Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The 1855 Juste Lanchantin House - 217 East 17th Street


Bricklayer Benjamin Wise and mason Joseph Whitehead erected a row of five houses on the north side of East 17th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, in 1855.  A year earlier they had acquired the lots from Lewis Rutherford--Whitehead buying three lots, and Wise the two eastern plots.  Although their speculative homes would be essentially identical, a gap in the otherwise continuous cornice between 114 and 116 East 17th Street delineated the separate projects.

Wise sold 116 East 17th Street (renumbered 217 in 1866) to Juste Lanchantin.   The Anglo-Italianate style house was faced in red brick above the rusticated brownstone basement and parlor levels.  A short stoop led to the arched, double-doored entrance.

Born in Paris in 1796, Lanchantin was an importer at 162 Broadway.  He had married Emma Milnor Caille in New York City in 1831, and the couple had two young adult children, Paul Henry and Clara.  

Paul was working as a clerk by 1859.  He doubled as a volunteer firefighter at the Metamore Hose Company No. 29 on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street.  He had married Ellen Hern and the couple remained in the East 17th Street house with his parents.

In September 1859 Paul and Ellen had a baby, Charles Emile.  Sadly, the little boy died on January 4 1860, four months after his first birthday.  There was no notice of a funeral, The New York Times simply saying the following day that "The remains will be taken to Greenwood Cemetery for interment this 1 o'clock P.M., from the residence of his grandfather."

The family was understandably much involved in the French-speaking community.  On April 17, 1865 Juste was appointed a warden of the French Protestant Episcopal Church du Saint Esprit.

The Lanchantin family left East 17th Street in 1867.  Their former residence became home to the Julius Frankel family.  An esteemed physician, Frankel was born in Berlin in 1808 where he studied medicine beginning in 1830.  By the time he arrived in New York City in 1844, he had studied medical hygiene throughout Europe as well as in today's Israel and Palestine.  He became connected with the Eastern Dispensary, which served the impoverished families of the Lower East Side.  In 1856 he established a class there for treating diseases of children, and in 1862 helped create the city's first Sanitary Commission.  

Frankel and his wife, the former Matilda Bresina, had two children, Edward and Clara.  Although still a teenager, Edward was studying at the College of Physicians and Surgeons when the family moved into 217 East 17th Street.  He graduated in 1868, The New York Times noting that he was "so young, 19, that he needed special permission to graduate."  The article added, "he won the first Faculty prize with his thesis on the 'Congenital Malformations of the Heart.'"

It was, no doubt, the Frankel family that gently updated the appearance of the house by adding cast metal cornices over the brownstone lintels.  Nothing else of the design was changed.

As was common even among the well-to-do, the family took in a boarder.  Charles Goodrich, a widowed real estate developer, took the room for a short time in 1872.  Early that year he placed an advertisement in a newspaper, which was answered by a 25-year-old woman, Lizzie Lloyd King (who identified herself as Kate Stoddard).  A relationship developed, and around the time he left the Frankel house, Goodrich married her--except it was a sham marriage, a friend of Goodrich posing as a minister.

Goodrich quickly tired of his "wife," and did everything he could think of to rid himself of her.  Soon after the wedding he wrote her, saying "it is better for both that we should separate," and his last letter to her offered to provide her a room in New York City and financial aid if she would cease calling herself Mrs. Goodrich and not mention their relationship to his family.

But Lizzie King was not to be spurned.  She stalked her abuser, and when he tried to oust her from his Brooklyn home on March 20, 1873, she shot him three times in the head with his own pistol.  It was a sensational murder trial, one that would involve one of the Frankel's servants.

Adelaide Cahn was called to testify.  On July 13, 1873 the New York Herald reported, "On taking the stand she was much overcome by her feelings."  She identified Goodrich's watch, which was found in Lizzie's possession, and his pocketbook.  The article said, "The two revolvers in possession of the Coroners were produced, when she said she had seen one of them in the possession of Goodrich."  She was then asked if she recognized Lizzie King.  The New York Herald reported, "She took a long, steady look at 'Kate,' and said she had seen her before at 217 East Seventeenth street, where deceased had had a room; the prisoner was in his company at the time; this was in June or July of last year."  

It came out at trial that Goodrich was, indeed, a scoundrel and Lizzie King was not his only victim.  The New York Herald reported, "Miss Cahn was, it was said, at one time the affianced of Charles Goodrich."

Elizabeth King was convicted of the murder and committed to the State Lunatic Asylum in Auburn, New York.

The Frankel's boarder in 1879 was William Baumgarten, a cabinetmaker who had immigrated from Germany in 1865.  He was affiliated with the esteemed Herter Brothers shop--decorators of the mansions of millionaires like William Henry Vanderbilt, Potter Palmer, and Mark Hopkins.  He would remain with the family for years.

On January 29, 1881 Julius Frankel died at the age of 72.  In reporting his death, the New York Herald wrote, "Dr. Frankel  was an intimate friend of the late Mayor [William Henry] Havemeyer, Elijah Purdy and many other prominent New Yorkers.  He wielded a large influence in politics in a quiet way.  Dr. Frankel died peacefully, surrounded by his family, and none but those immediately connected with him were aware of the passing away of a remarkable man who had spent a laborious life, but who remained modestly in retirement."

The close relationship between the Frankels and their boarder was evidenced in an article in The Evening Post on July 15, 1882.  It listed among the passengers on the Britannic, headed for Liverpool, England, Dr. Edward Frankel and William Baumgarten.  And, as a matter of fact, on May 7, 1887 Baumgarten was married to Clara Frankel.  By now he had  been the head of Herter Brothers for six years.

In 1900 Baumgarten hired architect William Schickel, whom he knew well through their work together with Herter Brothers, to design an opulent townhouse at 294 Riverside Drive for him, Clara, and their growing family.

Dr. Edward Frankel remained in the family home.  He was the attending surgeon at the City Hospital on Blackwell's Island, and a consulting surgeon to the New York Hospital.  In addition to his medical practice, he was active in civic activities.  In 1895, for instance, he had been appointed a School Inspector by Mayor William Lafayette Strong.  After having lived at 217 East 17th Street for more than half a century, Frankel died in his bedroom here on December 16, 1923 at the age of 75.

The original appearance of the lintels can be seen next door at 219 East 17th Street (right).

The narrow house was not converted to a multi-family dwelling until 1980, when a renovation resulted in a duplex on the first and second floors, one apartment on the third, and two on the fourth.  A subsequent remodeling produced a triplex in the cellar through second floors, one apartment on the third, and a "fine arts studio" on the top floor.

photograph by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The 1898 Winchester Fitch House - 319 West 80th Street


Clarence F. True was among the most prolific architects working on the Upper West Side in the late 19th century.  He would eventually design more than 400 houses in the district, almost all of them a playful take on historic styles.  He turned to the Elizabethan period in 1897 when he designed seven houses that wrapped the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and West 80th Street.

The easternmost of the row was 319 West 80th Street, which, like its fraternal siblings, was four-and-a-half-stories tall.  The arched entrance, flanked by two large, Elizabethan-style brackets, sat atop a two-step stoop.  The understated, bowed facade, faced in limestone, rose to a slate shingled mansard with a pedimented dormer.  Flemish stepped gables separated each house of the row at this level.

The newly-completed house was purchased by Winchester Fitch and his wife, the former Florence Hopper in February 1899.  An attorney, Fitch was the son of well-known lawyer Edward H. Fitch.  The couple had been married in 1897, a year after Winchester joined his father's law office.

Winchester Fitch.  from Field Genealogy, 1901 (copyright expired)

Florence threw herself into entertaining.  On April 6, 1902, the New York Herald reported, "Mrs. Winchester Fitch, of No. 319 West Eightieth street, recently gave a charming breakfast for several visiting friends from the West.  Mrs. Fitch is a sister of Mrs. Nicholas, of the Dorilton, and has entertained much this winter."

The Fitches' summer home was Hillbrook, in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Both Winchester and Florence were amateur musicians, and their gatherings in both homes often centered around music.  On February 13, 1904, for instance, The Evening Telegram reported, "This afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Winchester Fitch, of No. 319 West Eightieth street, will give a musicale in honor of the members of the Shakespear [sic] Club."

It may have been their increasing family (they would eventually have three daughters and a son) that prompted the Fitches to upsize in July 1905.   They purchased the five-story, 25-foot wide residence on the corner of West End Avenue and 81st Street.  Their former home was purchased by retired broker Jennings Stockton Cox.

Jennings Stockton Cox  from The Cox Family In America, 1912 (copyright expired)

For years Cox had been associated with Jay Gould and Rufus Hatch.  In 1873 Gould had sent him to San Francisco as an agent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.  Upon his return to New York, he joined the brokerage firm of John H. Davis & Co.  He was a former president of the New York Athletic Club, and had memberships in the Larchmont Yacht Club, the New York Yacht Club, the Southern Society, and the Maryland Society of New York.   

He and his wife, the former Mary McJilton, three grown sons, Arthur M., William, Jennings, Jr.; and a daughter, Mrs. R. C. Fisher.  Arthur and his wife lived in the West 80th Street house, as well.

Despite Jennings's elevated status within the social and financial communities, it was his son, Jennings Stockton Cox, Jr. who is best remembered among the family.  A graduate of the Columbia University School of Mines, Cox, Jr. was an engineer in the Daiquiri mine in southeast Cuba in the 1890's.  He supposedly concocted a cocktail of rum, sugar and lime juice while entertaining guests, which he named after the mine.  Although his father was included in the 1899 Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899, it is Jennings Stockton Cox's contribution to American mixology that is best remembered.

In the meantime, Arthur and his family maintained a summer home near Gloucester, Massachusetts.  On August 27, 1907 their 11-year-old son, Arthur J. Cox, was in a boat in the Bass River near the house.  The New York Times explained that the river, "empties into the sea, some 200 yards beyond" the Cox property.  That afternoon, said the article, "three servant girls, bathing in the river, were swept out into deep water."

Walter J. Byrne, a life guard, rushed into action, but he could rescue only two of the women.  "Arthur Cox, who was not far away in a small boat, quickly rowed to where the third girl was going down for the last time.  The little boy jumped in, caught her around the head with one arm, and held on to the boat with the other until Byrne got back."  The newspaper noted, "The cottagers at the time made a fuss over young Cox, which so bored him that he took to the woods for a couple of days."

Jennings Stockton Cox, Sr. died of pneumonia in the West 80th Street house on October 21, 1913 at the age of 79.  In reporting his death, the San Francisco Chronicle said, "In the course of his life he was at one time and another a well-known figure in San Francisco, Baltimore and New York."  Ironically, Jennings, Jr. had died just six weeks earlier.

Four months later, Arthur Cox leased the house to Madame Louise Homer, "who will occupy the house while filling her engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House," said The Sun on February 21, 1914.

Louise Homer, from The Victor Book of the Opera, 1912 (copyright expired) 

When Homer's lease expired, Arthur Cox leased the house to the Frederick Richard Gillespie family.   Born in Ireland in 1845, Gillespie was the head of Hammill & Gillespie, importers and manufacturers of clays.  He had been associated with the firm since 1867.  He and his wife, the former Julia Mendel, had three sons, Edward Stanley, Hilliard Mendell, George Maitland, and a daughter, Edith.  The family's summer home was at Shippan Point, near Stamford, Connecticut.

Edward was associated with his father's business, as well as being the treasurer of the Toronto Fur Company.  Still unmarried, he moved into 319 West 80th Street with his parents, most likely because of a serious physical condition.  

The New York Herald explained that he was "an automobile enthusiast."  On October 12, 1915, the newspaper said, "While cranking his automobile at his father's country home in Stamford, Conn., three years ago, he ruptured a cardiac valve."  Edward never recovered from the injury and he died in the house only months after moving in, on October 11, 1915.  He was 37 years old.

Frederick R. Gillespie died in 319 West 80th Street on January 28, 1919 at the age of 74.  In reporting his death, The American Perfumer recalled that the Irish immigrant had started his career as a messenger boy.

Julia almost immediately left West 80th Street.  Arthur Cox converted the house to ten "non-housekeeping" apartments the following year.  Although the term "non-housekeeping," technically mean there could be no cooking on premises, an advertisement in the New York Herald on April 1, 1920 offered, "Two rooms, kitchenette and bath." 

Cox retained possession of the property until December 1930, when he sold it to Adele Linder "for investment."  A renovation completed in 2005 resulted in two apartments per floor.  Expectedly, very little of Clarence F. True's 1898 interior detailing remains, nor does much of the exterior decoration.

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

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Lost Church of the Strangers - Mercer St. near Waverly Place


image by John m. August Will, 1898 from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On October 8, 1835 a group of affluent men petitioned the Third Presbytery of New York to organize a church to be called The Mercer-Street Presbyterian Church.  Things moved swiftly.  That same month the 45-year-old Rev. Thomas Harvey Skinner arrived in New York from Newburyport, Massachusetts, and on November 8 was installed as the pastor.

The small congregation was composed of prominent New Yorkers like James Boorman and his wife Mary, and Gordon and Marcia Burnham.  A church building was quickly raised on the west side of Mercer Street just north of Waverly Place.  The neighborhood, just two blocks east of Washington Square, was filling with opulent residences.

The Gothic Revival building featured a central tower and tall pointed arch windows.  The architect is unknown, however several of the elements, like the crenellation and layered buttresses, smack of Richard Upjohn's Church of the Holy Communion, completed a decade later.

from Illustrated New York City and Surroundings, 1889 (copyright expired)

Rev. George L. Prentiss would recall in 1895, "No sooner was the new sanctuary completed than large numbers crowded into it from all parts of the city, and were at once received into its fellowship."  Other prominent families in the congregation were those of James Roosevelt, William E. Dodge, Anson Greene Phelps, and Alfred De Forest.

Among Rev. Skinner's first notable works was to help found the Union Theological Seminary in 1836.  For decades, the commencement exercises were held in the Mercer-Street Presbyterian Church.

Thomas Skinner resigned in 1848, triggering a series of rather short-lasting ministers.  The fourth, Rev. Robert R. Booth, was installed on March 6, 1861.  It was during his pastorate that significant change would come.  On September 16, 1870 the New York Presbytery merged the Mercer-Street Presbyterian Church with the First Presbyterian Church on University Place.  The combined congregations (now known as the Presbyterian Church on University Place) worshiped in the University Place church.  The Mercer Street structure was placed on the market for $65,000--about $1.4 million today.

Five years earlier Rev. Charles Force Deems had relocated to New York City from North Carolina.  Deems recalled in his 1897 Autobiography of Charles Force Deems, "Before the organization of any church and while I was simply preaching to strangers, a lady of high character living in Mobile, when on a visit to New York; always attended our service with her daughter.  With them I became acquainted."

The "lady of high character" was Mary Eliza Crawford and her daughter was Frank Armstrong Crawford.  Frank was highly taken with Deem's preaching and theology, and as her marriage to Cornelius Vanderbilt I approached, according to Deems, "it had been intended that I should celebrate the marriage, and that it would have been done but for my absence."

Rev. Dr. Charles Force Deems, from the collection of the New York Public Library

By the time the property became available, Deems's Church of the Strangers had been organized and was worshiping in a chapel at New York University.  The unusual name reflected Deems's non-denominational congregation, insisting that anyone who accepted the Apostles' Creed would be accepted.  He offered $50,000 for the property (money he did not have, but hoped to accumulate through fund-raising).

The Vanderbilts lived at 10 Washington Place, one block away from the Mercer-Street Presbyterian Church.  Cornelius Vanderbilt invited Deems to his mansion and offered to buy the church as a gift.  In Deems's words, "The commodore had never been a member of any church, had been a very worldly and even profane man; but he had from his earliest childhood the most unshaken faith in the Bible."  (The fact that his wife was an ardent admirer of Deems, no doubt, had much to do with the decision, as well.)

original source unknown

Vanderbilt's tepid feelings about organized religion became evident when Deems replied, "Commodore, if you give me that church for the Lord Jesus Christ, I'll most thankfully accept it."  Vanderbilt said, "No, doctor, I would not give it to you that way, because that would be professing to you a religious sentiment I do not feel.  I want to give you a church, that's all there is.  It is one friend doing something for another friend.  Now, if you take it that way I'll give it to you."

On October 3, 1870, The New York Times reported, "Since it has stood empty the edifice has been repainted, recarpeted, and renovated generally, and now presents quite a neat and tasteful appearance."  It had officially opened as the Church of the Strangers the day before.  Those attending represented some of the wealthiest and most influential in the city.  "Among the gentlemen present were Commodore Vanderbilt, Thurlow Weed, Horace Greeley, Peter Cooper, Daniel Drew, William M. Evarts, William F. Havemeyer, Algernon S. Sullivan, Stewart L. Woodford, William E. Dodge, Morris K. Jesup, James Lorimer Graham and E. I. Jeffray," said The New York Times.

from New-York Tribune, January 23, 1898

Rev. Deems had instructed the ushers to escort all clergymen to seats provided at the front of the church.  "One enthusiastic usher in obedience to these instructions searched for a victim and was finally rewarded by seeing an elderly gentleman, wearing a white neck-tie, alight from a carriage.  He approached him, and taking his arm, led him up the the main side towards the pulpit."  Rev. Deems interceded, introducing the usher to Cornelius Vanderbilt.  When the embarrassed usher apologized, the millionaire exhibited an unexpected spark of humor.  As he took his seat, he said, "That's not the first time I have been taken for a clergyman.  No apology is necessary."

Despite Vanderbilt's disinterest in organized religion, his faith was strong and his friendship with Rev. Deems grew extremely close.  On Thanksgiving Day 1875 Vanderbilt took a ride in Central Park and caught a cold.  By the spring he could no longer go to his office, and on April 26, 1876 was confined to his bed.  Rev. Deems visited Vanderbilt nearly every day for eight months.  Using the third person, Deems wrote, "The commodore would not let him leave his side, often keeping him for hours...Through all those months the attachment between the two men increased."

Cornelius Vanderbilt died on January 4, 1877.  Two days later  
The New York Times reported, "To-morrow morning the remains will be placed in the main hall of the house, where they will lie until 10 o'clock, at which hour they will be taken to the Church of the Strangers...where the funeral services will be performed."  The newspaper noted, "Some time before his death the Commodore requested Dr. Deems to avoid all pomp and abstain from all eulogy at his funeral."  Nevertheless, in his autobiography Deems wrote, "In his funeral sermon...Dr. Deems has set forth his estimate of the character of Commodore Vanderbilt."

Almost immediately a fund among the congregants was formed to memorialize Cornelius Vanderbilt.  In order that every member could contribute, the donations were limited to between 10 cents and $1.00.  Designed by William Gibson & Sons and approved by Frank Armstrong Vanderbilt and William Henry Vanderbilt, the bronze and black marble tablet was installed in the church in December 1879.

A depiction of the tablet appeared in several periodicals.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

A surprising (at least to 21st century readers) ceremony took place in the church on Good Friday, 1881.  The New York Times reported, "Palestine Commandery, No. 18, Knights Templar, celebrated Good Friday by visiting the Church of the Strangers last evening and listening to a sermon by its Chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Deems."  Accompanied by the fife and drum corps of the Ninth Regiment, the Knights Templar had marched "through Twenty-third-street, Fifth-avenue, Fourteenth-street, Broadway, Clinton-place, and Mercer-street, to the church."

A large floral arrangement with a Maltese cross presented by the commandery decorated the front of the church.  The Knights were seated in the front pews.  Congregants were given programs "printed in purple ink on lavender-colored paper [which] bore the insignia of the order on one leaf and a representation of the banner of the commandery on the other."  At the conclusion of the service, "The Knights arose in a body and, drawing their swords, saluted Dr. Deems and after passing out formed in line and returned to head-quarters."

There would be two other Vanderbilt funerals in the Church of the Strangers.  Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, described by The New York Times as "the discarded son of the late Commodore Vanderbilt," committed suicide on April 2, 1882.  Known within the family as C. J., he had never gained his father's approval, partly because of his epilepsy, which the commodore viewed as a weakness, but also because of his long-term relationship with his "particular friend," as worded by The New York Times, George Terry.  C. J. had been given a humiliatingly small portion of his father's estate.  On April 5, 1882, The New York Times reported on his funeral in the Church of the Strangers, saying, "The church was nearly filled, but aside from the members of the Vanderbilt family few persons of note were present."

Such was not the case on May 7, 1885.  The New York Times reported, "Many distinguished and well-known New-Yorkers attended the funeral of Mrs. Frank A. Vanderbilt in the Church of the Strangers."  The newspaper commented, "She married Commodore Vanderbilt when he was an unbeliever, and she made him a Christian."

Rev. Charles Alexander Force Deems died on November 18, 1893.  The Church of the Strangers was "crowded to the doors" during his funeral on November 22 at noon.  Among the pallbearers was Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt.

from New-York Tribune, January 23, 1898

Just over four years later, on January 22, 1898, the last service was held in the church.  The Sun reported, "Nearly 1,200 persons crowded into the Church of the Strangers on Mercer take part in the final service in the old edifice.  Next Sunday the congregation will move into its new home, on Fifty-seventh street, near Eighth avenue."

The New-York Tribune commented on the much-changed neighborhood.  "The quaint old building of rough stone is not small, even for a church of to-day, and when it was new, back in the thirties, it was doubtless regarded as an exceptionally large and imposing structure.  In those days it was at least allowed to show for what it was worth."  But, said the article, as "the neighborhood in which it is situated gradually changed from a quiet residence district to a noisy, active business centre, there came a corresponding change in the surrounding architecture."  The vintage church was now engulfed by loft buildings.

The structure sat empty until 1901 when a demolition permit was issued.  The loft building which replaced it was completed in 1903 and survives.

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Saturday, August 27, 2022

The 1900 Parker Building -- 225 Park Avenue South


On March 16, 1889, The Evening World commented, "'The Battle of Gettysburg' cyclorama, at Fourth avenue and Nineteenth street, being almost unique in its way does not fear rivalry.  It attracts large numbers of people each day and visitors to the city appear to 'take it in' very extensively."  The massive painting, the project of artist Paul Philippoteaux, encircled the viewers with a detailed depiction of the climatic Gettysburg battle of Pickett's Charge.

The Cyclorama Building that housed the painting sat upon ground leased from the Mathews estate.  Under pressure from proprietors of the Florence apartment house next door, the lease was not renewed after its expiration in 1894.  On January 22 The New York Times remarked, "the Cyclorama Building will be removed as soon as possible."

The plot sat empty for five years.  Then, on August 12, 1899, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Jennie S. and John H. Parker had purchased the property.  Parker was the president of the John H. Parker Co. construction company.  The article noted that the firm "will erect a 12-story store, loft and office building on the plot."

Architect William Birkmeier designed the structure in a commercial take on Renaissance Revival.  His design featured a three-story limestone base with double-height piers.  Above the spartan, brick-faced midsection, Birkmeier relieved the visual heaviness with the ample use of stone at the 10th floor, and graceful, paired double-height arched openings at the 11th and 12th.

On June 13, 1900, The New York Times reported that Parker had sold "The Parker Building, the new twelve-story office and loft structure now nearing completion at the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Nineteenth Street" to a Chicago syndicate for "between $1,700,000 and $1,800,000."  The price would equal about $60 million on the higher side today.  The structure was highly touted for its fireproof qualities, including a steel skeleton.

Aside from the John H. Parker Co. offices, the building filled  mainly with firms associated with the publishing industry.  Among the early tenants was Broadway Weekly; the Judge Company, which published popular periodicals like Leslie's Weekly and Judge magazine; The Outlook; and bookbindery of Frederick C. Stegeman.  The store space was home to the Oriental rug importer Myran Karaghensian. 

The Tammany Times, July 23, 1904

Also in the building in 1906 were the Irving Press, which shared the 11th floor with Frederick C. Stegeman; publishers P. F. Collier & Sons and D. C. Heath; and F. E. Wayne.  Oddly enough, the offices of F. E. Wayne contained "a valuable collection of art works belonging to a rich man," according to the New-York Tribune.

On the night of February 5 that year, police officer Charles Fischtel was five blocks away, on 14th Street, when he saw flames coming from the 11th floor of the Parker Building.  Because the tenants were, on the whole, publishers, the structure was filled with flammable materials like paper, ink, and machinery grease.  The New-York Tribune reported, "When the firemen arrived, they had hard work in getting to the blazing floor.  They were forced to smash down a door before they could enter the building.  Then they had difficulty in groping their way through the smoke-filed building before they reached the flames."

The fire had started in the Frederick C. Stegeman space.  Both it and the Irving Press offices were completely destroyed.  Other tenants were badly damaged by water--including the valuable paintings in Wayne's offices--but the fire itself was limited to the 11th floor.

Dauchy & Company's Newspaper Catalogue, 1904 (copyright expired)

The first years of the 20th century saw the rise of extremist groups like the mafia and the Black Hand.  One of them, the Hunchakist Society, was composed of Armenians and it targeted Armenian businessmen.  On July 22, 1907 rug dealer H. S. Tavshanjian was gunned down in the lobby of the Century Building after ignoring extortion threats.  On August 4, The New York Times reported, "The deed was done with ostentatious bravado.  The next day six other prominent merchants received letters warning them that they would have to pay many thousands of dollars to escape the same fate."

Among those was Myran Karaghensian.  The letters he received demanded "$2,000 as the price of keeping Karaghensian's brother in Constantinople out of trouble," said the New-York Tribune.  Karaghensian's wife and two children had sailed for England for the summer.  Now, on August 4, the New-York Tribune reported, "owing to the recent troubles [he] had decided that the family had better be together where they could be more effectively protected."  When the family stepped off the Cunard liner Campania on August 3, Karaghensian was there to meet them.  The New-York Tribune noted, "He was accompanied by two private detectives, heavily armed."

The fire of 1906 seemed to have confirmed the fireproof qualities of the Parker Building.  But that all came into question on the evening of January 10, 1908.  At 6:30 the night watchman smelled smoke, but could not determine the origin.  Harper's Weekly reported, "It was not until eight o'clock that the crackling of flames and the thick outpouring of smoke showed that the fire was raging in the warerooms of the Detmer Woolen Company, on the sixth floor."

Fire fighters responded, but, as reported by Harper's Weekly,  "After one hour of fighting the blaze had spread throughout the building above the fourth floor, and there was no hope of extinguishing it.  To make matters worse, much of the fire department's hose was rotten.  "Forty-five lengths of hose burst," said the article.  At one point, a heavy printing press "went crashing down with the force of a gigantic projectile, rending and crushing everything in its way to the cellar."  Along with the press and other debris, two fire fighters and one insurance patrolman were "swept down to torture and death under the mass of glowing steel."  Fifty fire fighters "came tumbling out upon Fourth Avenue" following the collapse, and no further effort to fight the blaze from within the building was made.

Harper's Weekly, February 1, 1908 (copyright expired)

Three days later, The Evening World reported that Fire Chief Croker "to-day declared the steel skeleton remaining after the fire to be perfectly safe.  Upon this declaration a gang of fifty workmen went to work in the ruins of the ground floor to recover the bodies of the three firemen who are still missing."  In the meantime, heavy timbers were placed over Fourth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets to ensure that the street would not collapse into the subway should the exterior walls of the Parker Building--all that remained--crumble.

Workmen erect a platform of timbers to protect the subway.  Harper's Weekly, February 1, 1908 (copyright expired)

William Birkmire's steel frame construction had survived the inferno.  Had it not been for the delay in discovering it and the fire department's shoddy equipment, the outcome may have been far different.  Newspapers were unforgiving.  On January 18, 1908 The Evening World wrote, "Fire Commissioner Lantry and Chief Croker...refuse to accept the responsibility for the rotten hose and the lack of water pressure which made the Parker Building fire such a disaster."

The burned-out shell of the Parker Building was auctioned in April 1906.  Purchased by the Pocono Building Co., it sat for three years before the architectural firm of R. H. Robertson & Son was hired to reconstruct it.  Architects' and Builders' Magazine noted, "The new structure is to be known as the Pocono, and the builders expect its completion about February 1, 1910."  The two southernmost bays of the building were taken down, "so that the frontage is reduced from 121 feet to 82 feet," said the article.  The magazine stressed that the reconstructed building would be "built strictly within the requirements of our present laws [and] will be a thoroughly fire-proof structure."

R. H. Robertson & Son released this rendering of the slightly reduced, reconstructed building in 1909.  Architects' & Builders' Magazine, November 1909 (copyright expired)

The tenants of the rebuilt structure were mostly apparel-related.  Among the first were silk merchants M. C. Migel & Co., the American Hosiery Co., and Robishon & Peckham Co., makers of underwear.  

Brothers Joseph and William Sydemen operated the Sydemen Rubber Company with partner Joseph Wood.  The firm landed a lucrative contract following the nation's entry into World War I.  Patriotic Americans were no doubt shocked when they read on July 23, 1918 that all three men had been arrested "on charges of fraud, bribery and conspiracy in connection with war contracts to supply raincoats for Pershing's men," according to the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper explained, "The indictments charge the manufacturers with paying money to inspectors to have defective raincoats intended for the army passed as perfect."

Another tenant involved with the war was the Patriotic Yarn Association.  On January 26, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported that the group "is receiving a generous supply of knitting wool every day for the individual knitter who wants to make sweaters and other garments for the soldiers and sailors."  The group supplied the wool at low cost to the knitters.  "The association does not require the purchaser of yarn to bring back the finished garment, though she is required to sign a pledge stating that she is knitting for American or Allied troops."

The Pocono Company made renovations to the building in 1922.  Interestingly, it once again became home to several book-related firms.  Among them were the Garnder-Moffat Company, Inc., which published Who's Who in American Aeronautica that year; and W. D. Harper, Inc., a paper distributing firm founded by William D. Harper.  He was the grandson of Fletcher Harper, one of the four original brothers of the publishing house, Harper Brothers.

Change began in the 1950's when more institutional tenants began moving in.  In March 1957 the nonprofit Group Health Insurance, Inc. leased an entire floor.  The tenants would have to reprint their letterhead in 1959, when Fourth Avenue was renamed Park Avenue South.  Soon afterward the International Rescue Committee, formed in 1933 to help political escapees from foreign dictatorships, moved in.  By 1964 the Community Council of Greater New York had its headquarters in the building, and would remain into the 1990's.

In April 1994 Baruch College, a branch of the City University of New York, signed a 10-year lease for 75,000 square feet--the entire 7th, 8th and 19th floors.  The school used the additional space "for new classrooms, a cafeteria and computer operations," said The New York Times on April 20.

Following the attack on the World Trade Center, the Port Authority moved its headquarters into the building.  Here a tattered 8-by-12-foot American flag, rescued from the ruins, hung in honor.  The agency returned downtown, to 4 World Trade Center, in March of 2015.

Carefully maintained, the former Parker Building gives today's passerby no hint that it was the scene of one of Manhattan's most dramatic and controversial fires in the early 20th century.

photograph by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Friday, August 26, 2022

The 1837 John and Maria Francis House - 104 East 17th Street


In 1836 Dr. John Wakefield Francis and his wife, the former Maria Eliza Cutler, purchased the vacant lot at 57 East 17th Street (later renumbered 104) from Isaac Green Pearson and his wife Eliza.  The plot sat half a block from Union Square--the exclusive residential enclave that developer Samuel Ruggles had begun work on two years earlier.

John and Maria Francis immediately began construction of a fine, 26-foot wide home.  Completed the following year, the Greek Revival style house rose three stories above a brownstone-clad English basement.  Clad in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, it exhibited the design elements of the new style--heavy stone pilasters on either side of the entrance that upheld a substantial entablature, plain sills and lintels, and a modest, bracketed cornice.

John Wakefield Francis was a well-known obstetrician and a would be a founder of the New York Academy of Medicine.  The couple's two sons, Valentine Mott Francis and Samuel Ward Francis would also go into medicine.  Samuel would become an inventor, as well.  Among his creative inventions were a cane with a hidden compartment for coins, a toothbrush with rubber bristles, and a toothed spoon--what today we know as the spork.

The Francis family apparently never lived in the East 17th house, but rented it.  In 1847 they were still living at 1 Bond Street.  That year John S. Winthrop, Jr., a broker with Prime, Ward & King, was renting the 17th Street house.  He moved permanently to North Carolina around 1848, at which time Joseph and Grace W. Ogden leased the house.

The founder of a successful shipping firm, Ogden was a director in several firms, like the Mutual Insurance Co., and the Nicaragua Transit Company.  Grace came from a  socially prominent family.  Her father, Jonathan Ogden, had founded the shipping firm of Ogden, Ferguson & Co., and was a director of the Merchants' Bank.  The couple would remain in the house for a decade.

In 1859, the year the Ogdens left, title to the East 17th Street house was transferred to Dr. Samuel Ward Francis.  As his parents had done, he continued to lease it.  The next tenants were the notable Eigenbrodt family, here in 1860.  

Sarah Eigenbrodt was the widow of the Rev. Dr. Lewis Ernest Andrew Eigenbrodt, who had died in 1828.  Born in Germany, he had come to America in 1793.  The esteemed minister had delivered an oration at George Washington's funeral in 1799. For 11 years he was a warden of Grace Church.

Three of Sarah's children, Dr. David Lamberson, Rev. William Ernest, and Sarah, moved into the house with her.  Her other son, Charles S. Eigenbrodt, had gone to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush.  (Charles would die fighting in the Civil War on August 25, 1864.)

William followed closely in his father's professional footsteps.  Two years after the family moved into the 17th Street house, he became a professor of "pastoral theology" in the General Theological Seminary, and would later donate Eigenbrodt Hall to that institution.   (The affluence of the Eigenbrodt family was reflected in William's will.  Upon his death in 1894, he left $250,000 each to the Seminary and to Trinity School.)

Sarah died at the age of 75 on July 26, 1863.  Her funeral was not held in the house, as might have been expected, but at St. Clement's Church in Greenwich Village. 

That year Samuel Ward Francis transferred title to the house to his brother, Dr. Valentine Mott Francis, and his wife, the former Anna Mercer.  Like his brother, Valentine was a man of several talents, and that same year he published his lengthy poem The Fight for the Union.

The Eigenbrodt siblings remained at 104 East 17th Street until 1868, when Francis leased it to the family of Levi and Jane Bissell.  Listed in directories as a machinist, Bissell was more accurately described as a mechanical engineer.  In 1857 he was granted a patent "for improvement in trucks for locomotives," described in the 1890 The Engineer's Encyclopaedia as "an 'Air Spring' which...was destined to be a cheap, effective and perpetual spring."

The Bissell's two children, William H. and Sarah E. both became physicians.  They may have been influenced by Dr. Arthur F. Bissell, presumably an uncle, who initially lived with the family here.

After having been in the Francis family for half a century, the house was sold to John and Harriet S. Biddle in 1878.  Upon the end of the Bissell's lease, they moved in in 1881.  

John Biddle was the head of the Biddle Piano Co., established in 1860.  Astonishingly, he had started his career as "a semi-blind music teacher who opened a store in Varick street," according to The Music Review decades later.  He was also a director of the First National Bank of Port Jefferson, Long Island, where the family maintained its country home.

The Music Trade Review, June 2, 1923 (copyright expired)

In 1888 the Biddles enlarged and updated the residence.  Builder Walter Jones erected an extension in the rear, and it was most likely at this time that Renaissance Revival details were added to the front--triangular pediments above the parlor windows and entrance, bracketed lintels above the upper floor openings, and a handsome cast metal cornice.

The exquisite stoop railings were part of the 1888 updating.

On December 17, 1902, Harriet Biddle died "suddenly."  It was a term which often suggested a heart attack.  Her casket sat in the parlor until her funeral on December 20.

John Biddle remained here until 1904 when he sold 104 East 17th Street to Charles Mayer, a partner in the underwear firm of M. & C. Mayer at 568 Broadway.  Living with him were Charles Mayer (presumably a relative) and Florence E. Goddard.  Mayer's residency would be relatively short lived.  He became ill in 1908 and died in the house on January 18, 1909.

A bachelor, he had been generous to his employees in his will.  He left $6,000 to be divided among the 15 employees who had been with him for at least 12 years (more than $11,700 each in today's money), and $25 to each of the other workers.  The rest of the sizable estate was divided among charities and family members.  To his brother and his business partner Max W. Mayer he left the equivalent of just under $300,000 today, and to Max's daughter, Alice, half that amount.

The will left the title to 104 East 17th Street in equal shares to Charles Mayer and Florence Goddard.  They rented the house the following year to a stockbroker appropriately named Coin.  In 1918 John Gianelli leased it "for a term of years."  The once exclusive tone of the neighborhood had greatly changed by now, with Union Square no longer being ringed with mansions, but with business buildings.  Gianelli operated the property as a "lodging house."

Among his initial tenants was T. Everett Harre, a journalist, author, and the head of The National Civic Federation.  Among his books were the Heavenly Sinner, a romanticized biography of Lola Montez, The Eternal Maiden, Behold the Woman! and One Hour--and Forever.

A less respectable tenant was Sigmund Rosenfelt, known as "Beansy."  In February 1922 he was out on bail, having been indicted on Federal charges for "wholesale dealing in fraudulent liquor permits."  Only two months earlier he had been released from a New Jersey prison, having been convicted there for running a chain of illegal gambling houses.

On February 7, 1922 he was taken to a sanitarium on West 77th Street, suffering from pneumonia.  The Evening World commented, "Rosenfelt has been living at John Gianelli's, No. 104 East 17th Street."  The 49-year-old racketeer would not return.  He died three days later.  In reporting his death, the New-York Tribune recalled, "For many years he had a place on West Fourteenth Street.  In the scramble for up-town gambling profits, which gave rise to the 'Gamblers' War,' Rosenfeld was as successful as most of the combatants."

The Evening World added, "Short, rotund, baldheaded, suave and imperturbable, Rosenfeld was typical of the school of gamblers which grew to wealth and maturity on Second Avenue, and then invaded richer if more difficult hunting grounds for the money of the uptown venturesome and foolish."

It appears that Charles Mayer was deceased by 1931, when Florence Goddard-Todd sold 104 East 17th Street to the Planet Realty Co.   The firm converted the property to apartments.  

The residents over the subsequent decades were middle class professionals, like Charles Keith.  Born in Vermont, he had started out life as a merchant seaman in the 1930's.  But a disagreement between him and the Maritime Union resulted in his resignation to become a house painter in Greenwich Village.

House painting soon took back seat to war.  While fighting in the Spanish Civil War against the Francisco Franco forces he was wounded and captured.  And then, during World War II, he served on a ship that was torpedoed.  Keith survived both conflicts and returned to New York to buy and rehabilitate buildings, most of them residential--what today we would call a house flipper.  Following his death while living here in February 1973, The New York Times said, "He became very successful."

Around 1990 the triangular pediment over the entrance was replaced with a flat, arched slab with the address inscribed on it.  Today there are six apartments within the building, the outward appearance of which is little changed since the Biddles' 1888 updating.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to