Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Umbria - 465 West End Avenue


Despite the fact that the high-toned residences on West End Avenue were only about 20 years old in the first decade of the 20th century, they were threatened by the increasingly popular concept of apartment living.  On May 7, 1910 the Real Estate Record & Guide entitled an article "Another big Apartment House for West End Avenue," and reported that Harry Schiff had purchased the "group of 3 and 4-sty dwellings on the northwest corner of West End av and 82d st."  It noted, "Mr. Schiff will erect on the site a 12-sty structure."

Because that section of West End Avenue was "under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks," Schiff had to obtain permission to demolish the mansions and erect his building.  His concept for The Umbria apartments passed muster and approval was granted.

The following month, on July 29, architect D. Everett Waid filed plans for the "high-class elevator apartment house."  The estimated cost of construction was placed at $550,000 (around $15.5 million today).  His tripartite design incorporated a three-story limestone base decorated with motifs inspired by the Tudor and Norman periods--whimsical portrait bosses and Tudoresque floral plaques along the intermediate cornice, and rampant lions holding shields above the entrance.  

The eight-story mid-section was sparsely decorated.  Waid placed handsome stone balconettes at the fifth and tenth floors.  A prominent stone gargoyle guarded the corner of the cornice between the tenth and eleventh floors, and a pierced and pedimented parapet stood in for a terminal cornice.

An advertisement said that The Umbria was "designed on simple but dignified lines of architecture."  There were three apartments per floor, ranging from seven to twelve rooms.   Rent for a 12-room apartment cost about the equivalent of $6,500 per month in today's money.  In 1911, The World's New York Apartment House Album noted, "The rooms are of unusual size and have direct light and air.  Every apartment is as complete as a private dwelling."  The article added, "The best uniformed hall service is maintained at all hours."

The World's New York  Apartment House Album, 1911 (copyright expired)

Among the early residents was Helen L. Gillender Asinari, Marquise de San Marzano and Countess of Cartosio.  She was what was known in the late 19th century as a "penny princess"--an American heiress who married a European nobleman.  The daughter of millionaire tobacconist Eccles Gillender, she had married Robert Asinari, Count of Cartosio on October 4, 1871.  When the couple separated in 1883, Helen returned to New York City, bringing her titles with her.  (Her mother, Augusta, was so enraged at her leaving the count that she disinherited her.)

Perhaps surprisingly, Helen Asinari became involved in real estate development.  She founded the Asinari Holding Co., which erected office and apartment buildings.  The most notable structure she constructed was the 1897 Gillender Building.  

Helen was more than a mere resident of The Umbria.  She sold the Gillender Building in 1909, and purchased 465 West End Avenue.  It is very possible that it was she who gave the building its name.

Heading a corporation did not interfere with Helen's social life.  On its "Society's Calendar" for April 18, 1916, for instance, The Sun listed, "Luncheon by the Marquise de San Marzano of 465 West End avenue for Miss Elizabeth Brower Wood."

Helen's neighbors were busy entertaining, of course, as well.  Later that year, in December, Mrs. John Bates gave a reception "in honor of Dr. Mary M. Patrick, President of Constantinople College," as reported by The New York Times.  

Mrs. George Farmer Peck appeared in the society columns frequently.  Peck was the head of the hosiery firm Peck & Peck.  He and his wife announced the engagement of their daughter, Evelyn Mildred Peck, to Merle Banker Bates on November 23, 1919 at a luncheon party in New Rochelle, New York.  Something went amiss, however, and the next year, on October 10, 1920, The New York Herald reported, "Mr. and Mrs. George F. Peck of 465 West End avenue have send out invitations for the marriage of their daughter, Miss Evelyn Mildred Peck, to Mr. Wilbur Harnhan Burt."

George Farmer Peck died in their Umbria apartment on March 7, 1927.  The New York Times noted that Peck & Peck now operated sixteen stores throughout the country.  "Until Calvin Coolidge the firm had among its customers every President of the United States and his wife for twenty-five years."

The World's New York  Apartment House Album, 1911 (copyright expired)

Living in The Umbria at the time was Tammany Hall politician and insurance man John Francis Curry and his family.  He was born in Ireland on November 23, 1873.  Upon arriving in New York City his family "settled on a farm near Tenth Avenue and West Sixteenth Street," according to The New York Times.  The newspaper said, "From the time he was 7 until he was 12, John Curry milked his father's cows and delivered the milk before going to school."

By the time he moved into The Umbria, Curry had come a long way from cow milking.  He married Mary Frances McKiernan on June 14, 1906, and they had five children--four sons and a daughter.   In addition to his insurance business, he was a district leader for Tammany Hall.

On the eve of the 1929 municipal election, John Curry took the reins of Tammany Hall, and would remain its leader until April 1934.  At the time, Tammany Hall was at its height of popularity.  A year earlier Alfred E. Smith had been candidate for President, and now Mayor James J. Walker was about to be re-elected by a "resounding plurality," according to The New York Times. 

The Currys' daughter, Veronica, was married to Edmund M. McCarthy in St. Patrick's Cathedral at noon on February 25, 1930.  The New York Sun reported, "More than 1,000 invitations have been issued," and said that following the ceremony would be "a reception, wedding breakfast and breakfast dance at the Hotel Plaza.  The large ballroom and the small ballroom and the mirror room of the hotel have been reserved for the function."  The article added, "Richard, maître d'hotel at the Plaza, expects it to surpass any event there in years in splendor."

Being the only daughter of the head of Tammany Hall had its advantages.  The New York Sun reported, "Wedding gifts have been coming in such profusion to the Curry apartment at 465 West End Avenue that its rooms are practically filled with them, according to Miss McGinnis, one of Mr. Curry's secretaries.  She said that it has been impossible to open them all."

The Marquise de San Marzano died "suddenly," as worded in her obituary, in her Umbria apartment on January 12, 1932, suggesting a heart attack.  Her two children, Helen Asinari de San Marzano, and Charles Asinari de San Marzano, both of whom lived in The Umbria, shared equally in her estate of $15 million in today's money.

Six years later, in 1938, a penthouse level was added to the building.  It contained rooms for eight servants.  The concept was  quickly rethought and the following year the penthouse level was converted to two apartments.

Nathan Lindenbaum was born in Leinzut, Poland in 1901.  As the Nazi threat worsened, he fled to America with his wife, the former Ghity Amiel, and their children, in 1940.  Here Nathan founded the diamond trading firm of Lindenbaum & Berwald.  He and Ghity moved into The Umbria, where they were able to follow the horrors of World War II only through news accounts.  Lindenbaum was understandably frantic about the fates of the relatives they left behind.

In August 1946, a year after the end of the war, Nathan flew to Antwerp in hopes of locating lost relatives.  After a few fruitless weeks, he headed back home in mid-September on a Belgian airliner from Brussels, England.  As the airplane approached the Gander, Newfoundland airport in dense fog, it disappeared.

The pilot, in attempting to get below the fog, had descended too far and crashed into a thick forest.  Because of the remote location, finding the site took several days.  The tragedy is considered by many to be the first major civilian airliner crash.  Among the 27 people killed was Nathan Lindenbaum.

On September 19, newspapers began listing the names of the survivors and of the fatalities as they became known.  Ghity Lindenbaum was unable to face the possibility that her husband had perished, or even accept the fact that the airplane had crashed.  The New York Sun reported, "Mrs. Nathan Lindenbaum of 465 West End Avenue was reluctant to discuss the overdue plane but continued to hope for its safe arrival with her husband and the other passengers."

Living in The Umbria by the late 1960's was architect and urban planner Shadrach Woods.  He had begun his career in Paris in the office of Le Corbusier, working for three years on several of that architect's famous buildings, including the Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles.

In 1956 he partnered with George Candilis (also of the Le Corbusier office) and Alexis Josic to form the architectural firm of Candilis-Josic-Woods.  They designed entire towns, schools and hospitals throughout the world.   Among the books Woods wrote were Building for People, Urbanism is Everybody's Business, and What U Can Do.  He died in his apartment in The Umbria at the age of 50 in August 1973.

A renovation completed in 1991 slightly reduced the size of apartments on selected floors.  On the seventh floor there were now five apartments, and on the tenth through twelfth floors there were four.  The penthouse apartments were combined as a single unit in the remodeling.

photograph by the author
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