The Architectural Record captioned this photograph "An Amusing Street Front." Note the free-standing porch newels with no apparent purpose. January, 1903 (copyright expired)
Real estate developers Leon Marie and Richard G. Platt purchased the vacant parcel at 132 West 79th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, from the William B. Trowbridge estate on June 28, 1894. They paid $5,000, or around $155,000 in today's money, for the plot. Its 25-foot-width was perfect for an upscale dwelling--the type that was filling the streets of the Upper West Side at the time.
But Marine & Platt had a startling plan in mind--two skinny, 12.5-foot-wide studio buildings. In splitting the lot, they would give one the address of 132-A. And if erecting such narrow structures was startling, their architecture would be even more so.
It is unclear who designed the buildings. The Architectural Record said that viewers "are apt to agree...in finding it 'Philadelphia.'" The article added, "Without doubt the name of Mr. [Wilson] Eyre or Mr. [Frank Miles] Day will occur to the experienced New York observer of this New York street front more readily than that of any local architect." (The architects were well known for their rather eccentric domestic designs in Philadelphia.) And in 1897, two years after construction was completed, the New-York Tribune attributed the work to Eyre & Day.
Decades later, writing in The New York Times on August 26, 2011, Christopher Gray disagreed, saying "The building permit and published architectural literature offer no evidence that the project was anything other than the work of [Clarence] True." But the bizarre mish-mash of styles--diplomatically called "eccentric"--have no similarities to Clarence True's sophisticated designs.
Whoever designed them, they drew attention. The New York Times described the style as "Turko-Venetian-Renaissance" and hinted that the mysterious architect was "an American who had spent many years among the Turks." Critic Montgomery Schuler said, "Nobody can pass it without looking at it. Nobody can look at it without promptly making up some sort of notion about its merit."
The mirror-image buildings were five stories tall, their side-by-side entrances capped by a stone panel and with a mosaic arch in red, green, blue and gold tiles. On either side were storybook oriels with pointed-arch, stained glass transoms. The architect laid the six-over-six double hung panes of the second floor on their sides--for no apparent reason other than effect. The top floor was designed in the emerging Arts & Crafts style under a deeply-overhanging tiled cornice atop projecting wooden beams.
Montgomery Schuyler, writing in The Architectural Record in January 1903, said, "But it is evident that a skilled and practised designer has been having a great deal of fun," adding, "It is really the 'refined vaudeville' of architecture." The New-York Tribune approved, saying, "The artistic medievalism" of the structures "present a striking contrast to the sombre modern conventionalism of the brownstone dwellings by which they are flanked."
Mrs. Olive Allen Dexter leased both buildings, operating 132-A as an upscale boarding house, and establishing the Bonheur Studio next door. Five artists lived in the Bonheur Studio (along with her), and art classes were taught by day. She explained to a reporter from the New-York Tribune in April 1897, "Here we have lessons in the history of art and in French and Italian." There was also a "studio life class," one in illustration and another in landscape painting. The journalist wrote, "The main studio is a charming room at the top of the house, off which opens a little Italian loge, the like of which is not often seen in New-York."
Mrs. Dexter hosted a sale of artworks for the benefit of The Daisy Fields Home for Crippled Children on April 2, 1897. The New-York Tribune said, "One has a right to expect that something unusual will come out of a house like that. The expectants yesterday were not disappointed."
The article noted, "The walls of the little parlor and dining-room were hung with the sketches that are offered for sale. There were several small landscapes in oil by William Merritt Post, done with the artist's characteristic touch." Among the other artists represented were Bruce Crane, Frank Russell Green, Walter Satterlee and Carroll Beckwith.
Patrons browse among the artworks in a charity sale in the Bonheur Studios in April 1, 1897. The New-York World, April 2, 1897 (copyright expired)
Although the name remained, the days of artists and art classes were over at the turn of the century. An advertisement in The New York Times on March, 8, 1901 offered, "Rare Opportunity. Physician or Dentist--First-floor bachelor apartment house, high class; elaborately furnished; private street entrance; other suites. Bonheur Studios. 132 West 79th St."
The week after that advertisement appeared, on March 17, the "handsome apartment house," at 132-A was raided. The New York Times reported that along with the five men arrested, "A large quantity of chips and a faro layout were seized in the place." In court, Justice Jerome charged, "These men were playing with forty-dollar and fifty-dollar chips as if they were millionaires."
Olive Allen Dexter was quick to react. On April 3, 1901, she sued the newspapers who ran the story for publishing "false and defamatory matter." Her defense insisted that her boarding houses "were of unquestioned repute and standing as a first-class establishment, and her said premises were known as the 'Bonheur Studio.'"
Despite the scandalous publicity, the two buildings continued to attract respectable residents. On November 13, 1911, for instance, the New York Herald reported, "Mmes. Betty Brooks and H. Webster-Marshall gave the first of a series of at homes on Wednesday evening, at No. 132 West Seventy-ninth street. Both women were residents of New Zealand, and are about to organize a club of those who have lived in New Zealand and Australia."
Rev. Henry Frank and his wife, Roberta, purchased 132-A around 1909. Frank was the rector of the Metropolitan Independent Church, which met in the Berkeley Theatre on Fifth Avenue at 44th Street. He was better known, however, as an author and lecturer.
When the United States entered World War I, Jane Bolard Sutherland, who lived in 132 West 79th Street, tendered unusual support. On June 29, 1917 the New York Tribune reported, "The navy yesterday began to hunt for the young men who have passed their examinations for the service but have failed to return and sign up. A car was volunteered for this purpose by Miss Jane Boland Sutherland...She and Lieutenant Commander Taylor, in charge of navy recruiting headquarters at 34 East Twenty-third Street, and two blue jackets comprised the search party."
That was not the extent of her support. The Sun reported that on June 12 she "donated her two touring cars for ambulance work in France and volunteered her services...at the same time offering to recruit a regiment of American women to go to France and drive their own cars."
Mrs. Gladdens Goddard lived at 132 West 79th Street until April 15, 1919, when she moved to 104 East 81st Street. She carried her jewelry box to the new address, not trusting it with the movers. That was understandable, considering that it held items given to her by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, said to be worth $1,000--about 15 times that much today.
Just as she walked in the door of her new apartment, the telephone rang. The New York Herald reported, "dropping the jewel box on the stairs, Mrs. Goodard hastened to answer it. When she had finished her conversation the jewels were gone." Her distrust of the movers was well founded. When police found the jewelry in the possession of Julius Berg, he explained he had bought them from George Grossman--the man in charge of the moving van. Grossman insisted he had found the box and did not know who it belonged to. Mrs. Goddard, now once again in possession of her valuables, did not press charges.
The twin buildings survived until 1927, when they were demolished to be replaced with Unity Synagogue, designed by Walter S. Schneider.
photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
That structure was replaced in 1988 by a 19-story apartment building, The Austin.
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