Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Irving Apartments - 118 East 17th Street


Completed in 1843, the Greek Revival house at 118 East 17th Street was home to the well-to-do salt merchant William James Todd and his wife, the former Angeline Matilda Martin, for decades.  The block, located east of the mansion-ringed Union Square, was lined with similar refined residences.

By the turn of the century, things had changed.  The mansions of Union Square had been replaced by commercial buildings and many of the owners of private residences in the neighborhood had moved northward.  In 1901, real estate developer Benjamin Barnett demolished the venerable house, and filed plans for a five-story flat building.  Interestingly, the architect of record was Alfred E. Badt, "for plans only."  The construction contract later said it would be supervised "by architect Charles B[radford] Meyers."

The Irving was completed in 1902.  Its Renaissance Revival design was made up of four horizonal sections.  The rusticated brownstone-clad first floor sat upon a planar basement level.  The Ionic pilasters that flanked the entrance were decorated with carved bellflowers, and the building's name was announced in the entablature above it.

The architrave openings of the second floor were carved with egg-and-dart decorations and wore prominent cornices.  The bowed bay of the first floor provided a handsome stone balcony.  Above a molded, stone intermediate cornice, the third section was framed by brownstone quoins.  Here the openings were capped by splayed stone lintels with scrolled keystones.  The arched windows of the top section sat upon a foliate cornice.  Projecting brownstone bands contrasted with the red brick, and carved wreaths sat within the spandrels of the arches, below the terminal cornice.

The Irving accommodated seven families, with one seven-room apartment on each of the upper floors, and two apartments in the basement.  The residents were mainly middle- to upper-middle class.

In 1912, the year after Barnett's death, his estate sold The Irving to 30-year-old Arnold Rothstein and his wife, the former Carolyn Green.  Rothstein was a notorious gangster and racketeer, known as "The Brain."  He had garnered a million dollar fortune by the time he purchased The Irving.  Rothstein was investigated in 1919 for fixing the World Series by having his agents pay Chicago White Sox team members to throw the game.  He would later become the first mobster to recognize Prohibition as a business opportunity.

Arnold Rothstein was a mentor of crime bosses Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

In 1934, six years after her husband's death, Caroline Rothstein explained in her Now I'll Tell All:

Arnold went into the real estate business because he felt that his money should always be working...Arnold's buildings never lacked tenants, and at good prices.  He saw to that.  He had ways of persuading tenants to live in his houses and to pay more than average rentals.

An advertisement in 1912 offered a seven-room apartment for $50 rent--about $1,380 per month in today's dollars.

The Rothsteins sold The Irving in 1917 to Geo. Borgfeldt & Co.  (Rothstein was gunned down on November 4, 1928 after he refused to pay the $320,000 he lost in a three-day poker game, claiming the game was fixed.)

Among the new owners' tenants was Mrs. Olive Scott Gabriel, described by The Evening World's Marguerite Mooers Marshall as "one of New York's best known clubwomen."  With America's entry into World War I, she was appointed the head of the Mayor's Committee on Women on National Defense in 1918.  As the nation's male workforce marched off to war, Olive Gabriel worked to fill their positions with women.   The Evening World article said, "she has found hundreds of positions for women in the weeks since she joined the Major's Committee of Women."

She felt, however, that she was being restricted by a sexist system.  Mooers titled her article on March 18, 1918, "Homely Girls' Champion Tells Why They Make Most Efficient Workers."  Olive explained that "a very pretty young girl" was not the best employee.  "She watches the clock, is chiefly interested in the contents of her pay-envelope and is not regular in attendance," she said.  "It always has seemed unfair to me that they should be preferred to the plain, superficially unattractive worker, who, because she has few distractions, is likely to prove a competent and faithful employee."

Living in one of the basement apartments in 1919 was Owen Lopp, described by The Evening World as "a negro chauffeur."  Lopp was more than that.  Early in September that year he was hired by Ms. Frances Walton, "an elderly widow of No. 25 East 11th Street," according to the newspaper.   Just three weeks later he was arrested for "looting the Walton house."

Detectives came to Lopp's apartment hoping to find at least some of the stolen jewels and $1,000 in cash taken from the Walton house.  On October 23, 1919 The Sun reported they "succeeded only in finding a large canvas portraying in oil the life size [portrait] of a tall and stately matron, seated on a Louis Quinze chair before the reproduction of a Murrillo Madonna." 

When Frances Walton declared she had never seen it before, The Evening World declared, "The New York police have a mystery on their hands which recalls the stolen Mona Lisa," and added, "The work is suggestive of [John Singer] Sargent."

The portrait was 8 feet high and 4-1/2 feet wide.  The Evening World, October 23, 1919 (copyright expired)

Someone had daubed paint over the artist's signature, making identification more difficult.  The painting was placed in "the strongest strong room in the Criminal Courts' Building."  The New York Herald said, "It now remains for the owner of the painting to appear and tell whether it is the work of a Gainsborough or of a sign painter for a theatrical troupe."  It is unclear whether the owner was ever found.

A much more respectable tenant at the time was Louise Fowler Gignoux.   The wife of Robert Miles Gignoux and a graduate of New York University, she was among a handful of female attorneys.  She also lectured on law and political science.  She not only wrote articles on economics, current topics, and art, but helped compile the Encyclopedia of Law.  Louise Fowler Gignoux was modern-day woman, the 1915 Woman's Who's Who of America saying she "favors woman suffrage; delivers courses of lectures to suffrage clubs."  She died in St. Vincent's Hospital in October 1919 at the age of 46.

An advertisement in The New York Sun on September 26, 1941, reflected some updating, noting that each apartment had an Electrolux refrigerator.  It also boasted "fireplaces" and the "quiet neighborhood."

On December 8 that year, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II.  British-born Catherine Colwell lived in The Irving at the time, and her brother, Richard Kidston Law, was a highly important figure in England.  He was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.  And so when he arrived in New York on his way to Washington on August 23, 1942 and stayed overnight at his sister's apartment, it understandably caught the attention of the press.

Not surprisingly, the exact purpose of Law's trip to the United States was kept secret.  The New York Sun wrote, "Mr. Law would not reveal the exact nature of his visit and explained that as he is a 'deputy to Anthony Eden,' he and the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs thought it might be  useful if he came over and saw what the scene looked like."

The Irving is little changed, outwardly, from the time of the diplomat's visit.  And inside, as was the case in 1902, there is still just one apartment per floor.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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