Horace Ginsbern was, apparently, a take-charge sort of man. The principal in the architectural firm Horace Ginsbern & Associates, he was also the president of the Horace Realty Company, Inc. And then, in 1938, he formed the 155 West Twentieth Street, Inc., with himself as president. The two latter firms purchased the 23,500 square-foot vacant lot at the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 20th Street. The New York Times, on March 12, 1938, reported, "Plans for erecting a modern apartment house on a plot in the Chelsea area were announced yesterday." Ginsbern, expectedly, would be the architect for his project.
Construction progressed at lightening speed. Eight months after Ginsbern purchased the plot, his building was completed. And on November 23 The Sun reported that all 120 apartments--ranging from one-and-a-half to four rooms--were rented. They were marketed as having "all modern conveniences, 24-hour doorman service, dropped living rooms, cross ventilation, roof deck." Seven stores lined the Seventh Avenue side.
Ginsbern's six-story apartment house (it was, actually, two identical buildings, at 155 and 165 West 20th Street), was a near match to his 1212 Grand Concourse, erected a year earlier. Faced in yellow brick, its Art Deco elements, like stylized chevron patterns, were executed in brick (possibly a Depression Era cost savings). Ginsbern wrapped the corner windows, a modern innovation, and placed the fire escapes on the Seventh Avenue side within a recess and on 20th Street within light courts--making them less obtrusive and creating dimension. The only non-brick ornaments were the cast concrete Art Deco pendants along the parapet.
Among the initial residents was Alex J. Vincent. On the night of November 29, 1938 he walked to the Chelsea Chop House at 248 Eighth Avenue for dinner. Suddenly, patrons heard a gunshot and a bullet struck 35-year-old Henry A. Schickling in the thigh.
Police questioned the customers and discovered the shot had come from the revolver of George Paige, who managed a paper company nearby on Eighth Avenue. He had a permit for the firearm and explained he was "shifting his belt holster from one side to the other when the weapon, in some unexplained manner, was discharged," as reported by the Long Island Star-Journal.
An ambulance arrived to take Schickling to the hospital. Alex Vincent announced that he, too, had been shot. The newspaper said that he "was examined by an ambulance surgeon, who could find no wound." Nevertheless, the 46-year-Vincent insisted he had been shot. The Long Island Star-Journal reported he "finally consented to go home."
Also among the first residents were Clyde Smith Thompson and his wife, Olive Bishop. Born in Cincinnati, Thompson was the son of a newspaper publisher and a descendant of Smith Thompson, Secretary of the Navy under President James Monroe and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was a self-made man, starting out in business as a bellboy and eventually founding the Thompson-Carroll advertising agency in Cleveland, Ohio. He was now in charge of the outdoor advertising accounts of the J. Walter Thompson Company.
Despite hard economic times, the building remained fully occupied in 1941. A typical 3-room apartment that year rented for $85, just under $1,500 per month today.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the residents of the two buildings came and went, drawing little attention to themselves or the buildings. There was a tragic fire in 155 West 20th Street in June 1966, however. It was confined to the apartment of Catherine Alice Dineen, a registered nurse who had been supervisor of a Manhattan chest clinic since 1956. Dineen was badly burned and was taken to St. Vincent Hospital where she died nearly six months later at the age of 55 on December 1.
In 1975 Greek immigrant 24-year-old Paul Katritsis lived here. He worked with the Tidal Marine International Corporation, a Greek-based firm that purchased and operated oil tankers. That year the firm was charged with "misrepresenting the price of oil tanks to obtain massive loans for subsidiaries of Tidal Marine." The New York Times reported that the "fraudulent scheme...allegedly obtained bank loans of more than $60 million." Among the 11 people indicted was Paul Katritsis, who was sentenced to four months in prison and three years of probation.
Also found guilty in absentia, "as a fugitive" according to The New York Times, was the firm's president, Charalambos Amanatides, who was said to be living in Greece. He was discovered in London by an FBI agent in 1982 and extradited to the United States where he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Somewhat surprisingly, when released on parole in March 1983 he moved into 155 West 20th Street (quite possibly the apartment of Paul Katritsis).
On the afternoon of July 5, 1985, Amanatides was standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 97th Street when he was shot in the back and killed. The bullet, fired from street level, passed through his body. No one claimed to have seen or heard the shooting.
But Katritsis and Amanatides were not typical. The residents of 155 and 165 West 20th Street continue to draw little attention. Horace Ginsbern's striking Art Deco building, on the other hand, deserves its share.
photograph by the author
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