Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Thom & Wilson's 1899 223-231 West 21st Street


The architectural firm of Thom & Wilson designed a few civic buildings, notably the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street, and the Harlem Courthouse on East 121st Street.  But throughout the 1890's, partners Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson focused on designing hundreds of homes on the Upper West Side.  And so, when the estate of John M. Dodd commissioned the firm to design two apartment buildings on West 21st Street, in Chelsea, Thom & Wilson stepped out of its geographical comfort zone.

James Mingis Dodd, a contractor, had owned significant land along the north side of 21st Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  His home and carriage house engulfed the parcel at 229-231 West 21st Street.  Dodd died there on November 5, 1888, and his wife's funeral was held in the house on December 14, 1893.  Five years later the executors sought to replace it with modern buildings.

The buildings nearly did not happen.  On the agenda of the Committee on Sites and Buildings of the School Board on March 13, 1899 was the decision to select a site for Public School 55.  One of the two locations was 223-231 West 21st Street.  The school, obviously, was built on the alternate spot.

Completed in 1899 at a cost of $85,000--nearly $2.75 million today--the two mirror-image structure rose five stories.  More restrained than Thom & Wilson's often quirky Upper West Side works, their Renaissance Revival design featured a limestone base sparsely decorated with rusticated piers and frothy cartouches borrowed from the Beaux Arts style.  The upper four floors were clad in beige brick, with quoins of a slightly darker brick running up the sides.  The architects focused decoration on the central section, giving two paired sets of windows on the second floor Gibbs surrounds and Renaissance style pediments.  

The most decorative elements are unfortunately obscured by fire escapes.

The two buildings appeared, at first glance, to be three.  Two deep light courts cleaved both structures into two four-bay wide sections.  Thom & Wilson cleverly unified the base by continuing it across the courts, giving each a faux window to ensure visual continuity.

The buildings filled with professional, middle-class residents.  A particularly interesting tenant was William Augustus Conklin, who lived in 231.  Born in March 1837, he graduated from Columbia University in 1884, and earned his Ph.D. two years later.  He balanced his academic studies with his remarkable job.  He had joined the Central Park Zoological Department in 1858, and became its director in 1865.  He held that post until 1898.  On June 18, 1913 The Sun said, "Since 1898 he has been engaged in importing wild animals."

Two years after the first residents moved in, the city suffered a smallpox epidemic.  On May 7, 1901 The New York Times reported, "The Board of Health officers are kept constantly busy attending to new cases of smallpox in the city.  Cases are reported faster than they can be attended to."  Citizens were being removed from their homes, or even from their workplaces, to be detained in quarantine.  On May 6, 47-year-old Sarah Atchison was taken from 223 West 21st Street.

On October 21, 1903, insurance broker Lorenzo Winter and his wife, who lived in 231, were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  That night popular evangelist John Alexander "Elijah" Dowie held a "crusade for the regeneration of New York," as worded by the Mercer County Sun.  Although every seat was sold, according to The New York Press, "a crowd of almost 20,000 persons...tried to force its way into Madison Square Garden."  The four hundred police who attempted to keep order barricaded some surrounding streets.

The Winters had no interest in seeing Dowie, they simply wanted to cross the street.  And it did not go well.  In the chaos, Patrolman Campbell said Winter "knocked his helmet off" and arrested him for disorderly conduct.  The New York Press reported that Winter "strenuously denied" having knocked the officer's helmet off, and at the station house Mrs. Winter claimed at Officer Campbell "was unnecessarily rough."  An infuriated Lorenzo Winter promised to sue the city.

Not every one of the residents was totally upstanding.  In 1911 William Kearns, who was known on the streets as Harry Burgess, was arrested for running an illegal gambling den.  During his trial, prosecutors went so far as to set up a craps table in the courtroom as a visual prop.  After several days of the trial, on April 17 Mrs. Kearns went to the District Attorney's office, pleading that Kearns's 85-year-old mother "was ignorant of Kearns's troubles and that if she learned he was in prison it might kill her."  She was told that "Kearns had gone too far to expect immunity if he pleaded guilty," according to The Sun.

Mrs. Kearns then went to The Tombs and talked with her husband and his lawyer.  "Both were reluctant to enter a plea of guilty after the trial had gone so far, " said the newspaper.  But in the courtroom, she tried again.  She was able to talk to her husband for a moment, and he relented.  Despite overwhelming advice to stand trial, William Kearns pleaded guilty.

During the winter of 1917-18 police were baffled by the "Phantom Burglar," who had committed more than 100 bold apartment break-ins.  Police told reporters "he is a methodical thief," adding, "He always enters through a window...and never steals anything but jewelry and money."  On January 30, 1918, the Phantom Burglar arrived at 231 West 21st Street.

George Shepard and his wife, Edith, shared their apartment with George's brother, Ralph.  That night Edith awoke to noises in the living room and went to investigate.  There she came face-to-face with the burglar, who pointed a revolver at her, "and then choked her pet dog," according to The Sun.  "When the dog had been settled the burglar seized Mrs. Shepard and choked her until she was unconscious."  

When Edith Shepard regained consciousness, she stumbled back to the bedroom and collapsed.  The burglar had gotten away with several silver items and cash.

George Vermulen, who lived in 223 West 21st Street, suffered an eerily similar incident two years later.  On July 21, 1920, he awoke to find a man sneaking into his bedroom from the fire escape.  The New-York Tribune reported, "When he gave chase, the intruder ran out of the door and down the street with pajama-clad Vermulen in pursuit.  Patrolman Cassidy, in conventional garb, also joined in the chase."  James Polis was arrested and charged with burglary.

Only a week later another peculiar incident occurred at the address.  Mr. and Mrs. Henry Interman had recently moved into their first floor apartment.  On the night of August 2, 1920, residents excitedly telephoned police, saying they heard five gunshots come from the Interman apartment.  The New-York Tribune reported that one panicked passerby "yelled 'Murder!'"

The New York Herald wrote, "Miss Margaret Boyle...who was entering the building as the shots were fired, told the police a woman gowned in yellow rushed by her and ran up the street.  As she entered the vestibule, Mr. and Mrs. Interman came out of their apartment."  She heard Mrs. Interman say to her husband, "I was hit in the back."  Margaret Boyle asked them if they had heard the shots and "received the reply, 'Don't believe everything you hear.'"  The Intermans then left the building and disappeared around the corner.

While police searched for a woman in yellow and combed the hospitals for another with a bullet wound in the back, officers entered the Interman apartment through the window.  The New-York Tribune said, "Everything was set to drag out the bodies."  They found no sign of a struggle, nor any spent shells or bullet marks in the walls.  They did find a .22-calibre revolver, but it was fully loaded.  Nevertheless, all the residents questioned agreed that shots had been fired.  The New York Herald said, "A detective was detailed to wait for the Intermans' homecoming and find what it was all about."

Henry Inteman's explanation was simple, if questionable.  The Evening World reported, "It was, he said, a love affair in the backyard.  Thomas and Tabitha [two alley cats] had been honeymooning on the fence.  Mr. Interman had fired five shots at the pair, considering them disturbers of the peace."

Over the years the two buildings continued to house respectable professionals.  At the time of the break-ins, Gordon B. Pike lived in 223 West 21st Street.  An architect with the esteemed firm of McKim, Mead & White, he had graduated from Yale University in 1889, then studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in Paris.

After mid-century photographer Soichi Sunami and his wife Sue lived at 231 West 21st Street.  He had been a staff photographer for the Museum of Modern Art for three decades before he retired in 1968.  The New York Times remarked, "Mr. Sunami first attracted attention with his photographs of modern dancers, including Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, and Agnes de Mille."  The Sunamis were still living here on November 14, 1971 when he died in the New York Infirmary at the age of 86.

Other than the regrettable, if necessary, fire escapes that obscure their most interesting architectural details, the twin buildings are essentially unchanged since 1899.

many thanks to reader Pamela Wolff for requesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

1 comment:

  1. It seems I never thanked you for fulfilling my wish. Your article has been placed in our archive of information about our beloved building, which has been my home since 1956. I thank you now. Pamela