Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The 1934 Midtown Memorial Chapel -- 171 West 85th Street


Architect and developer John G. Prague erected a row of four 18-foot-wide, brick-and-brownstone homes at 167 through 173 West 85th Street in 1889-90.  Designed in an A-B-A-B configuration, they formed two balanced pairs, each of which shared a split stoop.

Gustav Helmstetter purchased 171 West 85th Street.  A confectioner, his factory at 554 Broome Street turned out sweets like "chocolate colored coffee drops."  His wife and three young adult daughters entertained regularly.  On January 8, 1896, for instance, The Press reported, "The members of the Tuesday evening dancing class...gave a social at the home of one of the patronesses, Mrs. Helmstetter, No. 171 West Eighty-fifth street.  The guests were received by Mrs. Helmstetter, Miss Helmstetter, Miss Elizabeth Helmstetter and Miss Carrie Helmstetter."

The Helmstetters retained possession of the house until 1913 when they sold it to real estate operator Henry Wendt. Wendt was, as well, a secretary and director of the Crystal Hygiene Ice Company.  He and his family maintained a country home in Pearl River, New York.  Like the Helmstetters, they would remain in the house for years.

Henry, Jr. graduated from Harvard in 1927.  His marriage to Anne Marie Homer at Lake George, New York on June 2, 1932 garnered extensive social attention.  His brother, John R. Wendt, was his best man.

A year later, nearly to the day, the Wendts sold their home to the Corporal Holding Company, Inc. for $27,500--or about $550,000 in today's money.  On June 17, 1933 The New York Sun noted, "The owner has the right to alter the present residential building for any other lawful use on paying off $2,500 of the principal."  And alter it, they did.

Four days later the newspaper announced, "The house at 171 West Eighty-fifth street...will be altered and rebuilt as a four-story funeral chapel."  Architect B. Robert Swartburg's plans called for changing the residence "to a mezzanine and 4-story building" with penthouse.  The alterations, costing nearly $600,000 by today's standards, including removing the stoop and pulling the facade forward to the property line, extending the building to the rear, and installing new floors, iron stairs, and an elevator.

Completed the following year, the Midtown Memorial Chapel was a modern blend of neo-Gothic and Renaissance Revival styles.  Faced in variegated cast stone, its tripartite design sat upon a two-story base.  A prominent marquee sheltered the ground floor, above which grouped stained glass windows wore pressed copper hoods below an arched corbel table.  The two-story mid-section was dominated by a charming copper-clad faux balcony that echoed the hoods below.  Four stone urns fronted the "penthouse," or fifth floor, which sat slightly back.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In the basement was the embalming room, while the office and "showroom" were on the ground floor.  The second floor, with its impressive wall of stained glass windows, held the chapel, and a "reposing room," was on the third floor.  On the fourth floor were the caretaker's apartments.

The Midtown Memorial Chapel became a favorite among prominent Jewish families and within the entertainment industry.  Augustus Yorke, for instance, died at the age of 79 in Hollywood, California on December 27, 1939.  A member of the old vaudeville team of Yorke & Adams, his funeral has held here on January 7, 1940.

The funeral of Frieda Hart, mother of lyricist Lorenz Hart, was held here in 1943, and on July 31, 1949 the chapel was the venue of Mike Ziegler's funeral.  Described by Billboard magazine as a "veteran outdoor showman," he had been in show business for 35 years and operated his own carnival.

But perhaps the most publicized funeral was that of Emanuel "Mendy" Weiss, on March 5, 1944.  The 37-year-old had been electrocuted in Sing Sing prison at 11:07 the night before.  He, Louis Capone, and racketeer Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (reputedly the head of the underworld's enforcement group called Murder, Inc.) had been convicted of the September 1936 murder of Joseph Rosen.

Buchalter, who was suspected of having ordered as many as 80 murders, professed innocence, and both Weiss and Capone insisted they had been framed.  As he was led to the electric chair, Weiss said, "I'm here on a framed case.  I'm innocent and God and Governor Dewey know it...Give my love to my family and everyone.  And--I'm innocent."

The following afternoon Rabbi Aaron Liss performed his funeral services.  It was attended by about 50 friends and family.  The New York Sun reported, "Following brief orthodox services at the Midtown Memorial Chapel, 171 West 85th street, his brother, Murray Weiss, told reporters that Weiss was innocent.  'The whole story will break and the truth will be told within a year,' he said."

The Midtown Memorial Chapel left West 85th Street in 1952.  The building became home to the Jewish Society for the Deaf.  The second floor chapel was converted to an auditorium, and the other floors now contained committee rooms, offices and a social hall.  

The Jewish Society for the Deaf offered "information, referral and counseling services for the oral and sign making totally deaf."  Despite its name, the organization advertised as being "non-sectarian."

Living in caretaker's apartment in 1953 was the building's superintendent, Julius Magassy.  The 60-year-old somehow got into serious trouble that year.  On October 30 the Ossining, New York Citizen Register reported that he "was rescued from the North [i.e. Hudson] River off 88th Street yesterday by an electrician."  The article explained that Joseph Kaich was driving along the Henry Hudson Parkway "when he saw the man struggling in the water."  Kaich quickly pulled over, took off his jacked and dived into the water, pulling Magassy to safety.

By 1979 the offices of Escalera Puertorriqueña (Stairway to Puerto Rico) Head Start were here.  In a letter to the House of Representatives Sub-Committee on Economic Opportunities that year, the group described "special education services to our handicapped children, an After-School Program for graduates of the Head Start Program, a Video-tape program servicing all aspects of Head Start, [and] a pre-school health program."

The property was next acquired by Dorot, here at least by 1990.  Founded in 1976 "to affirm the Jewish communal commitment to honor older members of the community," it still serves up to 100 elderly.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, in his Putting God on the Guest List, wrote, "Dorot means 'generations'--generations of Jews together bringing light into lives that would have been otherwise darkened.  Dorot operates a soup kitchen and distributes clothing to home-bound elderly Jews."  In 2000 the group's Kosher meals for the Homebound provided an average of 73 meals per day.

The original structure resembled the rowhouse to the right.

The building received a $1 million renovation in 2000, which included an additional story that valiantly attempts to meld with the existing architecture.  Although, sadly, the leaded glass windows of the second floor have been lost, Swartburg's romantic 1933 design is greatly intact.

photographs by the author
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