Monday, April 11, 2022

The Lost Michael Dreicer House - 1046 5th Avenue

When this photo was taken in 1944, the brownstone house at 1045 Fifth Avenue had been razed.  To the left is Wm. Starr Miller housephoto by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

In January 1906, real estate developers William W. and Thomas M. Hall purchased the 22-foot wide brownstone rowhouse at 1046 Fifth Avenue from Anna Weins.  She and her late husband, Dr. Joseph Weins, had occupied the residence for years.  The neighborhood had greatly changed since the Weins' home was erected, with the palaces of Manhattan's millionaires now engulfing the neighborhood.  In reporting the sale, the Real Estate Record & Guide noted that the Halls "will erect a 6-story American basement dwelling with elevator on the site."

W. W. & T. M. Hall were well-known for erecting lavish, speculative private homes.  They commissioned the architectural firm of Welch, Smith & Provot to design the residence, projected to cost $60,000 to construct--about $1.78 million today.  Completed in 1907, it was a dignified mix of the Second Empire and Beaux Arts styles.  A rusticated limestone base upheld three floors of brick, liberally trimmed in stone.  The second story windows, fronted by cast iron, faux balconies, sat within arches, the tympana of which were decorated with carved wreaths.  The top floor took the form of a high, copper-clad mansard.

On April 9, 1907, The New York Times reported that the developers had sold 1046 Fifth Avenue, noting that it "has just been finished."  The buyers, Benjamin and Emma Thaw, paid $190,000, or about $5.4 million in today's money.  The house would be a sort of pied-a-terre for the Thaws, whose main residence was in Pittsburgh where Benjamin was a banker.

It may have been a tax law that prompted the couple to sell the house in 1909.  That year, on January 17, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had reported on the Saxe Law, "designed to catch those who move out of town to escape assessments."  The newspaper published a list of "the non-residents assessed this year, whom the Tax Department expects to pay up."  Included was Benjamin Thaw of Pittsburgh, assessed at $25,000.

In June the Thaws sold 1046 Fifth Avenue to Michael Dreicer for $200,000, making a tidy profit.  The couple then rented the former home of R. Livingston Beeckman, at 854 Fifth Avenue, thereby avoiding any tax assessment.

Dreicer was the son of Jacob Dreicer, who had opened his jewelry business at 1128 Broadway in 1868.  At that time, socialites festooned themselves in pearls, essentially ignoring colored gemstones.    Although Dreicer and his son were important pearl dealers (a particular 30-inch string of perfectly-matched pearls put together by the firm sold for $1,500,000, and single pearl from the store went for as high as $130,000), they were instrumental in establishing the popularity of colored gems.  Decades later The New York Times would say “The father and the son are credited with having done much to overcome these prejudices and to have aided in creating in this country a taste for beautiful gems and exquisite art in jewelry.”  They sold a single diamond, known as the Duke of York diamond, for $125,000.

Michael Dreicer and his wife, the former Maisie Shainwald, had two sons, James Huntington and Donald Michael.  He significantly adding to his fortune by investing in Midtown real estate, almost exclusively on Fifth Avenue. 

Dreicer filled his home with an astounding collection of fine art.  Writing in Arts & Decoration in December 1917, Guy Pene Du Bois devoted several pages to Dreicer's collection of Flemish, Italian, French and German works.  "He hangs these pictures in a room, not over-large--designed to be completely in keeping with them.  Thus a French Gothic tapestry depicting 'The Crucifixtion'--filled with the multiple details that enchant small minds--faces a Della Robbia plaque representing the Holy Family, while a table just off the center of the room holds early Italian bronzes, of delightful patine, of which the most notable may be a Paduan horse and rider."

A Della Robbia plaque above the mantel compliments the Italian style ceiling.  Arts & Decoration, December 1917 (copyright expired)

On April 11, 1917, The New York Times reported that Michael Dreicer was in the process of purchasing Deepdale, the Long Island estate of William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.  The massive property was "one of the largest country places in the East," said the article.  "The transaction involves the mansion and outbuildings, but it does not include all of the land."  In fact, the negotiations were taking place between Vanderbilt and Dreicer's mother, Gittel.  Later The New York Times would explain that the estate "was given to Mr. his mother, who purchased the estate from William K. Vanderbilt, Jr."  Dreicer would take title to 43 acres "of the choicest land surrounding the mansion and make it his Summer home."

The Dreicer's new summer home had been designed for Wm. K. Vanderbilt, Jr. by Horace Trumbauer.  American Homes & Gardens, 1906 (copyright expired)

Dreicer continued to add to his art collection.  On January 5, 1917, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported that he had purchased Christ Appearing to Mary by Roger van der Weyden, for $150,000 (more than $3 million today).  The article noted, "This is the second important painting of the Flemish Primitive School Mr. Dreicer has secured during the last year."  The article added, "Great sentimental interest is attached to the picture, especially in America, in that it belonged to Queen Isabella of Spain at the time she was befriending Columbus.  It is probable that he saw the painting when he was at court."

The family was at Deepdale on July 26, 1921 when Michael Dreicer died at the age of 53.  In reporting his death, The New York Times called him "one of the foremost jewelers of this country," adding that he was "regarded as one of the best judges of art works.  He was also a connoisseur in jade and Chinese porcelains."

Dreicer had executed his will just six days before his death.  In it he left his entire collection of "pictures, etchings, tapestries and statuary" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Valued at $1 million, it came with the stipulation "that the collection is to be placed in a separate room for twenty-five years and to be known as the Michael Dreicer Collection."  Maisie received both homes and their furnishings, "the entire stock of wines, $100,000 in cash, and the income during life of one-half of the residue."  The other half was divided between James and Donald, who were twelve and ten years old respectively.

The estate was valued at "about $3,000,000," according to the New York Herald (nearly $43.5 million by today's standards).  He was generous to his servants, and left one employee, Minnie A. Morgan, $20,000 for "faithful service."

Three weeks after Dreicer's death, on August 14, 1921, his father Jacob died.   The New York Times reported, "Relatives said last night that he had been unable to bear the shock of losing his son, Michael."

By 1925 Maisie was leasing 1046 Fifth Avenue to Edwin A. Shewan and his wife, the former Anne Bergeth Hanson.  The couple had two daughters.  Shewan was a partner with his brother in the Shewan Dry Dock and Repair Yard Corporation, "the largest dry dock and ship-repairing plant in the port of New York," according to the 1917 Scots and Scots' Descendants in America. 

Like Michael Dreicer, Shewan had a notable art collection, including rare tapestries and medieval-period needlework.  The scope of the Shewans' fortune became very public in January 1925.  Anne sent a pearl necklace and a solitaire diamond ring weighing 13.5 karats set in platinum to her jeweler for cleaning.  On January 29, the jeweler's messenger handed a box to the maid who answered the door.  The Sun reported, "She opened it, took out the necklace, peered into the tissue wrapping, failed to see the ring and threw the box aside."  The box and tissue were "dumped into the ash barrel in the cellar later in the day."

Later that evening Anne remarked to Edwin that it was strange that the jeweler had sent the necklace separate from the ring (which was valued at the equivalent of $590,000 in today's money).  She telephoned the jeweler the next day and was informed that both items had been delivered.

The maid and butler rushed to the cellar, only to discover that the barrel's contents had already been collected by the Street Cleaning Department.  The garbage scow at East 107th Street and the East River was delayed for two days while workers combed through the rubbish for the ring.  They were too late.  Anne's valuable trinket had already been dumped at sea.

Among those reading the accounts was George Lester Carter, who developed a scheme.  The 30-year-old sent a note, "written in a scrawl," according to The Sun, to Edwin Shewan on February 10.  He demanded $500, "as he had to buy a new car."  The note threatened that if the money was not forthcoming, the writer would "kidnap Mrs. Shewan and her two children."  He gave a deadline for delivery of February 16.

A second note followed, which said that Shewan "might as well prepare for the worst because he was going to do some dirty work."  Shewan was directed to bring the money personally to 228 East 127th Street where the writer would be waiting in an automobile.  It provided the license plate number for Shewan's convenience.  This note warned that the writer was "one of the hustling gang," and that if the police were notified, "members of the gang would kill the merchant and his family," as reported in The Sun.  The would-be extortionist was arrested on April 3.

In 1928 the Shewans separated.  The daughters remained at 1046 Fifth Avenue with their father.  In April 1930, Shewan filed for divorce and Anne countersued for separation on the ground of nonsupport and abandonment.

In May 1934 Shewan married Juanita Austin-Fetter, of Marion, Ohio.  Five weeks later Juanita became sick, "but her illness was not thought to be serious," reported The New York Times.  She died on June 21 from a blood clot on the brain.  Shewan's bride was just 35 years old.

In 1938 Edwin A. Shewan became an invalid.  He left 1046 Fifth Avenue in 1940 and Maisie Dreicer, now Maisie de Kerchove, sold the house to the Ro-M Company, headed by Rose M. Corbell.  The firm announced its intentions "to alter the former Dreicer residence into apartments."

Instead, however, it was sold in June 1941 to Harvey L. and Lillian Schwamm.  Schwamm was the principal in H. L. Schwamm & Co., dealers in municipal securities.  He was, as well, president of the National Bronx Bank and the Pan American Trust Company.

In 1941 the vintage brownstone next door, while boarded up, was intact.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

On August 16, 1958 The New York Times reported, "A Northeast Airlines plane crashed in the fog [at Nantucket, Massachusetts] last night and three hours later nineteen persons were known as dead."  Among the victims listed were Harvey and Lillian Schwamm.

At the time of the Schwamms' deaths, private homes along this stretch of Fifth Avenue were a rarity.  The former Dreicer house survived until 1966 when it was demolished to make way for a 15-story apartment building designed by Horace Ginsbern.   Completed in 1967, the building occupies the Dreicer site and that of 1045 Fifth Avenue, next door.

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  1. Benjamin Thaw & his wife might have had more than taxes to make them leave NYC - in 1909 his younger brother Harry was still very much in the news, attempting to gain release from prison.

  2. Aside from yet another comprehensive article about the history and life of a beautiful structure, replaced be the inevitable architectural nightmare, it leaves one wondering what else is in that giant trash heap of the coast of New York. NYarch

  3. I was living nearby when that ugly modern building went up. I remember wondering at the time how anyone could have any privacy in a place with floor-to-ceiling glass walls in the front. It's a piece with the ugly glass box that replaced the Broklaw Mansions at the corner of 5th Avenue and 79th Street, which I used to pass by often.

  4. Many of the apartments are full floor with unobstructed views. The building is spectacular and they rarely sell. Wonder why?

  5. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Looking out is all that matters. Change your perspective.