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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.
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."
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.
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