Thursday, March 31, 2022

The 1836 Richard Redford House - 334 West 20th Street

The 1811 Commissioners’ Plan laid out on paper the regimented grid of streets and avenues that would define Manhattan above 14th Street.  Sprawling country estates of the city’s gentry were now, at least on paper, divided into blocks and plots that would sprout rowhouses and commercial buildings.  Among them was Chelsea, the family estate of Clement Clarke Moore.  By the first years of the 1830's Clarke had given up in his fight against development and in 1834 began selling building lots along West 20th and 21st Street.  He was clear that he wanted his property to become an elegant residential neighborhood.  Available parcels carried the restriction, "Purchasers of lots...will be required to build fireproof houses of good quality."

In 1836 one of those "houses of good quality" was completed for Richard Redford, the cashier (a high officer) of the Commercial Bank of New-York.  Sitting next to the bucolic grounds of St. Peter's Church, Redford's brick-faced house was 25-feet-wide and three stories tall above an English basement.  Its Greek Revival design included intricate iron stoop and areaway railings, floor-to-ceiling parlor windows, and delicate egg-and-dart fascia board molding below the cornice.  The brownstone pedestals that flanked the stoop very likely originally held elaborate basket newels.

By the first years of the 1850's, the Henry Austin family occupied 133 West 20th Street (it would be renumbered 344 in 1865).  Henry and his son, Henry Jr., ran a shoemaking firm.  Living in the small house in the rear yard in 1851 and '52 was John Drake, a baker.

The house saw a relatively quick turnover in owners.  In 1867 Leopold Wise, another boot and shoe merchant, moved in with his family.  His partner, Charles Wise, presumably a brother, lived on Clinton Place (later West Eighth Street) at the time, but in 1870 he, too, listed his address here.  The Wise family remained until through 1875.

They were followed by the family of Joseph Bird, the president of the Manhattan Savings Institute at 646 Broadway.  Two years after Bird moved in, his bank suffered a massive robbery.  He left the bank at about 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, October 26, 1878, after having locked the heavy vault.  Only one other employee, the secretary of the bank, was still there.

At around 6:10 on that evening thieves broke in and made off with $3.5 million in cash and securities–approximately $93.7 million by today’s standards.  It was the most sensational bank robbery in United States history at the time.  Although he was, for the most part, above suspicion, Bird underwent grueling questioning.  

Although he kept his position with the bank, Bird moved his family permanently to Larchmont Manor in Westchester County.  It was there that the wedding of the Birds' son, Constant Mayer Bird, to Lillias Ivy Hayward would take place on October 20, 1897.  The bride was the daughter of miniature portrait painter Gerald Sinclair Hayward.

In the meantime, their former home was being operated as a boarding house.  Living in the basement here in 1882 were Bridget Carney, presumably a servant, and her daughter.  The daughter slept on a makeshift bed on the floor, called a "shake down."  At around 10:30 on the night of September 22 that year, Bernard Reily arrived "and attempted to make himself at home," according to the New York Dispatch.  He told Bridget he had lost the key to his room on 9th Street and wanted to be put up for the night.  The newspaper said, "She would not have him, and he had to make his exit."

Then, at around 5:00 in the morning, Bridget was awakened by her daughter's screams, "Mercy! mercy! mother there's a man in the bed!"  Bridge jumped from her bed and attempted to force Barney out of the room, and he struck her with a chair.

In court three days later, the daughter testified.  The New York Dispatch reported, "She said she was fast asleep, when she felt something hairy rubbing her chin...When she found it was a man in bed with her, she yelled like mad for her mother."

Barney responded, "All I have to say, it is an entire lie.  It wasn't a bed.  It was a shake-down."

The judge countered, "Well, even if it was a shake-down, what right had you to get on the shake-down?"

"I lost my key and I had to go somewhere, this was a common low basement.  She took an axe to me and I defended myself."

The judge was unmoved and Barney was held on $100 bail, a considerable $2,600 in today's  money.

By 1886 the boarding house was run by Susan F. Walker, a widow.  That year another servant, Barbara Williams, was the victim of a crime.  She was standing at the jewelry counter of Macy's on December 14, 1886, when 28-year-old Mary E. Lyon snatched her pocketbook containing $5.  She was tracked down and faced a judge on February 1, 1887.  As had been the case with Bernard Reily, her defense was feeble.  The New York Herald reported, "Her plea was that she did not take the pocketbook with the intention of stealing it."

At some point a triangular pediment was added above the entrance.

The upscale nature of boarding houses was reflected in the number of boarders--the fewer there were, the more select the house.  It appears that there were never more than three boarders, with or without wives, here at any given time during the 1880's and '90's.  

The house was leased, briefly, by St. Peter's Church as its rectory.  Rev. Oliver Scott Roche occupied it in 1905 and 1906.  Real estate operators Joseph W. Cushman & Co. purchased 344 West 20th Street in 1911, leasing it to single families for years.

By mid-century the once-stylish block had declined, and 344 West 20th Street was operated as an expensive rooming house.  Typical of the residents in 1963 were Ricardo Alonzo Gardia, Francisco Matos, and Roberto Vargas, all of whom had seasonal jobs as dishwashers at the Mooring Restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor.

Change came in 1975 when a renovation resulted in two apartments each in the basement and parlor level, and a duplex above.  Around the turn of the century the two-bedroom duplex became home to artist Karl Mann.  He redecorated it in what journalist Aisha Carter called a "'Jungle Book' vibe."

Karl Mann's décor was personal.  photos by Town Residential

In 2019 the house underwent a two-year renovation by Scott Wilpon, of Sterling Equities.  (The property was owned by the firm at the time.)  The facade was restored and the interior returned to a single-family dwelling.  The renovations resulted in five bedrooms, a screening room, wine cellar and gym.  It was placed on the market in March 2021 for $25 million.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Altered James K. Pell House - 10 West 28th Street


In 1866 Miller's Stranger's Guide to New York described the area around Madison Square, saying "The houses surrounding this park include some of the most elegant of this city."  Among those residences was 10 West 28th Street, erected ten years earlier by L. Appleby.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, the Italianate style structure rose four floors above a high basement level.

The 25-foot wide house was purchased by James Kent Pell.  The Pells were an old and prestigious family, whose first American ancestor, Thomas Pell, arrived in America in the 1630's.  In 1654 he signed a treaty with the Native American Siwanoy tribe that granted him 50,000 acres.  Thomas Pell became the first Lord of Pelham Manor, which eventually became Pelham, New York, as well as parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.

James K. Pell was a partner in the auctioneering firm of Pells & Co., with John H. Pell and David Clarkson.  His West 28th Street neighbors were as socially prominent as he.  Living next door at 12 West 28th Street was the Frederick W. Rhinelander family, and on the other side at 8 West 28th Street was Egbert L. Viele, the Chief Engineer of Central Park.

The Pells' beloved pet strayed off in the winter of 1862.  An advertisement on December 16 offered a $5 reward for the return of "a black and tan terrier, very evenly marked, ears trimmed, long tail, had on a brass collar."  The generous reward would be around $130 today.

Earlier that year James K. Pell had erected a white marble slab over the grave of his ancestor and namesake, John Pell, in the family cemetery near the old manor house.  John Pell, who died in 1700, was the nephew of Thomas Pell.

On November 25, 1874, James K. Pell died "of disease of the heart," according to The New York Times.  The 56-year-old's funeral was not held in the residence, as might have been expected, by at fashionable Grace Church.

Interestingly, Frederick William Rhinelander rented the house from the Pell Estate.  He and his wife, the former Frances Davenport Skinner, now moved from 12 to 10 West 28th Street, while his widowed sister Mary Elizabeth Newbold and her children moved into their former home.

Frances Rhinelander continued her social schedule.  At the end of every year The Season--An Annual Record of New York & Brooklyn Society was published.  It was essentially a day-to-day diary of the year's activities.  The 1883 edition noted, for instance, that on February 28 the previous year "The Lenten Glee Club met at the house of Mr. and Mrs. F. W. Rhinelander, No. 10 West Twenty-eighth Street."

The Rhinelander family remained in the house until 1886.   By then fashionable society was migrating uptown as commercial interests invaded the neighborhood.  On March 18 that year an advertisement appeared in The Evening Post offering the former mansion "To let for dwelling or to lease for business purposes."  Before the year's end the basement and parlor floors were converted to stores and the upper floors were being rented as apartments.

The property was leased in April 1887.  Henry C. Pell, as executor of the estate, now made even more extensive alterations--costing the equivalent of $337,000 today.  The architectural firm of Harding & Dinkelberg removed the stoop, installed a two-story commercial front, and altered the upper floors to bachelor apartments.

The ground floor became home to C. Wernicke's European antiques store.  The upscale shop would remain at least through 1893.

The Amusement Bulletin, December 21, 1889 (copyright expired)

The second floor was leased to the Fencing Club whose members were well-to-do society men.  On January 22, 1891 the New York Herald announced: 

The agile members of the Fencing Club, No. 10 West Twenty-eighth street, will wield the dainty foil before an invited audience of friends and admirers of the art on Tuesday evening next.  Several beaux sabruers will also brandish the broad sword and doubtless do good work.  The sharp sounds of the clanking steel will be followed by soft music, and a collation will conclude the evening.

The Fencing Club made way for James W. Bouton's book shop in 1895.  On June 1 that year, The Collection mentioned, "It should be noted, by the way, that since May 1, Mr. Bouton has been established at No. 10 West Twenty-eighth street, in the building adjoining his previous establishment."  (Bouton had been in 8 West 28th Street for several years.)

The Collector, June 1, 1894 (copyright expired).

Bouton had barely settled in before he left on a buying trip.  In its October issue, The Collector reported, "Twenty-eighth street, in the vicinity of Fifth avenue, has resumed its normal aspect with the return from Europe of Mr. J. W. Bouton.  Mr. Bouton spent the summer in England, principally in London, with flights to Eastbourne and other watering places.  Among his acquisitions is a picture in oil by George Ro9mney, which is likely to create a sensation in the ranks of our collectors."

Bouton returned in 1894 with this Romney portrait of Lady Hamilton.  from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery

The rare books available in Bouton's shop were evidenced when a reader asked The New York Times where he could acquire "a complete set of Boydell's Shakespeare."  The editor responded, "Our correspondent will do well to communicate with Mr. J. W. Bouton, 10 West Twenty-eighth Street."

In the meantime, the apartments in the upper floors were home to well-to-do, unmarried men.  David H. Biddle, a Philadelphia millionaire, used one of them as his New York pied-à-terre.  He was in town in the spring of 1893 when he, unexpectedly, became a news items.

On May 21 the New York Herald ran the headline, "He Did Not Even Soil His Cuffs / Fashionable Mr. Biddle, of Philadelphia, Knocks out Four Race Track Roughs."  He and three New York millionaires, De Courcey Forbes, J. J. Follansbee, and Frederic Gebhard, "all horsemen and men well known to the turf," according to the newspaper, were returning from a day at the Gravesend track on the Long Island Ferry when trouble ensued.

"On the boat was a crowd of race track 'hangers on' and 'thimble riggers,'" said the article.  "These men invariably make trouble each spring."  The toughs targeted the well-dressed gentlemen, becoming "bold, persistent and insulting."  Their intention was to provoke a fight and then rob them just as the ferry docked.  But, according to the New York Herald, "Mr. Biddle smiled at this.  He is an athlete and able to take care of himself."  

And, indeed, he was.  As the boat neared the slip one of the toughs attacked.  One by one he "almost annihilated a gang of catchpenny gamblers and fakirs," as worded by the newspaper.   By the time the boat docked, "The gamblers were busily engaged wiping the blood from their faces and preparing a plan for escape.  Mr. Biddle had not even 'lost his wind' or soiled his cuffs."

Another tenant was Dr. J. Herbert Clairborne who operated his office from his apartment.  The New York Times remarked later that he "was a member of two of the oldest families in the country."  On the afternoon of April 4, 1895 a man "pretending to be ill," according to the New York Herald, was seated in the waiting room.  He then "stole an overcoat that had been left there by a man who was in the consulting room."  The description of the thief matched that of a man who had gone to the office of Dr. C. A. Von Damdohr on Irving Place that same day.  In that instance he made off with the doctor's bag of surgical instruments and two silk umbrellas.

In the spring of 1900, J. W. Bouton loaned the Gallery of Walter Satteries an ivory tankard valued at around $9,500 today.  While on exhibition there, it went missing.   A $40 reward was announced and, according to police, one of Satterlee's assistants, William Barber, said "if he were given the $40 he thought he could arrange for the return of the property."  And so, the reward was handed over.  But unknown to Barber, an undercover detective was on his trail.  The New York Herald reported on March 28 that the detective "found him spending the money in the company of Miss [Margaret] Gallagher."  Both were arrested "in connection with the disappearance" of the unique tankard, but it was still no where to be found.

A year later, James Bouton had waited long enough.  He sued art collector George W. Crane for $400, saying that it was Crane who had transported it to Satterlee's studio and was therefore responsible.  But just before the case came to court, Walter Satterlee received an anonymous letter "offering the return of the cup in good order for $100."  Satterlee paid the ransom, Bouton got his tankard back, and the thief was never discovered.

Living here at the time was Charles W. Johnson, described by The Morning Telegraph as "a wealthy banker."  He showed up at the Jefferson Market Court on December 30 complaining that he had been robbed.  The newspaper said:

According to the tale furnished by Mr. Johnson he had arrived at his apartments rather early on Sunday morning and had removed several valuable diamond rings and fifty dollars.  Then he had taken off his clothes and was sitting idly thinking of stocks and bonds, when he was startled by observing his electric bell was ringing.

Although he did not know who his visitor was, he released the electric lock of the front door.  Two minutes later, he said, his doorbell rang.  "He was mildly surprised when two colored women entered, and, wishing him a pleasant New Year...helped themselves to his valuables as they lay upon the table."  He said he did not call for the watchman, thinking of  the appearances of "his undressed condition."  The women left and it would be several hours before the banker decided that while he "did not care particularly for the publicity...he certainly as in favor of the enforcement of the law," said the article.

There may have been much more to the story than Johnson was admitting.  "He took pains to inform Sergt. Murtha that he had not the pleasure of the negro women's acquaintance," said The Morning Telegraph.   Two days later two women were arrested, whom Johnson identified.  The newspaper reported, "When they were searched the matron found four diamond rings and $111 in money on Nellie Benson, and a few pawn tickets upon her companion."  Charles W. Johnson had recovered his missing property more quickly than he would restore his tarnished reputation.

In September 1902 James W. Bouton was diagnosed with Bright's Disease.  He died a month later at the age of 69.  The New England Stationer and Printer noted he "had been identified with the publishing and bookselling business in this city for more than fifty years."  His shop would remain at 10 West 28th Street through 1907.

The New York Times, April 6, 1907 (c0pyright expired)

In 1902 the male-only status of the apartments changed.  An advertisement in The New York Times on October 15 that year read "Bachelor Apartments or Others--4 rooms and bath; splendid central location; $45 month."   The rental would equal about $1,400 today.

Several of the new female residents were in the musical field.  Among the earliest were contralto Katharine Pelton, who advertised "concerts and vocal instruction," and pianist and accompanist Henriette Weber.  Composer and agent Albert Von Tilzer lived here, as well, in 1902.  Among his best known songs is the 1908 Take Me Out To The Ball Game.

In 1908 The Color Photography Co. photo studio was located here.  The former Bouton bookstore space was now E. W. Johnson's store "for books hard to find or any books."

The post-World War I years saw the Apex Wire Mesh Co. and the Argentine Trading Company in the commercial spaces.  In 1922 the Cohen Typewriter Exchange moved in.  The store offered monthly payments, advertising "$5 down, $5 monthly, buys latest Underwood, Royal, Oliver, Remington, $35 up."

By 1939 Palestine House operated from one of the stores.  It offered "Holy Land Gifts."  The other shop was home to Harvey the Hatter who "makes men's hats to order for $3.75, $5 and $7.50, depending on the quality of the felt you select," according to Shopping News on September 3, 1941.

As the Nomad neighborhood slowly transformed, so did the commercial tenants of 10 West 28th Street.  In 1974 Pot Covers opened in the second floor of 10 West 28th Street.  Run by Willian Kind and Adele Lewis, it sold "baskets of every size and description," according to The New York Times writer Virginia Lee Warren.  The shop also sold imported jardinières and pots.

And then, in 2014 Daniel Humm and Will Guidara opened the two-level NoMad Bar.  Vogue magazine said, "With plush, oversize banquettes, dark wood, brass detailing, and a working fireplace, the bar harkens back to a more opulent era, when dirty money and crime ran the city."

Harding & Dinkelberg's 1887 storefront has been repeatedly altered.  But rather amazingly, the upper floors are little changed since the day that James K. Pell moved into the house in 1856.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The 1907 Columbia Grammar School - 5-7 West 93rd Street


Originally called The Grammar School of King's College, Columbia Grammar School was founded in 1764 to prepare boys for King's College (today's Columbia University).  When the college changed its name following the Revolutionary War, the grammar school followed suit.  The connection between the two institutions was severed in 1865.

Columbia Grammar School's location on East 51st Street in  Midtown had become intolerably hemmed in by commercial buildings by the first years of the 20th century.  On March 30, 1907, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the institution had purchased the 75-foot-wide plot on the north side of 93rd Street, just west of Central Park, "on which a three-story school and gymnasium will be erected."  There would be no danger of commercial buildings intruding on the site in a neighborhood rapidly filling with upscale rowhouses.  The article noted, "Particulars can be obtained from Mr. Campbell, principal of the school."

Filed on June 15, 1907, the plans now called for a four-story school to cost $45,000 (just over $1.25 million by 2022 standards).  The New-York Tribune reported the structure would have "an original façade of brick trimmed with terra cotta and stucco work...The building will contain a two story gymnasium."

The plans reflected what must have been a deal-breaking stipulation in negotiations between Headmaster Benjamin H. Campbell and the potential architects.  The architects of record were listed as "Beatty & Stone and Shiras Campbell."  Whether the established architectural firm was overly-eager to include Headmaster Campbell's son in the project is questionable.

Construction began two days after the plans were filed and was completed with blinding speed.  The school opened on October 8, 1907, just four months after ground was broken.  Beatty & Stone seem to have been somewhat influenced by Lamb & Rich's Berkeley School, completed in 1891.  Like that private boys' school, a dramatic split staircase rose to the main entrance, above the basement level.  Strikingly similar was the classical frieze below the cornice, nearly an exact duplicate of that found on the Berkeley School façade, copied from a portion of the Parthenon.

from the collection of the Columbia Grammar School archives.

Grouped windows allowed natural light to spill into the classrooms.  The academic nature of the structure was reflected in plaques of open books that graced the top of each of the three-story piers between the openings.

On October 9, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported, "Columbia Grammar School, 93d street and Central Park West, reopened yesterday in its new fireproof brick and steel building, with a full attendance and a great influx of new pupils.  This building was erected in one hundred and ten days."  An advertisement boasted, "gymnasium, laboratory, play ground, athletic field, preparation for all University Departments."  The under-performing sons of well-to-do fathers were not necessarily excluded.  The advertisement noted, "Special courses arranged for boys failing at entrance examinations."

As the advertisement mentioned, the school property included an athletic field--one that would not last for many more years.  On May 12, 1908 The New York Times reported, "The Athletic Association of Columbia Grammar School held its twenty-seventh annual games on the school grounds, Central Park West and Ninety-third Street, yesterday afternoon, before a large attendance of the school and its friends and alumni."

Benjamin Howell Campbell had been headmaster of the school since 1869.  Described by The New York Times decades later as "a brilliant, crusty and tightfisted eccentric," he was both scholarly and peculiar.  With a fortune equal to $7.3 million today, he lived in an Elizabeth, New Jersey mansion but, "wore the same longcoat and battered hat at school for years, but dressed every night for dinner by candlelight," according to The New York Times in 1964.  Campbell's successor, Frederic Arlington Alden, recalled in his handwritten history of the school:

Every piece of string small or large was carefully rolled up for future use.  In my five years under Mr. Campbell I cannot recall one cent of any kind spent for improvements...I was for three years the assistant headmaster, yet I was never allowed in the headmaster's office...Nor was I permitted to enter the office of the secretary.

Benjamin Campbell's devotion to his only child, Shiras, ended when the young man married without his approval.  When Campbell's will was read in 1925, he had left Shiras $1.  By then the elder Campbell had been retired for six years.  After serving the school for 51 years, he left with title Headmaster Emeritus.

In the meantime, despite Campbell's unwillingness to spend money, the Columbia Grammar School offered surprisingly up-to-date amenities.  On November 29, 1914, for instance, The Sun reported on the Junior Camera Club of Columbia Grammar School.  "The club takes short trips to the surrounding towns and visits many places of interest.  Last year many good photos were taken, including some in Washington D.C., and Mount Vernon."

When the United States entered World War I on April 4, 1917, the students were too young to enlist.  And so, they showed their support by other means.  On April 22 The Sun wrote, "The wave of patriotic enthusiasm which has been sweeping over the whole country has deeply affected the boys of the Columbia Grammar School."  An assembly that included every student resulted in resolutions which were unanimously adopted.  The three points included pledging "our undying loyalty to our country and its flat," the hearty endorsement of "every act of our President and Congress," and a pledge of "our aid, humble though it be, to help our country and its President in whatever way we can."  A copy of the resolutions was sent to President Woodrow Wilson.

Above plaques depicting open books, is a frieze modeled after the Parthenon.

In July 1920, perhaps not surprisingly a year after Benjamin Campbell retired, the school building was sold to the newly-formed 7 West Ninety-third Street Corporation.  The New-York Tribune noted, "The school will be operated by the new owners, who formed the corporation to acquire title."  Among the new instructors was civics teacher Fiorello LaGuardia.

Another instructor, Dr. Charles E. Moore, had taught mathematics since 1875.  A graduate of Trinity College, he had also studied medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and practiced medicine prior to accepting the position a Columbia Grammar School.  Moore died at the age of 74 on September 21, 1922.  After having served the school for nearly half a century, his funeral was held in the West 93rd Street building three days later.

A disturbing accident happened on March 5, 1925.  Science instructor William C. Carl was conducting experiments in the laboratory when an explosion occurred, seriously burning the face and hands of 16-year-old Ralph M. Neustadtl.  Six months later the boy's father, Victor Neustadtl, sued Carl for $20,000 damages for Ralph and $1,000 for himself "for the loss of services of his son."  He alleged that Carl "failed to notify [Ralph] as to the inherent danger of an explosion if the chemicals were not properly mixed."  The injuries, according to the suit, caused "his face and right hand to be disfigured permanently and rendering the hand partially immobile."

Almost simultaneously, the Alumni Association of Columbia Grammar School purchased the rowhouse directly behind the school at 22 West 94th Street "as a site for a memorial to the late Benjamin Howell Campbell," as reported by The New York Times on September 20, 1925.  The article noted, "The Campbell memorial will take the shape of a swimming pool, with a new gymnasium in the 60 by 75 yard...There will be a roof arranged for outdoor classes to accommodate the kindergarten and primary departments."

The necessity for additional space was evident in the 1939 book by the Federal Writers' Project, New York Learns.  "It includes a coeducational kindergarten, and a primary school and high school for boys only," it said, adding, "Columbia operates on an all-day plan, occupying the students time from 8:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon."  Tuition ran from $200 to $600 a year--a significant $11,000 today for Depression Era parents.

In 1944 World War once again was a focus of students' attention.  On December 28 The New York Sun reported, "Students of the Columbia Grammar School, 5 West 93d street, piled up one of the largest school returns of the country in the Sixth War Loan drive.  They sold a total of $567,000 in bonds."

Columbia Grammar School students, expectedly dressed in coats and ties, work on their Liberty Bond sales.  The New York Sun, December 28, 1944

The following year the boys out performed their previous sales.  On December 31, 1945 The New York Sun reported, "The Columbia Grammar Schools, 5 West 93d street, have set a record in the amount of Victory Bonds sold by secondary schools in New York City."  The combined primary and high schools had raised $1,447,240 in bond sales.

In the 1950's the once refined 93rd Street block had become seedy.  Headmaster James Walter Stern told The New York Times reporter McCandlish Phillips in 1964, "Ten years ago we were taking a look at every piece of property that opened up on the East Side, but we found nothing to replace our existing facilities and we would have had a smaller school."  So instead, the school spread out into other properties along the block.  In 1956 it added five brownstones, adjacent to the original building to the west, and in in 1997 and 2002 purchased two more.  In 1984 a new structure was erected directly across the street that included classrooms, a library and gymnasium.

Renovations to 5-7 West 93rd Street in 1962 resulted in the loss of the split exterior staircase and the original main entrance.  The alterations resulted in the Landmarks Preservation Commission's snubbing the 1907 building when it mapped out the boundaries of the Central Park West Historic District in 1990, which included the 1984 building across the street, but gingerly cut out 5-7 West 93rd Street.

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Monday, March 28, 2022

The Lost Unity Synagogue - 130-132 West 79th Street


photograph by Wurts Bros. from The Architect, November 1928.

The synagogue of Congregation Peni-El, incorporated in 1906, stood at 527 West 147th Street.  Two decades after its formation, as the character of Harlem underwent change, its members were moving to the Upper West Side.  In response, in May 1927, the congregation acquired vintage structures on West 79th Street, including the quirky Bonheur Studio buildings.  The following month, architect Walter S. Schneider filed plans for a new synagogue.  In July, Peni-El merged with Mt. Zion Congregation, which was also located in Harlem.  The combination resulted in Unity Synagogue.  

On August 13, 1927, the New York Evening Post reported that the structure would include "an auditorium seating 2,000 people, with a combination platform and stage, which can be utilized for lectures, cinema productions and theatrical performances."  Walter S. Schneider's design was a medley of styles.  "The temple is to be a combination of Persian, Byzantine and Coptic architectural forms and ornamentation," said the article.

The façade would be clad in buff and brown stone, its design dominated by a massive stained glass window above the entrance.  Schneider originally planned to crown the full-height, tower-like piers on either side with "large ornamental dome[s]...mounted by large copper minarets, to be illuminated at night by flood lights."  That plan was later scaled down.

On May 13, 1928, as construction neared completion, around 1,000 people filed into the auditorium for the consecration of the cornerstone.  Among the speakers was Attorney General Albert Ottinger, who commented on the "striking beauty" of the new temple.  The New York Times reported, "The synagogue, he said, was more than a monument of stone and proved that the Jew was devoted to the highest ideals of mankind."

Construction was completed in September 1928.  On September 7 The New York Times reported, "The edifice cost more than $800,000 and when the parish house is completed it will bring the total cost to about $1,000,000."  The total outlay would equal about 15 times that much today.

The New York Evening Post described the auditorium as being "surmounted by [a] large ornamental dome, pierced with decorative grilles in ornamental plaster."  The platform of the altar and ark were "of marble and mosaic."  The journalist said, "Practically the entire illumination of the auditorium will be from concealed sources."  The building included a small memorial chapel for smaller services, a "spacious study for the ministers," a meeting room and the superintendent's living quarters.  In the basement was a Sunday school for up to 400 children and the kitchen.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Among the speakers at the opening on September 7, 1928 was Mayor James Walker.  He said in part, "Some people are trampling on each other in an effort to get to Heaven.  they act as if they thought there were not enough seats there for everybody."  But, he insisted, "Religion will be preached here, and understanding, not strife and hate.  No word of bigotry will come from this pulpit and no sensationalism and scandal will be heard here."

The formal dedication of the structure would not come for another seven months, in April 1929.  Later that year the congregation received an impressive gift.  On November 1 the New York Evening Post reported, "At a special good-will service to be held this evening in Unity Synagogue...America's Good-Will Union will present an American flag donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Mayor Walker will deliver the principal address."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The enormous cost of Unity Synagogue's opulent temple was its undoing.  Six months after the official dedication, the Stock Market crashed, initiating the Great Depression.  Unity Synagogue was forced to place sell building at auction in September 1930.  It was purchased by Mount Neboh Congregation, which re-dedicated it in October.  Founded in 1907, like Peni-El and Mt. Zion, it had worshiped in Harlem, on West 150 Street.

On May 17, 1935 Mount Neboh Congregation installed its new rabbi, Abraham L. Feinberg.  The new leader had a colorful past.  Feinberg had been assistant rabbi at Temple Israel until 1930, when he resigned to pursue an operatic career.  He received a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music, and then studied at the American Conservatory in Paris.  Upon returning to America, he performed under the name of Anthony Frome, making his radio debut in 1932.  He gave his last radio performance on April 7, 1935, one month before returning to religious life with Mount Neboh Congregation.

Feinberg, as Anthony Frome, posed for a publicity shot.  original source unknown

Rabbi Feinberg was fiery and opinionated, The New York Times decades later saying, "He was always ready to march, lend his name or send a telegram if there was a protest for disarmament or for a treaty on a nuclear test ban, or against racism in South Africa, radical injustice in America and United States policy in Vietnam."  But Vietnam and nuclear tests were far in the future.  A more imminent threat was rising in Europe.

On May 20, 1938, he warned his congregation "if Japan absorbs China, the entire political and economic balance of the world will tip toward tyranny."  He recommended that the United States should help China both financially and with the sale of arms.  "If china wins," he said, "a bulwark will be established against the 'holy alliance' of Japan, Germany and Italy, the onward course of dictatorship will be checked, and new hope will be inspired."

Later that year, in November, he made a tour on the Pacific Coast to raise funds for the aid of German Jews.  He telegraphed his sermons to Mount Neboh Congregation where they were read from the pulpit.  His words, read on November 18, 1938, were clear concerning the urgency of the situation.  He said in part:

The Christian outcry against Nazi brutality strengthens more than ever the ages-old Jewish faith in the final triumph of the best in man over the beast in man...While Hitler makes hatred the basic policy of a powerful Government and inflames one race against another, the world of religion has been reconciled and closes its ranks together for the preservation of human decency.

The 36-year-old rabbi left Mount Neboh Congregation in December that year, after accepting an offer from Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  His resignation ended a short but distinctive period in the congregation's history.

Rabbi Feinberg had initiated a tradition, however, that continued under his successor, Rabbi Samuel M. Segal.  That was the annual memorial service for fallen policemen.  Each year a procession of 300 policemen marched from the 68th Street Police Station to Mount Neboh Congregation.  Rabbi Segal shared Feinberg's passionate feelings about Nazism, and took advantage of the memorial service on November 24, 1940 to decry Hitler.

"This is not a Jewish war," he told the assembled policemen.  "The Jewish people do not seek war."  The New York Times reported, "Dr. Segal declared that the tragedy of Hitler's rise to world power was that the West did not realize his war was not only against the Jews, but against democracy itself."

Rabbi Samuel M. Segal stepped down in 1961.  Over the next decade the membership waned and the once-prosperous congregation developed financial problems.  In 1979 the building was sold to The Corporation of Seventh Day Adventists.  The group resold it just two years later, to developer Alexander Edelman.

On January 12, 1982 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building an individual landmark, calling it "one of the important synagogue buildings on Manhattan's Upper West Side" and praising Schneider's design as "distinctive."

But exactly one year to the day later, the LPC voted to allow Edelman to demolish the landmarked structure.  The New York Times explained the designation "had caused the owner a financial hardship that could be relieved only by allowing the demolition of the building."  Ironically, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Dorothy Marie Miner, stressed that the landmark status had not been rescinded.  "It will be, until the end, a designated landmark."  The commission's chairman, Kent L. Barwick, added, "It is unfortunate, but ultimately only fair, that we now issue this notice to proceed."

In place of Walter S. Schneider's "distinctive" and "important" synagogue structure Edelman erected a 19-story apartment building, The Austin.

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Saturday, March 26, 2022

The 1861 Mason Brothers Building - 5-7 Mercer Street


image via

The fashionable tenor of the Mercer Street block between Canal and Grand Streets in the early 19th century was evidenced in a description of the building at 7 Mercer Street in December 1830.  The rental ad called it "the elegant three-story brick dwelling house and lot No. 7 Mercer street...finished in the best manner."

The upscale, residential neighborhood would be completely transformed in the first years following the Civil War, as low brick houses were replaced with modern loft buildings.  One of the pioneers in the movement was J. J. Phelps, who did not wait for the construction flurry of the late 1860's and early '70's.  In 1859 he purchased and demolished the 25-foot-wide houses at 5 and 7 Mercer Street, and hired architect John B. Snook to design a replacement structure.

His five-story, Italianate style structure sat upon a cast iron storefront, manufactured by Daniel D. Badger's Architectural Iron Works.  Its fluted columns were originally capped by ornate Corinthian capitals.   The openings of the upper floors sat within prim architrave surrounds, those of the second floor being fronted with handsome balustrades.  

It is probable that Phelps already had a tenant before construction began.  Although the building was not officially completed until 1861, the publishing firm of Mason Brothers moved in before then.  Headed by brothers David G. and Lowell Mason, Jr., in addition to academic books, the firm published sheet music and the biweekly New-York Musical Review and Gazette.  

An advertisement in May 1860 listed the latest releases, including the three-volume Life of Andrew Jackson (which cost the pricey equivalent of $240 today), The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler, and Italy: From the Earliest Period to the Present Day.

A separate, but related, firm, Mason & Hamlin, shared space in the building.  Organized in 1854 by Henry Mason (David and Lowell Mason's brother) and Emmons Hamlin, the company produced and sold cabinet organs, sometimes called parlor organs.  An advertisement in The New York Times on May 11, 1863 announced:

Clergymen and Others interested are invited to call at our warerooms, Nos. 5 and 7 Mercer-street, New-York, and examine the new Cabinet Organs, with from one to twelve stops each, recently introduced by Mason & Hamlin.  They surpass all other instruments of the class, for smaller churches, chapels, Sabbath school-rooms, and private houses, while the prices are very moderate, viz, $70, $85, $95, $120, and upwards, each.  Dr. Lowell Mason, Dr. Thomas Hastings, and more than fifty of the most distinguished organists and musicians of New-York, Boston &c., bear witness in written testimony to the great value of these new instruments, and their entire superiority to all others.
                                                        Mason Brothers

This model was among Mason & Hamlin's most scaled-down versions.  Others had elaborate cabinets and finishes.

In 1861 music publisher and agent Theodore Hagen leased space in the building.  He offered sheet music "of every description, foreign as well as American," and, like Mason Brothers, published a journal, the Musical Review and World.  

Hagen had a knack for marketing.  In a December 21, 1863 article outlining the recent programs at the Academy of Music, The New York Times mentioned, "The lady patrons of the matinees were presented with copies of the polka which is published by Mr. Theodore Hagen, No. 5 and 7 Mercer-street."

In 1865 space on the upper floors was leased to brothers Bernard, Jessie and John Travis for their millinery shop.  It was a hint of the future of the district, which would become the center of the millinery and apparel trade by the mid-1870's.

And, indeed, by 1879 both Mason Brothers and Mason & Hamlin had moved to Union Square.  The building's tenants were now The American Suspender Company, the Eureka Silk Mfg. Co., and Seavey, Foster and Bowman, agents of the Eureka Silk Mfg. Co.

In the 1880's the John P. Lynch Knit Goods Co. and G. & M. Bamberger leased space in the building.  John P. Lynch had immigrated from Ireland and was fervently behind the cause of Irish Home Rule.  On June 17, 1886 The Sun reported, "A big pile of money came into The Sun office yesterday to help the Home Rulers win their battle.  The largest contributor was John P. Lynch of 5 Mercer street.  He sent a check for $200.  It was his second contribution to The Sun fund."  His initial check had been for $100, bringing his total donation to date to the equivalent of $8,500 today.

Lynch flourished his dual patriotism in a long letter included with his second check, which said in part:

As an American and an Irishman, I feel deeply grateful for what The Sun has done for human liberty in general, and for Irish liberty in particular, and I have no doubt I voice the feeling of millions.  May it continue to shed its brilliant rays on the subject of home rule until Ireland is a free and prosperous nation.

At the turn of the century, the ground floor was home to E. Bissell & Co., wholesale auctioneers.  The firm liquidated overstocked goods and inventory of closed factories.  On December 9, 1908, for instance, The 14th Street Store, owned by Henry Siegel, advertised "Toys Bought at Auction," and touted its recent purchase "right in the heart of the Christmas Season." The ad urged, "Think of it!  An auction sale of bright, new perfect toys sold by E. Bissell & Co."

On an upper floor was the Base Sorting Plant, Inc., operated by Ira M. Kaplan, Nat Meyers and E. A. Stone.  The firm repurposed scrap materials from garment makers.  But World War I brought a new purpose to the company.  On December 29, 1917, Textile World Journal reported that the business, "is henceforth to be operated in the interest of the Government."

The Daily Mill Stock Reporter added that since September, the Base Sorting Plant was "handling all clippings resulting from the cutting up of khaki cloth for military uniforms.  It is also handling the old khaki rags from the cantonments."  The owners "have tendered their services gratuitously to the United States Government for the duration of the war."  All profits were turned over to the Government.

The building continued to house apparel-related firms until the Soho renaissance in the third quarter of the century.   In 2002 the Grant Gallery was here, as was Rooms and Gardens, a furniture and lighting store.

photograph by the author

A renovation completed in 2019 resulted in joint living-work quarters for artists above the ground floor retail space.  Although the cast iron capitals of the storefront have been lost, John B. Snook's handsome design is little changed after 160 years.

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