Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The 1908 Cathedral College - 555-559 West End Avenue


In the 1890's the sumptuous mansions of West End Avenue rivaled those of Riverside Drive and West 72nd Street.   At the turn of the century, the two residences at 557 and 559 West End Avenue were purchased by the New York Protestant Episcopal Public School (a corporation of Trinity Church).  On July 19, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Guide said the houses were "proposed to be used by them as a girls' school."  The plans were to join the residences internally, alter walls, "fill in staircases between the pantries, and to strengthen floor timbers."

The alterations were completed by fall, and on September 16, 1902 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune that read:  "St. Agatha--Church School for Girls.  557 and 559 West End Avenue, New York City.  Elementary and High School.  College Preparation.  Gymnasium."

The altered mansions apparently did not work out as the trustees had hoped.  In 1907 the houses were demolished along with the one next door at 555 West End Avenue, and architect William A. Boring was commissioned to design a substantial school building on the site.  His English Collegiate Gothic structure would rise seven stories above a basement level, surrounded by a light moat.  Above the limestone base, deep red brick was diapered in a subtle diamond pattern.  Boring hinted at the academic purpose of the building with carved, open books at the second through fourth floors, and spread-winged owls (symbols of wisdom) below the buttresses at the fifth.  The crenellated octagonal towers that flanked the stone parapet added to the Gothic motif.

St. Agatha's Church School remained in the building for nearly four decades.  In 1941 Trinity Church sold the property to the New York Roman Catholic Archdiocese.  The new owners spent $150,000 to renovate the structure (about $2.6 million today) to convert the former female-only school to the male-only Cathedral College.

Cathedral College had been founded in 1903 at 462 Madison Avenue.  Students in the renovated building would receive four years of high school and two years of collegiate studies.  On September 8, 1942, The New York Times reported, "The new building contains a library, a chapel, laboratories, an elaborate gymnasium, cafeteria and administrative offices."  Its president, the Very Reverend John J. Hartigan said the building was "fully adequate for its purpose of educating boys intending to enter the priesthood."

Eighth grade boys hoping to attend the school were required to pass a test.  A notice in The Monroe Gazette on January 26, 1964 announced in part, "Any boy of good character and intelligence, graduating from either public or parochial schools in June 1864, who feels he has a vocation to the diocesan priesthood, should take this examination."  The notice cautioned, "Each applicant should bring with him a letter of recommendation from his pastor."

A horrifying tragedy happened to one student on July 2, 1978.  Hugh B. McEvoy was 16 years old and had just finished his sophomore year.  He was sitting on a railing in front of Teachers College at Columbia University with 15-year-old Peter Mahar at around 10:00 that night, when two boys approached and asked him, "What are you laughing at?"

Mahar said, "We're not laughing at anything," but one of the boys pulled out a small-caliber revolver, put its muzzle to McEvoy's forehead, and shot him.  Hugh McEvoy lingered in a coma for four days before dying at St. Luke's Hospital.  The two suspects, 13 and 16 years old, were arrested three days after the murder.  At a press conference held in Cathedral College, Hugh's father, Leo McEvoy, said "My faith in religion is one of forgiveness, turn the other cheek...but it's not easy to do."

As fewer young men had a vocation for the priesthood, the halls of preparatory seminary schools in the 1980's were greatly empty.  In closing the Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn on May 3, 1985, a Diocese spokesman pointed out that now "The larger New York Archdiocese has only one, at 555 West End Avenue, at 87th Street."

And Cathedral College would not survive much longer, either.  In 1991 it was closed and St. Agnes Boys' High School moved into the building.  The school had operated for decades on East 44th Street, near St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church.

In 2007 there were 320 students in St. Agnes Boy's High School.  Tuition was $3,400 per year, and Michael J. Leahy, in his If You're Thinking of Living In..., said that many of the the boys "are from immigrant families, and more than 85 percent of graduating seniors go on to higher education."

But parochial schools were having trouble surviving, as well.   The diocese permanently shut the doors of St. Agnes Boy's High School in 2013, and the following year developer and architect Cary Tamarkin purchased the building for $50 million.  Ironically, the structure that once prepared young boys for a life of holy poverty, now contains luxury apartments, the largest of which, at six bedrooms and 8,429 square feet, has a price tag of $42 million.

photographs by the author
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Monday, May 30, 2022

The Lost High School of Commerce -- 155 West 65th Street


image from The School Review, September 1903 (copyright expired)

On July 1, 1890, 30-year-old Charles B. J. Snyder was appointed Superintendent of School Buildings of the Board of Education.   Among his responsibilities was the designing of the new buildings, and before his retirement in 1923 he would design more than 700 school structures within the five boroughs.  One of them, the High School of Commerce designed in 1900, was especially noteworthy--both for its architecture and its ground-breaking educational concept.
A few years earlier the Chamber of Commerce and Columbia University had conceived of a high school that would prepare boys for positions in commerce, a sort of trade school for businessmen.   At the cornerstone laying ceremony on December 14, 1901, Board of Education President Miles M. O’Brien said in part, “This school…is the pioneer high school of commerce in New-York, or in the country, and it owes its creation to the fact that the United States has become the leading commercial nation in the export of its products, even Britain now being second.”
The construction site stretched through the block from West 65th to West 66th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.  Snyder’s plans projected the construction costs at $302,640—more than $9.6 million today.  His striking brick-and-limestone clad structure would rise five stories above a basement level.  He lavished the generally Renaissance Revival design with grand neo-Classical elements—paired, engaged Corinthian columns at the fourth and fifth floors, pierced Roman-style openings on the fifth floor that matched the openwork railing of the third-floor balcony, and a temple-like parapet.  But most dazzling was the 65th Street entrance, designed like a grand triumphal arch recessed into the building.
The High School of Commerce was completed in 1902.  The five-year curriculum was “broad and liberal,” according to officials.  The courses required for freshmen, for example, were English; a choice of German, French or Spanish; Algebra; Biology (“with special reference to materials of commerce”); Greek and Roman History; Stenography; Drawing and Penmanship; Physical Training; and Music.  First year students were also required to have a least one hour of “exercises in voice-training and declamation” per week.

The first (top) and second floor plans.  The School Review, September 1903 (copyright expired)

A 16 year old student, Ralph Cooper, wrote a detailed description to induce other boys to enroll.  Published in the New-York Tribune on May 30, 1909, it read:
Dear Little Men and Little Women:  

I would like to tell you about the High School of Commerce, the school to which I go.  This school is situated at 65th street, between Broadway and Tenth avenue.  Only boys attend this school.

In the basement there is a swimming pool and a gymnasium.  The first floor contains several classrooms, an auditorium, seating 1,500 boys, and the principal’s office.  The other four stories are made up of classrooms and laboratories.

There are many boy organizations in “Commerce.”  Literary societies, chemistry and camera clubs and others.  Seventy teachers make up the faculty.

On Friday afternoons there are interesting assemblies, and often prominent men speak.  Sometimes plays and debates are given to interest the students.

Boys who wish to get a good business training should by all means go to the High School of Commerce.
Many graduates went on to impressive careers, like architect Lewis Ross.  He was employed by Ewing & Chappell in 1916 when he was awarded fourth price in The Sun’s Country Home Competition for “plans and a design of a dwelling that can be erected for a sum not to exceed $4,500.” 
Athletics played a major role in the lives of the students, and achievements in baseball, track, football, soccer, basketball, and other sports were widely followed in the newspapers.  One of its most active athletes in the post-World War I years was Henry Louis Gehrig, who was on the football, soccer, and baseball teams.  In 1920 the Commerce team traveled to Chicago for a national baseball championship game.  There former President William Howard Taft stopped by to wish the team well.  On June 26, in the ninth inning of the game in Wrigley Field, Gehrig hit a grand slam home run—only the 19th ever hit in the ballpark.
Students in the basement level swimming pool.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Seven years later Lou Gehrig was a sports phenomenon.  On June 27, 1927, he was invited to award letters to the Commerce athletes and to referee the school track meet.  He had no idea what he was headed for.  The New York Times reported, “Lou Gehrig was rushed at Pelham Bay Park yesterday afternoon.  The star first baseman of the New York Yankees had this experience when 2,500 youngsters from the High School of Commerce rushed him at the annual field day of the school.”  The famous graduate somehow managed to perform his duties, as well to sign scores of autographs and baseballs.
A peculiar incident happened on January 17, 1929.  The New York Times began an article saying, “The lives of more than 1,000 pupils at the High School of Commerce…were endangered yesterday afternoon when three fires of incendiary origin started in different parts of the school within half an hour.”  At the time, midyear examinations were in progress.
The first blaze was discovered around 2:30 in the gymnasium on the fifth floor.  A physical education teacher, Samuel Prenn, walked into the room and found a container of wastepaper in the corner on fire.  He and an assistant custodian put it out with a fire extinguisher, then reported it to the principal.  Ten minutes later a janitor discovered a pile of trash on fire in a washroom on the first floor.  He, too, was able to put it out with a fire extinguisher.  Then, swimming instructor Hugh Jones noticed smoke coming through a transom of a ground floor classroom.  The New York Times said, “He broke open the door, found the room unoccupied, and the wastebasket under the teacher’s desk in the middle of the room in flames.”  While he was able to put it out, the desk was heavily burned and, had the fire not been discovered when it was, would have caused much damage.
The size of the school was double with an addition (left) in 1930.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Lou Gehrig died of Amyotrophic Lateral Schlerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, on June 2, 1941, just before his 38th birthday.  In tribute two years later in November 1943, the students of the High School of Commerce launched a fund-raising drive.  Within two months they had raised the equivalent of $30,000 today, with which to purchase an ambulance as a gift to the United States Army.
At a ceremony in the school auditorium on January 25, 1944, Lieutenant Marcella R. Meyer of the WACS, accepted the fully equipped army field ambulance called “The Spirit of Lou Gehrig.”  In her remarks, she said, “The gift of this ambulance is a manifestation of the spirit of a man who was loved by everybody.”  Gehrig’s widow then asked the assembled students to say a prayer “for the boys who will be transported in this ambulance.”
A substantial “annex” was erected in 1930 that essentially doubled the size of the facility.  Three decades later it looked as if the school would be enlarged again.  As much of the old San Juan Hill neighborhood was being demolished for the Lincoln Square redevelopment project, The New York Times reported on April 20, 1961 that only two tenement buildings still stood on the block with the school.  “The city wants to tear down the two remaining tenement buildings to extend the High School of Commerce,” said the article.
But the city changed its mind.  In 1964 demolition of the High School of Commerce was scheduled.  Ironically, a protest letter to the editor of The New York Times did not seek to preserve Charles B. J. Snyder’s magnificent Roman-inspired structure, but the more industrial 1930 addition.  “It is little more than thirty years old and with slight renovations would be in excellent shape,” said the writer.  “Why tear this wing down?”
photo by Ajay Suresh

In the end nothing was preserved.  Today The Julliard School occupies the block.

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Saturday, May 28, 2022

The John Woodruff Simpson House - 926 Fifth Avenue


John Woodruff Simpson was born in East Craftsbury, Vermont on October 13, 1850.  After graduating from Amherst College in 1871, and from the Columbia Law School in 1873, he practiced law for more than a decade on his own, specializing in corporate law.  On January 1, 1884, he formed a partnership with two other Columbia Law School graduates, Thomas Thacher and William M. Barnum.  The firm, Simpson, Thacher & Barnum prospered and Simpson continued to focus on corporate law.  

In 1897 Simpson and his wife, the former Kate Seney, were living at 34 West 20th Street when their only child, Jean Walker Simpson, was born.  At the time their neighborhood was rapidly changing as commercial buildings were replacing the private homes.

The following year Simpson purchased the plots at 925 and 926 Fifth Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets, and hired mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design two residences.  His plans were filed on August 12.  The Simpson residence at 926 Fifth Avenue would be 26-feet wide and cost $50,000--about $1.6 million today.  The second, an investment, was slight narrower at 21-feet and would cost $45,000.

John Woodruff Simpson, from Vermont, The Green Mountain State, 1923 (copyright expired)

Completed in 1899, the two residences were visually harmonious, but architecturally individual.  Unlike its neighbor, 926 Fifth Avenue was asymmetrical, its entrance within a columned portico sitting to the side of a rounded, two-story bay.  The first through fourth floors were faced in beige brick and trimmed in limestone, while the fifth floor took the form of a high mansard with two pedimented dormers that sat atop the bracketed limestone cornice.

The portico provided a balcony to the second floor.  photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Kate was the daughter of George I. and Phoebe Augusta Seney.  Seney, who was president of the Metropolitan Bank and the founder of the Seney Hospital of Brooklyn, had died in 1893, leaving the equivalent today of $65.5 million to charity.  Phoebe now moved into the new house with the Simpsons.  

Although the family maintained a country house in East Craftsbury, Vermont, they did not necessarily spent all their summers there.  On June 23, 1900, for instance, the New York Herald announced, "Mr. and Mrs. John Woodruff Simpson, of No. 926 Fifth avenue, who are visiting friends in East Hampton, L. I., will start for Bar Harbor, where they have taken a cottage for the summer, next Saturday."

Notably, they went to Europe each year and in 1901 visited the studio of Auguste Rodin.  It was the beginning of a close friendship between the couple and the artist, and of the Simpsons' stunning collection of Rodin works.  When the Simpsons returned in 1902, Kate first posed for a marble bust.  In an interview with The Craftsman in 1904, the sculptor talked about the nearly-finished portrait:

Almost invariably, there is intelligence in the faces of the women of this nation...But there is, furthermore, kindness of heart evidences in the countenance of this model.  That is what I shall attempt to express.

Kate Simpson posing for Rodin in 1902.  Published in Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius, 1996, p. 412.

The Simpsons had four Rodins in their Fifth Avenue mansion in 1903: casts of the Thinker, St. John, Head of Balzac and the Centauresse.  As their collection grew, so did their friendship with Rodin--to the point that their visits were mutual.  According to the 1987 The Documented Image, Visions in Art History, "In December 1906 Kate wrote to Rodin, 'Each day I have a fresh impression of my beautiful marbles.  You can not know what joy it gives me to possess them.'  She ends her letter by saying, 'When you come to see me in April, I am sure that you will find these beauties well placed.'"

The Simpson family and Auguste Rodin visit Versailles in 1906.  photo by Ouida Grant from Ruth Butler's 1993 Rodin, The Shape of Genius.

On January 21, 1904, The Atlanta Constitution headlined an article, "Mrs. Seney Falls Asleep," and reported that Phoebe Augusta Seney had died in the Fifth Avenue mansion three days earlier.  The article noted, ""During her life, Mrs. Seney continued her husband's benefactions."  The Sun added, "Mr. Seney owned one of the finest collections of paintings in the country."

The house was still closed up for the season when this photograph was taken on September 27, 1916.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

John Woodruff Simpson died in the house on May 16, 1920, at the age of 69.  In reporting his death, The Sun called him "one of the most successful corporation lawyers of this city."  It made special note of the Simpsons' art collection, saying:

Mr. Simpson was greatly interested in the fine arts and had a collection of paintings which included some of the best works of the old masters.  He was a friend of Rodin, and was the owner of what is said to be probably the best private collection of the sculptor's art in existence.

Simpson left an estate of $2,665,894, the equivalent of $41 million today.  The New York Herald reported that he "divided his estate between his wife, Kate Seney Simpson, and his daughter, Jean W. Simpson."

Jean, who never married, exhibited a broad range of interests.  In 1921, for instance, she was the chairman of the ticket committee for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera to benefit the New York Women's League for Animals.  In his 1930 The New Conquest of Central Asia, Roy Chapman Andrews listed Jean among the "contributors to Central Asiatic Expeditions."

Rodin's bust of Kate Seney Simpson, from the collection of the National Gallery of Art.

The Simpson mansion nearly fell victim to what police dubbed the "Human Fly" in 1931.  The agile burglar, Robert Ramsey Russell, deftly managed to scale the walls of upscale homes on the Upper East Side.  On December 11, detectives hid in the shadows, hoping to catch him.  The Pittsburgh Courier reported:

Russell was captured just after midnight Friday when he attempted to rob the house of Mrs. John Woodruff Simpson, at 926 Fifth avenue.  He was spotted by a handful of 60 detectives and patrolmen who have waited in doorways and hallways of the Upper East Side for the last month, seeking the acrobatic burglar...The detectives were amazed as they saw the agile colored man shinny up a drain pipe to reach the lower part of the fire escape at the Simpson house.  With cat-like efficiency, their quarry hurried up the fire escape and entered the building through a window on the top floor of the five-story house.

The 27-year-old was unlike any other burglar in another sense.  Called by The Pittsburgh Courier "America's modern Robin Hood," the newspaper said he "had hoped to start a breadline in Harlem with the proceeds of his alleged $300,000 robberies."

Around the start of World War II Kate and Jean moved permanently to their East Craftsbury, Vermont home.  In leaving the Fifth Avenue mansion, according to The New York Times, Kate gave much of the art collection "to the National Gallery, Washington, D. C., and to other museums."  Kate died in East Craftsbury on January 11, 1943.

In the 1950's 926 Fifth Avenue was the home and office of Dr. Nathaniel J. Beeckir, a psychiatrist.  In 1969, the newly-formed advertising firm Plus opened its offices within the home, and in 1972 another new advertising office, Acme Communications moved in.  In reporting on that official opening, The New York Times said the partners "work out of classy digs at 926 Fifth Avenue."

A renovation completed in 1979 resulted in medical offices in the basement and first floor, and two apartments each on the upper floors.  That year the Center for the Study of the Presidency operated from the building,   On October 3, 1979, The New York Times said, "Aficionados of politics will find 4,000 microfilms and periodicals on subjects ranging from policies to problems in staffing the Presidents office."  It also held a collection of books by and about Benjamin Franklin, and the entire archives of George Washington papers on microfilm.

Around 2005 the house was returned to a single family home.  That year it was offered for lease at $37,000 per month.  A subsequent renovation was completed in 2013.  Squashed in between two soaring apartment buildings, the two Simpson houses are remarkable holdouts from a much different era along this section of Fifth Avenue.

photographs by the author
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Friday, May 27, 2022

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


image via streeteasy.com

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.  

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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.

photographs by the author
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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 that 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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