305-305 West 80th Street.

Somewhat surprisingly, mourning did not get in the way of Lucy's many social activities.  On April 3, only five weeks after Whitney's death, she headed what The Indian's Friend described as "a Programme Meeting of the New York State Chapter of the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association" at Duryea's restaurant.  The group had been founded in 1900 with the sole purpose of preserving the cliff dwellings of the Mesa Verde area.  That afternoon, the new song The Breath of the Forest was performed, and the article advised, "This beautiful song can be obtained from Mrs. Thomas Henry Whitney, 303 West Eightieth Street, New York City.  Price 75 cents."

Lucy was proud of her deep American roots and was a member of the Colonial Dames, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Society of Mayflower Descendants (she descended, in fact, from three Mayflower passengers).

Equally visible in club and charity work was Mary Farrell Lerscher, the wife of John N. Lerscher.  Lerscher had been a clerk in the Supreme Court since 1890.  Mary was treasurer of the Guild of the Infant Savior on East 22nd Street, the object of which was "to support, care for or maintain destitute mothers and infants."

Neither Lucy Whitney nor Mary Lerscher outshone the colorful Adelaide Dorn Wallerstein.  She and her husband, Henry (known as Harry), moved into the building in 1907.  On October 29 the New York Herald announced, "Beginning with the first Monday of next month, Mrs. Harry Wallerstein, formerly of No. 121 West Eighty-sixth street, and now of No. 305 West Eightieth street, will be informally at home after four o'clock."

Adelaide was an intriguing woman.  She balanced her role as socialite with attorney and physician.  She had earned her law degree from New York University in 1898, and her medical degree from the New York Medical College in 1905.  That year she founded the East Side Clinic for Children and would head it for 25 years.

Dr. Adelaide Wallerstein approved of high-necked garments for women.  Marsh's Magazine, October 1908 (copyright expired)

While it would appear that Adelaide Wallerstein was a thoroughly modern Edwardian woman, she had one foot firmly planted in the Victorian era.   On November 16, 1907, The New York Times reported that she and 23 other women had founded the Philocalian Club, "to wage a crusade against girls who ride from the theatre in hansom cabs, drink highballs, and wear décolletée gowns and openwork waists."  (The plunging décolletée, or décolletage, neckline was made famous in John Singer Sergeant's portrait, Madam X.)

While insisting she was not a reformer, Adelaide told the reporter in part:

We have all pledged ourselves not to wear décolletée gowns--that is, so décolletée that the neck will be cut lower than the collarbone...Then, we have pledged ourselves not to drink highballs or cocktails.  And about hansom cabs.  It is wrong for two young people to ride about in hansom cabs at night.  A couple should go straight home from the theatre, instead of seeking the bright lights of a restaurant.

New York socialites were shocked on December 3, 1910 when they picked up their morning newspapers.  An article on the front page of The Post-Standard began, "Dr. Adelaide Wallerstein of No. 305 West Eightieth street, who is said to hold membership in more clubs than any other New York woman and who is a prominent society woman of independent wealth, has been a divorcee for six weeks."  The proceedings had been conducted "with extreme secrecy," and when Adelaide's attorney was asked about grounds, he replied, "the doctor had a naughty husband and that is all there is to it."

Adelaide would not remain single for long.  Six months later, on June 28, 1911, she married Noble McConnell and left West 80th Street.  

In the meantime, Lucy Whitney had died in her apartment on April 27, 1910 at the age of 68.  The Evening Post remembered her as being "active in church and charitable work."

Architect Max G. Heidelberg of Heidelberg & Levy, lived here in 1915.  That year he attended a conference at City Hall "on 'the boy problem,'" as reported by The Sun on November 23.  He was one of 100 "prominent men" who had received invitations from Acting Mayor George McAneny regarding a campaign to raise a fund of $200,000 for the Boy Scouts of America.

Considering conditions in Europe at the time, Heidelberg was suspicious of the group, founded five years earlier.  The Sun said he "startled" the assembly "by demanding to know whether or not the Boy Scout organization, concerning which many fine things were being said, was a military body."  The New York Herald added, "The speaker said he knew the State and city heads of the schools were opposed to militarism in the schools."  Heidelberg was advised that the "movement was military only in its outward appearance."

The days of society teas and charity gatherings along the block had passed by the World War II era.  In 1941, 303-305 West 80th Street was converted to a warren of single room occupancy spaces--16 per floor.  As the building became seedier with the passage of decades, the down-and-out residents were sometimes violent.

On October 27, 1973, The New York Times reported that 32-year-old Dianne Brown, who had been arrested for robbing an elderly man three weeks earlier, had snatched a woman's purse on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets.  Brown was armed with a razor.  "A bystander tried to intercede and was slashed across the face," said the article.  "Another man then tried to intercede and was slashed on the hand."  Police officers who pursued Brown caught her in the hallway of a building at 312 West 80th Street.

Six years later John West and Lester Prather lived in the building, when they were arrested on April 21, 1979.  They had beaten a homeless man to death with a pipe just around the block on West End Avenue between 80th and 81st Street.

In the early 1980's the ground floor windows and doorway were bricked up.  photo by the Landmarks Preservation Commission

That year Arthur Leeds and Morton Corwin contracted to buy the building, but litigation tied up the transaction until 1982.  The partners laid plans to convert the beleaguered building into 30 rental apartments.  But a sequence of circumstances changed their plans, and in 1983 they began a renovation to condominium apartments, including wood burning fireplaces.

Although the limestone base has been painted gray, and the once-rounded window panes in the curved bays are now flat, Ralph S. Townsend's building has regained the prim appearance that attracted affluent residents in 1900.

photographs by the author
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