Friday, August 5, 2022

The Remodeled Wm. W. McLaughlin House - 60 East 83rd Street


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In June 1887, architect Francis A. Minuth filed plans for four four-story-and-basement homes on East 83rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Their high-end tenor was reflected in the construction costs--the equivalent of $661,000 each by today's standards.  Interestingly, Minuth was working for two developers.  Charles Gulden was erecting 54 and 56 East 83rd Street, while Frederick Correll and his wife Caroline were responsible for 58 and 60.

Completed in 1888, Minuth had designed the brownstone-faced, Queen Anne style residences in an A-B-B-A configuration.  The easternmost house, 60 East 83rd Street, was a mirror image of 54, its wide stoop with beefy newels set to the west and its second story oriel and prominent mansard gable to the east--the opposite of its counterpart. 

The row as it appeared in 1940.  60 East 83rd Street is to the left.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The Corrells sold 60 East 83rd Street to wealthy clothier Hyman Sarner and his family.  He and his wife, the former Augusta Vogel had six children, Celia, Julius, Bertha, Martha, Marcus Joseph, and Hattie.  Like many well-to-do businessmen, Sarner dabbled in real estate development, and was perhaps best known for his battle over a five-foot wide strip of land on Lexington Avenue and 82nd Street six years earlier.  When the owner, Joseph Richardson, refused to lower his price, Sarner and his partner forged ahead, building an apartment house and leaving Richardson with what they considered a worthless strip of property.  The decision prompted what was widely known as "the incident."

A month after Sarner and his partner broke ground in May 1882, Richardson did the same.  He erected two houses on the 5-by-100-foot plot that blocked light and ventilation to the apartment building.  They were known as the Spite Houses.

On November 27, 1890, Bertha Sarner was married to Issac J. Silberstein in "the assembly rooms of the Metropolitan Opera House," as reported by the New York Herald.  Augusta nearly outshone her daughter, wearing "a gown of black velvet, en train, trimmed with point lace."

The Sarners sold 60 East 83rd Street on July 17, 1899 to one of New York's most colorful figures.  Known as the "Millionaire Cop," Inspector William W. McLaughlin had joined the New York Police Department on November 26, 1868.  The Times Union called him "among the most efficient enemies of criminals in New York police history."  McLaughlin was responsible for the capture of a string of forgers and thieves, including the tracking of a gang of elevated railroad robbers to Cuba and arresting them.

Now the head of the detective bureau, McLaughlin's career was not without stain.  He had faced trial in May 1895, charged by a State investigative committee of extortion.  He was accused of forcing shopkeepers and other businessmen to pay bribes to avoid being given fines for violations like blocking the sidewalk.  In court it was alleged McLaughlin's millions were amassed through such graft.  He countered, saying he earned his fortune in real estate dealings.

William and Mary A. McLaughlin had eight children.  Unlike most Irish cops, in his early years he spent his days off at art museums, honing what would become a fine knowledge of art.  By the time the family moved onto East 83rd Street, McLaughlin owned impressive and costly works.

The New York Sun said, "One of the best art collections in America is owned by a policeman," adding that McLaughlin's "brownstone mansion at 60 East Eighty-third street [is] hung with his old masters--Franz Hals, Turner, Delacroix, Corot, Inges, Landseer, Millet, Breugels and many others."  (In 1915 McLaughlin would value his collection "of rare pictures and etchings" at $250,000, nearly $7 million today.)  The newspaper noted, "There was some eye-rolling among the wealthy residents of upper Fifth avenue when he planted his mansion close by, but he didn't mind.  Those who know him say his love of art is informed and genuine."

McLaughlin's nationwide fame as a crook-catcher landed his image on a cigarette card.

McLaughlin had not given up his penchant for receiving money under the table.  It proved his undoing when he involved himself in a high-profile divorce case.  When millionaire Howard Gould and his wife, actress Katherine Clemmons, became embroiled in a high-profile divorce in 1907, McLaughlin gave him use of the Detective Bureau "to secure evidence to fight his wife's suit for separation," as reported by the Brooklyn Standard Union.

The discovery of the scheme resulted in a purge at the Police Department.  On April 20, 1907, The New York Times wrote, "The storm that has been hanging over Police Headquarters for more than a week broke yesterday, and eight Inspectors and almost unnumbered Detective the Detective Bureau were hit.  Common patrolmen cluttered the earth."  Among the casualties, of course, was Inspector William W. McLaughlin.

The article reported that "William W. McLaughlin, known as a 'Millionaire Cop,'...[who] was sent to command a little Westchester station, suffered the hardest come-down that the Commissioner handed out yesterday."  A reporter was sent uptown, but "His magnificent house at 60 East Eight-third Street, among the millionaires, was closed up fast...A footman stood outside to tell reporters that the new Captain of the Westchester Precinct would see no one."

McLaughlin's humiliating demotion did not end the investigation.  On May 17 McLaughlin received a "list of questions" from the Commissioner regarding the Gould affair, asking him "to reply to them forthwith," as reported by The Sun.  The former inspector "was taken suddenly ill at his home" that night.  The Sun said he was afflicted with "a complication of diseases, of which the leading symptoms are rheumatism and bronchitis.  He may have others."

The Commissioner would never receive McLaughlin's reply.  On May 23 the Brooklyn Standard Union reported, "Rather than submit to a cross-examination and tell what he knows about the alleged use of the Detective Bureau by Howard Gould to secure evidence to fight his wife's suit for separation, it was rumored at Police Headquarters...that Capt. William McLaughlin, formerly head of the detective bureau as an inspector, had resigned."

Despite the shady circumstances surrounding his resignation, McLaughlin was granted a police pension of $2,500 per year (about $38,000 today).  He rebounded by opening McLaughlin's U. S. Detective Agency, no doubt employing several of the disgraced detectives from the Gould scandal.

Of their eight children, five were still living in the East 83rd Street house with William and Mary in 1911:  Violette and Edna, both unmarried, and William Jr., Thomas and Edward.

Fire broke out in the residence on the morning of February 22, 1915, after which the McLaughlins filed a claim for $70,000 in damages.  The Sun reported, "The inventory of the pictures destroyed included two canvases by Sir Joshua Reynolds, for which he paid $2,200; a Turner, valued at $1,250; two Troyons, worth $1,500 each; two Depres for one of which he paid $200 and for the other $1,000, and a Corot, valued at $1,500."  Mary additionally claimed the loss of $25,000 worth of clothing.

But, once again, it appeared that McLaughlin was acting a bit shadily.  The insurance company balked at the claim and it ended up in court in January 1916.  The insurance company brought in fire fighters, who testified "that it had taken them just five minutes to stamp out the fire entirely and that they had the hose turned on only one minute," according to The Sun on January 23.  The firm's experts asserted, "Only one dozen of the eighty-one paintings cited by the plaintiff...were actually damaged.  An additional $250, the experts declared, would have been sufficient to burnish up the other paintings whether they were injured or not."

Claiming that the McLaughlins had "willfully, maliciously and fraudulently" overstated the damage, the insurance company proposed that it was not obligated to pay a cent.  After deliberating for just over an hour, a jury agreed.  The Sun reported that it decided that Mary A. McLaughlin was "not entitled to any part of the $70,000 she asked in her suit against the National Fire Insurance Company."

On December 15, 1931 The New York Sun reported on the 85th birthday celebration planned for William McLaughlin the next day.  It reminisced about his storied career in law enforcement, calling him America's most famous thief catcher," and saying, "Trim in figure, natty in dress and a bit histrionic in his methods, he held the spotlight for years as the chief of the Detective Bureau."  Nothing was mentioned about the Gould scandal or any of the others.

Mary McLaughlin had been ill for an extended period at the time of the birthday party.  Fifteen days later the newspaper reported on her death.  Her funeral was held in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue at 84th Street on New Year's Eve.

Mary left her entire estate to William.  And that caused a problem within the family.  Years earlier Annie had opened a savings account for her mother at the Broadway Savings Bank.  Upon her death it contained a balance of $5,102.32--just over $100,000 by today's standards.  Because she had opened the account in her own name, Annie insisted it belonged to her.  Her father (somewhat surprisingly given his vast fortune) took her to court.  Helen Edna testified against her sister, saying that Annie had always referred to the account as "mother's money" and to the bankbooks as "mother's bankbooks."  On June 6, 1933 William W. McLaughlin won the suit against his daughter.

It was a short-lived victory.  McLaughlin was visiting his married daughter Irene Coffey in Mount Kisco, New York on October 13 that year when he suffered what the Times Union described as a "coughing spell" followed by a fatal heart attack.  Once again, newspapers dwelt on his notable career.  The Times Union said "He was said to know the Rogue's Gallery by heart and he was a master of criminal psychology."  The New York Sun recalled, "During his career he broke up the Red Hook gangs and performed numerous feats of police work which inspired District Attorney William Travers Jerome to call him the 'ablest man on the force.'"

Family infighting over the will lasted for nearly a decade.  Helen McLaughlin first contested it over the distribution of paintings and other artwork.  The suits continued through 1941.

In 1948 the former McLaughlin mansion was divided into apartments--two per floor.  The stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to the basement level.  

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

One of them was home to burgeoning designer Elia Delgado in the 1970's.  New York Magazine described her in 1979 saying, "A good dressmaker is rarer than a truthful press agent.  One who's been keeping society's seams straight for years is Elia Delgado, 60 East 83rd Street."

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Then, a renovation completed in 2009 completely changed the personality of the 1888 residence.  Reconverted to a single family house, the brownstone front was removed and replaced by a modern neo-Classical facade.  What remained of the F. A. Minuth interiors were gutted in favor of more sterile, cleaner lines.

Many thanks to reader Keith Leong for requesting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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