Friday, May 27, 2022

The Mary C. Hargin House - 130 East 38th Street


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In 1868 brothers David and John Jardine, partners in the architectural firm D. & J. Jardine, were hired by developer Abraham B. Embury to design a row of five brownstone-faced homes at 128 to 136 East 38th Street.  Completed the following year, the Anglo-Italianate style houses rose four stories above short, four-stepped stoops.  (David Jardine was apparently pleased with the results, moving into 136 East 38th Street.)

The owners of 130 East 38th Street offered it for rent in September 1877, their succinct advertisement reading simply, "To Rent--On Murray Hill, a small house, No. 130 East 38th st."  A month later it was home to a dressmaker.  High-end dressmakers often worked from their homes, and the best of them could afford to live in refined neighborhoods.  The thriving business of this one was reflected in an ad on November 12, 1877:  "Wanted--Several thoroughly competent hands in a private dressmaking establishment; references wanted."

The dressmaker would have to find new accommodations the following year, when Mary Caroline Ellis Hargin purchased the house.  Born in Onondaga Hill, New York on September 8, 1812, she was the daughter of Major General John Ellis, who had distinguished himself in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War.  Her husband, Charles B. Hargin, had died on August 6, 1840.

In 1885 it suddenly seemed that Mary was about to come into a unexpected windfall.  She discovered that five years before he died, her husband had purchased a large amount of land in Syracuse, New York.  The Democrat and Chronicle described it as "a big tract of land some distance from the town," and said "his widow was so ignorant of her right that she did not know she had any claim upon the real property."  A portion of Syracuse University and a large cemetery now sat on what had been undeveloped land.

In August Mary began action "for the recovery of her dower interests," said the Springfield Journal.  "Her claim is said to be unquestionable, so that her prospects of wealth are good."  The courts did not agree, saying in part, "More than twenty years having elapsed" since the current owner took possession, her claim had expired.  Mary's hopes of unanticipated financial gain were dashed.

Emmeline Sinclair purchased 130 East 38th Street as an investment property by 1890.  She lived in Long Branch, New Jersey and on May 1 that year leased the house to Charles W. Handy for five years.  It was the scene of genteel entertainments during the family's residency.  On March 19, 1893, for instance, The World reported, "Miss Handy, of No. 130 East thirty-eighth street, gave a luncheon on Thursday for Miss Heimburghe, of Albany, who is her guest at present."

Upon the expiration of the Handys' lease, the Murray Hill house was rented to Grace Wolfe, a very colorful character.  Her name almost immediately appeared in newspapers.  For some reason she had refused to pay her Fifth Avenue dressmaker, Phoebe A. Smith $279 for gowns (about $8,870 today).  

Smith had obtained a judgement against Grace, who still refused to pay.  On October 29, 1895. the New York Herald reported, "Miss Wolfe was directed to appear and submit to examination...She did not do so and was then directed to show cause why she should not be punished for contempt."  Instead, Grace simply ignored the second order to appear.  The newspaper said that it was charged "that Miss Wolfe, who is a woman of wealth, has been trifling with the dignity of the Court."

The following year she was involved in a peculiar case.  She had rented the 38th Street house through the real estate firm of Francis Frederick Georger.  Georger and his wife Florence were married about the time Grace Wolfe moved in.  Florence gave birth in Washington D.C. on February 11, 1896.  The infant's arrival was kept secret from her family because Georger feared his father-in-law would disinherit Florence.  

And then, the baby boy was spirited away from the hospital.  Court papers later revealed, "A certain Sophie Landgraf, procured by Grace Wolf [sic], might solve the mystery...Amelia Ries, known as Grace Wolf [sic], unsavory, was a tenant of Georger's firm at 130 East Thirty-Eighth street, at the time."  Landgraf had taken the infant to the home of Louise Ries, a sister of Amelia (or Grace).  The convoluted case came to light when the Georgers divorced in 1910 and Florence first attempted to find her child.

Grace left East 38th Street in 1897, following her marriage to William Ash.  The Sinclair family continued to lease the house until February 1915 when The New York Times reported that George T. Sinclair had sold the property after his family had owned it for half a century.

It was purchased by actress and singer Ida Adams.  Her first stage appearance was in the 1909 The Candy Shop.  In 1912 she appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld's A Winsome Widow, and appeared in his Ziegfield Follies of 1912.

Ida Dams in the 1916 play Houp La!  Play Pictorial, November 1916 (copyright expired)

Ida Adams was the first owner to make renovations to the now-dated house.  On July 5, 1919, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that she had hired the architectural firm of Warren & Clark to install new plumbing and heating, and a "new front."  The remodeling resulted, according to The New York Times columnist Christopher Gray decades later, in the stripping off of the brownstone and replacing it with "tinted stucco and leaded glass windows."

Ida lived in the house with one live-in servant, her cook.  Among her good friends was Helen Elwood Stokes, the wife of millionaire William Earl Dodge Stokes.  Things were not going well between the Stokeses, and Helen occasionally found refuge in the East 38th Street house.  During the well-publicized divorce proceedings, the address repeatedly was brought up.

On October 15, 1923, for instance, a former Stokes domestic, Anna McIntosh, testified that in May 1914 she saw Mrs. Stokes "at the home of Ida Adams, an actress, at 130 East thirty-eighth Street."  The New York Times reported, "The witness took in a bottle of whisky and one of vichy and some cigarettes, she testified."

In August 1938, the house was sold to Harry I. and Mary G. Phillips.  Following Mary's death in 1938, Harry sold it and it underwent a series of owners over the next two decades.

A renovation completed in 1958 replaced the windows (Ida Adams's leaded glass windows were apparently lost in this remodeling), altered the entryway, and introduced new ironwork.  The interiors were altered for offices throughout the house with a caretakers bedroom on the top floor.

In 1978 the house was returned to a single-family dwelling.   Art publisher Barnett Brimberg had the facade installed for Ida Adams by Warren & Clark removed.  It was replaced with scored stucco that simulates brownstone blocks, while the openings were given eared architrave frames more appropriate to a Greek Revival house of a generation earlier.  (Brimberg told Christopher Gray in 2002, "It was a nothing facade, so I felt that since it wasn't original, I could remove it.")

The interiors were gutted in 2014, leaving little if anything of the historic detailing. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The 1903 Flynt (Stiehl) Building - 28-30 West 20th Street


Prosper Montgomery Wetmore, who lived at 28 West 20th Street, was typical of the residents of the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the 19th century.  A legislator and author, he was a founder of the American Art Union.  But well-to-do families like the Wetmores were pushed out of the neighborhood as the 20th century approached and commercial interests moved in.

On April 18, 1902, The New York Press reported that the Alliance Realty Company had purchased the former Wetmore house.  The article noted, "The company bought recently Nos. 31 and 33 West Nineteenth street, running through to No. 30 West 20th Street."  The four houses would become the site of a new loft and store building.

Architect H. Waring Howard, Jr. was commissioned to design the structure, which, according to the Real Estate Record & Guide on September 6, 1902, would be called the Flynt Building.  Howard duplicated his tripartite design on the 20th and 19th Street facades.  Completed the following year, the neo-Renaissance style building featured two-story, rusticated  limestone pilasters that divided the base into two vertical sections.  Two entrances, one to the store space and the other to the upper floors flanked the commercial window.  The three-story mid-section was clad in beige brick.  A stone cornice supported on small, fluted pilasters between the brick piers accentuating each floor.  The windows of the top floor formed an arcade, below the cast metal cornice.

Among the initial tenants were the Andrews School Furnishing Co. and Samuel Oppenheim & Brother.  Touting itself as the "oldest established school furniture house in the country," Andrews also marketed "opera chairs," and church furniture.  Samuel Oppenheim & Brother took three floors in the new building.  Despite the size of its operation and long-established trade, the maker of women's cloaks and suits quickly suffered financial problems.  On December 1, 1903 the Fur Trade Review reported that the firm had declared bankruptcy.

The store space was leased to a surprising, short-term tenant that year--Tammany Hall's "sub-Post Office."  On October 24, 1903 The Evening Telegram explained, "During the last few days, as the eve of the hottest and most bitterly contested municipal election in the stormy history of New York politics approaches, the mails have been deluged with a flood of campaign literature issued broadcast by the press bureaus of both parties."  The Tammany press relations operation, however, was immense.

The article said that in the past week, 200,000 persons had received "a copy of a book called 'Father Knickerbocker Adrift,' in which Tammany's side of the story was set forth."  In order to accomplish this monumental undertaking, Tammany had leased the store space, which ran through to 19th Street.   It was laid out factory-like.  At the front half were tables where more than 100 young women addressed envelopes "from early morning until midnight."  As an inducement for them to write fast, each day the woman who turned out the most envelopes was rewarded with an extra week's pay bonus.

Young women, chosen for their handwriting and speed, at the envelope addressing area.  The Evening Telegram, October 24, 1903 (copyright expired)

In another section, "girls are busy folding, putting in envelopes and sealing the books.  Everything works like a machine."  The article said, "There is no disorder, no confusion or noise, nothing but the subdued buzz of busy workers.  They have no time to talk, these girls.  They are paid to work, paid well, and get supper money and overtime, and then there are prizes."

Other workers stuff the booklets into the addressed envelopes.  The Evening Telegram, October 24, 1903 (copyright expired)

Clerks gathered the stacks of addressed envelopes, rushed piles of books to the envelope stuffers as needed, and took the sealed envelopes to the stamp station.  (When the system was set up, $15,000 worth of stamps--about $455,000 today--were purchased from the Post Office.)  Once stamped, they were stuffed into mail bags for transport to the Post Office.  At the time of the article 657 bags had been filled.

The floors formerly occupied by Samuel Oppenheimer & Brother quickly filled.  In the January 1904 issue of Cloaks and Furs, the David I. Ullman company, maker of "silk waists and shirt waist suits" announced it was moving into the building.

And with the Tammany operation gone, around 1905 the piano store of George W. Herbert moved into the store space.  Unlike the piano manufacturers who had their own retail stores on Fifth Avenue and Union Square, Herbert handled "all the leading makes."  He widened his market in 1905 by offering pianos to rent, as well; and in 1912 advertised "Pianos bought, sold exchanged, rented, and on installments.  Tuning and Repairing promptly attended to."

The New Toy Mfg. Co. was upstairs by then.  The firm made the dolls and stuffed animals given as prizes at fairs and carnivals.  An advertisement in The Billboard in March 1914 called the firm "The Kings of 'Em All" and the "largest manufacturers of Teddy Bears, Snookey Ookum Dolls, Dressed Teddy Bears, Pillow Tops and all kinds of novelties for Paddle Wheel purposes."

The toy maker shared the upper portion of the building with garment makers:  the National Women's Wear Co., Big "G" Cloak and Suit Company, and Emil Haas.

In 1915 the A. H. Stiehl Furniture Co. took a floor.  As the firm grew, it would expand within the building, eventually taking the store space as well.  By the second half of the 20th century the Flynt Building would be almost universally known as the Stiehl Building.

In 1923 the firm's advertisements referred to "The Stiehl Building."  The Furniture Index, May 1923 (copyright expired)

By the last quarter of the century, A. H. Stiehl occupied the entire building.  An advertisement promoting its Washington's Birthday Sale in New York Magazine on February 7, 1972, read in part, "All styles and periods at big savings.  Values like these can't last forever.  Get your decorator to arrange a visit now."

After decades in the building, by the mid 1980's, A. H. Stiehl  was gone.  In 1986 Shar Creations, Inc. operated from the building, and in 1995 the F-Stop restaurant opened in the ground floor.  The New York Times' food critic Florence Fabricant called it "where food meets photography."  The space was home to Eden in the early 21st century.  It was described by Henry Hill in his 2003 Goodfella's Guide to New York, who said, "This property, like most of the people here, is absolutely beautiful.  Flowers, waterfalls, don't forget your Eve, Adam, unless you are a stud."

A renovation completed in 2014 resulted in offices on the upper floors.  Both facades are remarkably unchanged, including the storefronts, normally the first to go.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The 1926 Congregation Masas Benjamin Anshe Podhajce - 108 East 1st Street

Today a part of western Ukraine, the small town of Podhajce (or Pidhaitsi in Ukrainian) had a significant Jewish population in the 19th century.  There were two places of worship in the town, a Catholic church erected in 1634, and a synagogue which was built around the same time (no later than 1648).  In 1890 there were 3,879 Jews within the town proper, out of a total population of 5,646.  

It was about that time that a small group of Jews left everything behind and embarked on the dangerous journey to America.  They settled in the East Village, a neighborhood becoming increasingly crowded with immigrant families from Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and Germany.  In 1895 Congregation Masas Benjamin Anshe Podhajce was organized.

In 1926, the congregation purchased the three-story and basement building at 108 East 1st Street and commissioned architect Robert Dreyfuss to renovate it into a synagogue.  He reclad it in yellow brick laid to give the impression of rustication.  The base, separated from the upper portion by a limestone bandcourse, included a centered, main entrance within a stone arch supported by hefty, engaged columns; an entrance to the upper floors at the side, and an arched window.  The name of the congregation was carved in Hebrew over the doorway, and cast into the iron arch above entrance gates was the inscription (translated) "Contributed by the Podhajce Ladies Auxiliary."

Dreyfuss accentuated the linear appearance of the upper section with the use of four double-height piers, each sitting on a limestone base.  The center piers terminated in stylized Torah scrolls, and a large Magen David, or Star of David, adorned the large rondel below the stepped parapet.

On the first floor was a study, the sanctuary engulfed the second floor, and on the third was a women's area.  Shortly after the building's completion, the congregation shared it with another group from its hometown, Congregation Rodeph Shalom Independent Podhajce.  That congregation was in the process of erecting a new synagogue at 7 West 83rd Street, which would be completed in 1930.

By the early 1980's, the East 1st Street shul was home to a Lithuanian congregation, Kochob Jacob Anshe Kamenitz.  The changing demographics of the neighborhood kept the property in flux.  In 1985 it became vacant, and remained so until 1990, when Congregation Beth Yitzchok moved in.  But, again, its residency would be short-lived.

The first of major changes came in 1995 when three artists established The Synagogue Space for the Visual and Performing Arts here.  Then, a significant remodeling, completed in October 2002, resulted in a large triplex apartment which shared a portion of the ground floor with a small residential space.  In converting the property, the architects compassionately preserved the historic elements of the facade.

photographs by the author
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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The 1888 Richard Wightman House - 605 West End Avenue


The architectural firm of Thom & Wilson would be responsible for hundreds of rowhouses on the Upper West Side in the 1880's and '90's.   In 1887 the partners were hired by developer Bernard Wilson to design a row of ten upscale homes at 601 through 619 West End Avenue, between 89th and 90th Streets.  It appears the the Renaissance Revival style houses were designed in five mirror image pairs, the only significant differences being the placement of the entrances at either left or right.

Ground was broken in January 1888 and construction was completed nine months later.  Each brownstone-clad residence rose four stories above a high English basement.  The box stoops took three turns before arriving at the arched entrances.  Two parlor windows, separated by a carved telamon, were united by a stained glass fanlight.  A bowed oriel distinguished the second floor; while above Renaissance style carvings enhanced the pilasters and spandrel panels of the third and fourth floors.

The arched transom over the parlor windows was originally filled with stained glass.

Wilson sold 605 West End Avenue to Richard and Elizabeth Wightman.   The well-to-do Wightman was the principal in Wightman & Co., makers of "suits, gowns and dresses."  The couple had three sons, Richard Jr., William Francis and Frederick Charles; and a daughter Elizabeth.

Richard Jr. was working in his father's firm when the family moved into the new house.  He sailed to Europe each year to investigate new fashion trends, and seems to have been actively involved in the designs of some garments.  In 1890, for instance, he was issued a patent for his "buoyant bathing suit."  The wearer was prevented from drowning by front and back air compartments in the "jacket" of the suit, which was "adapted to be attached to the pantaloons."

It appears that the entire Wightman family was still in their summer home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, in November 1906.  The house next door was vacant and a sign told potential buyers that the keys were available at 263 West 99th Street.  The realtor's trust in allowing strangers to roam through the property--unheard of today--resulted in problems for the Wightmans.

Walter Titus gave the keys to two men on November 15.  A woman drove them to the West End Avenue house, and waited while they entered.  On the second floor, them managed to get from a window of that house to one in the Wightman residence.  The New-York Tribune deemed the process "an easy matter for them."  The article went on to say, "The robbers then calmly helped themselves."  They made off with jewelry valued at more than $5,000, nearly $150,000 today.

Stylized plants sprout from urns in the carved panels of the third floor.

In 1913 Richard Wightman appears to have retired.  That year he sold his firm in equal shares to the three sons, for $1 each, and he and Elizabeth transferred title to the West End Avenue house to the four children--all of whom still lived there.  Each received one-quarter ownership.  Richard and Elizabeth then moved permanently to their country home.

The siblings continued to live in the house.  During World War I Frederick was a captain in the Army-Navy Air Force, after which he became a member of the State Moving Picture Commission.  In May 1922 he testified against the Big U Film Exchange, Inc. after seeing the film Man to Man at the Lincoln Square Theatre.   The State Moving Picture Commission asserted that the firm "had deliberately failed to make cuts in films as required by the State Board of Censors."

The West End Avenue block had changed by now.  In 1916, 601 through 603 had been demolished and replaced by an Emery Roth designed apartment building.  In July 1922 the Wightman siblings sold 605 West End Avenue to Clemencia De Socarraz De Acosta.   She was no doubt approached by developers three years later, who would erect a Rosario Candela apartment building at 607 through 613.  But she, like the owner of 615 had done, held out.

The complex stoop zig-zags up to the entrance, while service stairs turn downward to the English basement.

Although never officially converted to apartments, the  former Wightman house was nonetheless operated as a multi-family home for the rest of the century.  Celia Shapowitz lived here on October 8, 1964, when she was struck by an automobile at 90th Street and Broadway.  The driver, Wallace Holman, sped off and was followed by another driver for eight blocks before he picked up a foot patrolman and continued the chase.  

At 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue Holman was captured and arrested.  (Another witness, Leopold Castillo, who followed on his bicycle, also identified the hit-and-run driver.)  Holman was a bellboy at the Shelton Towers Hotel and had stolen the car from a guest.  Celia, who was 60 years old and unmarried, died at Knickerbocker Hospital from her injuries.

A renovation completed in 2011 returned 605 West End Avenue to a private house.  It and its fraternal twin at 615, the last remnants of the 1888 row, create quaint anachronisms, sandwiched between hulking 20th century apartment buildings.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Peter Hirsch for prompting this post
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Monday, May 23, 2022

The Lost Society Library - 109 University Place

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1754 the New York Society Library was formed.  It occupied rooms in City Hall (later Federal Hall), nearly side-by-side with the earlier The Public Library, 
founded in 1700 under the administration of the Earl of Bellomont.  (That library was housed in Trinity Church.)

The New York Society Library's first permanent home was erected at 33 Nassau Street in 1795.  It remained there until 1836 when its magnificent Greek Revival building on Broadway at Leonard Street and Catherine Lane was completed.

The first and second New York Society Library buildings.  History of the New York Society Library, 1908 (copyright expired)

The constant northward movement of Manhattan's residential neighborhoods forced a third move.  Austin Baxter Keep, in his 1908 History of the New York Society Library, wrote, "By 1854 plans were well under way for a new location for the Library."  The previous year, three plots had been purchased from Adeline E. Schermerhorn, widow of Peter Augustus Schermerhorn, for $18,650 (about $593,000 in 2022).  

They were situated on the east side of University Avenue (later University Place), between 12th and 13th Streets.  The neighborhood was filling with refined homes, and the vacant parcel came with detailed restrictions.  Only a building of "brick or stone of at least two stories in height" could be built, and the purchaser could not "erect, permit or suffer upon the said premises or any part thereof any public school, theatre, or other place for public amusement, or any other place for any other trade, business or occupation dangerous, noxious or offense to the neighbouring inhabitants."

In March 1855 the trustees approved the firm of T. Thomas & Son as the architects of the new library.  The cornerstone was laid that summer, and on April 28, 1856 the trustees met in "the almost finished structure," as worded by Austin Baxter Keep.  The Italianate style brick-and-stone structure was 52-feet-wide at the property line, allowing for extra light and ventilation inside.  Towards the back, it spread out to engulf the entire width of the parcel.

Architects Thomas Thomas and his son, Griffith Thomas, arranged the facade in three vertical and two horizonal sections.  The entrance was centered within the rusticated stone base.  At the second floor, arched openings crowned with Renaissance inspired pediments flanked a Palladian-style group of windows.  They were surmounted by a carved entablature announcing "Founded A. D. 1754."  A second carved plaque, directly above, read "Society Library."  A hefty cast iron cornice was crowned with a handsome Italianate balustrade.

Valentine's Manual of the City of New York in 1856 wrote:

On entering the front door, the visitor finds himself in a hall forty-seven feet long and twelve wide, handsomely paved with tessalated [i.e., colorful, geometric tiled] pavement.  On the left hand is a comfortable room for a ladies' reading room, sixteen feet by thirty.  A similar room on the right is used as a conversation room.  At the end of the hall are folding doors opening into the large reading room, thirty-one feet by seventy-three, well lights and well furnished with papers and periodicals.

It was the second floor that was the most impressive.  A flight of stairs led to the library proper, described by Valentine's Manual as "a noble apartment."  The great room engulfed the entire second floor, its ceiling rising 35-feet to an oblong glass dome.  The space was girded by two galleries which, like the main floor, contained "quiet alcoves."  The library was designed to hold 100,000 volumes.

The cost of construction had added another $55,560, bringing the total expenditure to about $2.36 million by today's standards.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Sixteen years after the opening of the new building, it was the scene of the library's centennial.  On November 10, 1872, The New York Times reported that the anniversary "was celebrated last evening in the hall of the New-York Historical Society building...At 7-1/2 o'clock a brilliant assemblage of ladies and gentlemen--many of them literary lights--occupied the seats in the main hall."  The current president of the board of trustees, Dr. Frederic De Peyster, gave the main address, which focused on the history of the institution.

Surprisingly, the trustees of the New York Society Library were duped in 1880 when they rented a room to Albert Welles's American College of Heraldry.  On February 6, 1881, the New-York Tribune reported, "A large gilt sign over a window of the building No. 67 University-place, displays the words 'American College of Heraldry.'  Near the top of the building cut in stone are the words 'Society Library.'  This latter sign, however, is not conspicuous, and strangers unfamiliar with the building suppose it to be devoted to the purposes of the College of Heraldry."

The newspaper had done an investigation and concluded the college "which is using the names of many prominent citizens as regents and life members, is a pretentious sham."  Welles, said the article, was not only the president, but the entire faculty, and he had "succeeded by ingenious devices in getting $50 each from these regents and life members, who have no duties and no privileges of any value."  Understandably, the college was soon gone from the Society Library building.

On the evening of August 31, 1883 the janitor, C. William Ormsby, was going through the rooms, closing the shutters for the night when he "surprised a man in one of the rooms on the second floor endeavoring to pry open a drawer in one of the desks which contained some money and rare coins," according to The New York Times.  Ormsby detained the intruder and summoned a policeman.  At his hearing, 26-year-old Paul H. Rieve explained that he was a machinist out of work and was simply in the building looking for employment.  The judge was not convinced and Rieve was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.

Around 1896 University Place was renumbered, giving the New York Society Library the new address of 109.

When this photograph was taken in 1906, commercial buildings had begun to populate the area.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The year 1914 was remarkable for the New York Society Library for two very different reasons.  At some point between 1840 and 1854, the original parchment charter, granted by George III in 1772, had disappeared.  At the annual shareholders' meeting on April 28, 1914, it was announced that the venerable document "was restored to the library by a resident of Brooklyn."

An equally surprising story affected the janitor's family that year.  John McCarthy, his wife, and their children lived in a small apartment in the rear of the building.  In January, Anita Faithful McCarthy read in the newspapers that William Smith, a "recluse on the Bowery," had died, leaving a $200,000 estate (roughly $5.34 million today).  Smith was the assumed name of Dudley Jardine, son of a millionaire organ builder.  Anita knew immediately that Jardine, alias Smith, was her father.

Jardine had married Anita Blackwell following the Civil War, "but lived away from her most of the time, explaining that he was doing private detective work," said The Evening World on October 23, 1914.  "While he was living this dual life the child Anita Faithful Smith was born, and shortly afterward Jardine left the little family and took up his abode in a lodging house."

Anita told a reporter from The Sun, "My father deserted my mother.  I supported her from the time I was 16 years old except one year, when my father let my brother and me stay in the Juvenile Asylum."  Anita's mother had died in 1911, and now she went to court to claim her share of her father's fortune.

On October 23 The Evening World reported, "There are five children romping with joy to-day around a smiling woman of middle age in a rear apartment at No. 109 University place, and their lives hereafter will be blessed with the good things of life, while yesterday they were the children of a poor janitor."  Anita's long fought battle resulted in a decision that "she and her children are to share largely" in the estate.

By the Depression years, once again the northward movement of society caused the New York Society Library to rethink its location.  On May 3, 1936, the Chicago Tribune reported, "The New York Society Library, one of New York's hoariest social institutes, is moving.  For years it has stood on University place, grimly ignoring the onslaught of lofty buildings and second-hand shops.  Now the library can no longer take it, and its officials have purchased the residence of Mrs. John S. Rogers on East 79th street."

The T. Thomas & Son structure was demolished in 1939, replaced by an six-story apartment building designed by H. L. Feldman, which survives.

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Saturday, May 21, 2022

The 1891 Prospect Hill Apartments - 26 East 91st Street


image via

Among the Upper Manhattan's elegant country mansions in the 18th century was Prospect Hall,  located at approximately what is today Park Avenue and 93rd Street.  The estate took its name from the area called Prospect Hill.  A letter to the editor of The New York Times on February 9, 1913 recalled, "The situation was a very fine one.  Prospect Hill, the name still given to that part of the city, was much higher than any part of the city south of Washington Heights.  From the front of Prospect Hall there was a fine view of the East River and Long Island."

By 1890, the days of summer estates and Dutch farms had long passed, as houses, stores and apartment buildings rose along the Upper East Side streets.  That year developer John Livingston hired the architectural firm of A. B. Ogden & Sons to design a sprawling flat, or apartment, building at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 91st Street.

Completed the following year, John Livingston called his new six-story building the Prospect Hill.  The architects had faced the Renaissance Revival style building in brick, trimmed in brownstone.  A box stoop led to the entrance, centered on Madison Avenue, which sat within a majestic two-story arch containing an oval stained glass window.  The corner was rounded above the first floor, providing a charming balcony to the second floor corner apartment.  An ornate pressed metal frieze ran below the cornice, which A. B. Ogden & Sons garnished with balustrades and triangular pediments.  Below street level were two stores, "suitable for a druggist and barber," according to the Real Estate Record & Guide.

Real Estate Record & Guide, May 30, 1891 (copyright expired)

The lobby was meant to impress.  The floor was tiled with marble and the wainscoting was mahogany.  A floor-to-ceiling console mirror "gives a brilliant reflection of every objects to the east," said the Record & Guide.  "There are picturesque seats in bamboo and mahogany, and a handsome lamp is suspended from the ceiling."

There were three apartments per floor, of either seven rooms and a bath, or eight rooms and bath.  "Each suite of apartments has a parlor, music-room and dining-room, which can be separated by sliding doors or portieres, or, when occasion demands, thrown into one."  The critic of the Record & Guide felt the ability to combine all three principal rooms was ingenious, "a desideratum which cannot too frequently be commended in these days of social intercourse."

The parlors and music rooms were trimmed in cherry, while the dining rooms were done in oak.  Residents would enjoy up-to-date amenities, like "a handsome and spacious elevator of the safety type," steam heat, "electric bells, fine plumbing, etc."  (The electric bells were for summoning domestic help.)

Prospect Hill residents were well-heeled.  Among them in the first years of the 20th century were James S. Cushman and his wife, the former Vera Scott.  Cushman was descended from two Mayflower passengers, Thomas Cushman and Mary Allerton.

His grandfather was the wealthy real estate man Don Alonzo Cushman, who had been highly responsible for the development of the Chelsea district.  Although Cushman was president of Cushman & Denison Manufacturing Company, a stationery firm, he, too, was involved in real estate.  In 1916 he founded the Allerton chain of "club hotels" for professional men and women (named after his Mayflower ancestor).  The New York Times said, "He was regarded as a pioneer in improving the New York skyline because the Allerton structures were built so as to hide their water towers."

Vera Cushman was nearly as active as her husband.  On April 17, 1918, the New York Herald reported that a cable message had arrived at the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association, "announcing the safe arrival at a French port of Mrs. James S. Cushman, and seven other American women of prominence who have gone to France to work under the auspices of the association."  For years Vera had been president of the association, and was now chairman of its War Work Council, as well.

The wedding of Charles Cook Ransom and Emma Peabody on May 6, 1920 was a socially visible affair.  The bride was the daughter of the Stephen and Cornelia Haven Peabody, and the granddaughter of millionaire George Griswold Haven.  The newlyweds moved into the Prospect Hill, where a daughter, Emma Marie, was born in June 1922.

By the time of baby Emma's arrive, things were changing in the neighborhood.  Madison Avenue had become increasingly commercial, and Victorian apartment houses were falling from favor.  In 1930, architect Robert T. Lyons was commissioned to modernize the Prospect Hill.  The stoop was removed and the entrance moved to 26 East 91st Street, stores were installed along Madison Avenue, and A. B. Ogden & Sons' cornice was stripped down.

The changing neighborhood and outdated architecture of the building did not diminish the prominence of the Prospect Hill residents, however.  The family of A. Alexander Thomas were among the first residents following the renovations.  Thomas's wife was the former Helen Rowe.  Their daughters, Adi-Kent and Helen Elizabeth, enjoyed a privileged upbringing.  Both, of course, attended exclusive schools (The New York Sun mentioned that Helen Elizabeth "was educated abroad and at the Spence School here.  She also attended the Fermata School at Aiker, S.C., and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts of New York.), and both young women were formally introduced to society.

Such was the case with another young resident, Julia Bliss Halsted.   She graduated from St. Catherine's School in Richmond, Virginia in 1939 and went on to Finch Junior College.  On November 29, 1939, The New York Sun reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Halsted of 26 East Ninth-first street, will introduce their daughter, Miss Julis Bliss Halsted, at a dinner to be given on December 22, at the Plaza."

Living here in the early 1980's was the no-nonsense State Supreme Court justice James J. Leff.  At around 6:30 on the morning of November 6, 1981, according to The New York Times, "the early-morning quiet was shattered by two 'explosion-like sounds' that seemed to come from the Sweet Suite, a shop on Madison Avenue directly below his second-floor apartment."

Judge Leff rushed to his window to see a man running to a gray van, carrying a piece of equipment (it turned out to be a t-shirt imprinting machine stolen from a different shop in the building).  Leff reached for his totebag, pulled out his .38-caliber Colt "detective's special," and fired three shots at the van.  The vehicle sped off with two men inside.

Leff notified police, who were obligated to temporarily confiscate the fired weapon.  He told a reporter, "I guess I can manage without it.  The average citizen does.  But I feel more comfortable with it."

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A renovation completed in 1983 resulted in four apartments per floor.  The brick and brownstone have been painted, obscuring A. B. Ogden & Sons' purposeful contrast of brick and stone.  And while the cornice decorations and magnificent Madison Avenue entrance have been lost, the charming corner balcony happily survives. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Hotel Wellington - 871 Seventh Avenue


On March 2, 1901 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Charles F. Rogers had leased "the new hotel building...on the east side of 7th av." midblock between 55th and 56th Street to hotelier Arthur W. Eager.  The article noted, "Mr. Eager will conduct the new building, to be known as the Hotel Wellington, in conjunction with his other houses," the Schuyler and Orleans Hotels.  
Interestingly, ground had not yet been broken for the structure.  

Charles F. Rogers acted as his own architect.  His 12-story Hotel Wellington was completed in 1902.  Faced in red brick, the Renaissance Revival design included a faux balcony at the fourth floor, and a full-width stone balcony at the tenth.  Rogers gave the ground floor a welcoming, almost cottage-like entrance above brick steps, flanked by flower boxes.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

A residential hotel, the Wellington accepted both permanent and transient guests.  It became a favorite among theatrical circles and among the initial residents was actress Julie Opp.  The year she moved in, she co-starred with the handsome and popular William Faversham in The Royal Rival.  She was married at the time to British actor Robert Loraine.

Julie Opp.  Country Life magazine, May 12, 1900 (copyright expired)

Julie Opp's stay at the Hotel Wellington would be short, indeed.  Although her co-star was married to socialite Edith Campbell, a romance blossomed off stage.   Both divorced their spouses and on December 29, 1902 The Evening World reported, "Miss Julie Opp left her apartments in the Hotel Wellington to-day and, accompanied by her mother, went to Greenwich, Conn., where she was married at noon to William Faversham."  (The couple had to marry there because Faversham's divorce decree forbade him to remarry in the state of New York.)

The couple moved into Faversham's apartment in the Milano on West 58th Street.  The Evening World commented, "Before Miss Opp was married to-day her maid carried several bags and boxes from the Hotel Wellington to the Milano."

The hotel's entrance was quite English and equally charming.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Another actress living here at the time was Etta Butler.  She had first stepped onto the stage at the age of 19 in San Francisco.  She was featured in Charles Frohman's comedies, and landed a long-term contract with David Belasco.  In 1902, the year she moved into the Hotel Wellington, she was among original cast of the Liberty Belles.  

Etta Butler, from the collection of the New York Public Library

On December 1, 1902, Etta fell ill with typhoid fever and was taken to a private room in Roosevelt Hospital.  The Evening World reported, "Miss Butler's parents, who reside in California, were notified of her critical condition and hundreds of sympathetic friends constantly inquired about her at the hospital."  The parents boarded a train in San Francisco, "hoping to see Miss Butler before she died."  But they were too late.  The popular actress died on January 6, 1903 at the age of 24.

The lobby and dining room of the original hotel.  photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the well-heeled permanent residents in 1909 was  bachelor Frederic C. Osborne, who worked as a salesman for the International Bank Note Company.  An associate, G. D. Webber said he was "known among his business associates as 'Earnest' Osborne, and was one of the highest paid salesmen in the bank note industry."

Although he had no financial worries, Osborne was suffering from what his brother said was a "chronic malady" which had "greatly depressed him."  When Osborne did not answer a telephone call on January 20, 1909, a bellboy was sent up to check on him.  The Evening World reported he "found Mr. Osborne dead on the floor.  The room was full of gas and every fixture in the room was wide open."

His brother, L. A. Osborne, attributed his death to "the cheerlessness of life in a hotel" and said, "He had often threatened to take his own life unless he could find a more cheerful way of living."  

Two views of the upscale parlors in the original hotel, one even furnished with a piano.  photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Several of the tenants used their apartments both as living quarters and artistic studios.  In 1915, for instance, the studio of Ellmer Zoller, a pianist and accompanist, was in his apartment; as was that of William Reddick, and Alise Nielsen, also pianists, accompanists, and teachers.  Voice coach Adreinne Remenyi-Von Ende's "residence studio" was in the building by 1921.

In 1929 The New York Times headlined and article, "Hotel Wellington to Have Annex," and reported, "A twenty-five story structure to be erected at the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street as an annex to the thirteen-story Hotel Wellington, adjoining on the north, will cost $850,000."  That figure would amount to $12.8 million today.  The Hotel Wellington's owners, the 817 Seventh Avenue Hotel Corporation, had no way of knowing that the Stock Market would crash six months later, initiating the Great Depression.

The addition, designed by Robert T. Lyons, greatly overshadowed the original building.  Its Art Deco mass rose high above the Charles F. Rogers structure, making it merely a footnote.  

As seen in this postcard, the original building was modernized as well.  The balconies were stripped off and a modern marquee installed.  

A much different type of resident arrived in 1938.  General Alexander Orlov had played a major role in the Soviet Union's intelligence operations in England and in Spain.  Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he convinced the Spanish Government to relocated nearly 500 tons of gold--the fourth largest reserve in the world--to Moscow for "safekeeping."

Alexander Orlov's photo for a fraudulent passport. (image in public domain)

But despite his achievements, he was ordered back to Moscow from Spain in July 1938 at the pinnacle of Joseph Stalin's political and military purges.  Rather than obey and be executed, he embezzled between $22,000 and $60,000 in Soviet cash and fled with his family to Canada, leaving behind a letter to Stalin saying he would reveal everything he knew about Soviet intelligence if he were followed.

From Canada, he slipped south to New York City and registered at the Hotel Wellington as Leon Koornick.  The world-class spy managed to avoid discovery by either the Soviets or the FBI.   He left the Wellington eventually, moving ever westward.   He remained reclusive until a month after Stalin's death when he published an article, "The Ghastly Secrets of Stalin's Power" in the April 6, 1953 issue of Life magazine.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the Hotel Wellington suffered from old age.  Claire Berman, writing in the October 12, 1970 issue of New York Magazine, said:

In Hilton country and immediately opposite the Park Sheraton sit the Wellington, an undistinguished building containing 838 rooms--all with combination tub and shower, TV, air conditioning.  In short, the basics are here, but little else.  The rooms are decorated with dime-store art and other touches from the same school of design.  Nevertheless, they are cheerier than, say, those at the Commodore, and you will be able to stay here in comfort if not in style.

Nonetheless, there were still those who were permanent residents.  Among them was summer theater impresario Milton Stiefel, whose other home was in Essex, Connecticut.  It was at his Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut that Katharine Hepburn made her professional debut in 1930.  Stiefel died of a heart attack in his apartment in the Hotel Wellington on November 18, 1983, at the age of 83.

Three years later, in September, Federal agents arrested four members of a foreign heroin ring in the hotel, seizing more than half a million dollars in cash.  Much of the information that led to the bust had come from the Royal Thai Police. 

On December 5, 2021 Steve Cuozzo, writing in the New York Post, said, "The Wellington Hotel, a tourist landmark at 871 Seventh Ave. and West 55th St. since 1902, appears headed for its final check-out."  The building's owner, Richad Born, had invoked a demolition clause to evict four retail tenants, including the Greek restaurant Molyvos, which had been in the hotel since about 1997.

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And yet, according to Cuozzo, "Born's plans remain a mystery.  Neither demolition nor construction plans have yet been filed with the Department of Buildings."  Despite it all, the Hotel Wellington is still accepting reservations, so its fate seems to be undecided.

many thanks to reader Keith Leong for requesting this post.
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