Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The 1892 Albert L. Johnson House - 354 West End Avenue

 Clarence F. True, the Upper West Side's most prolific architect in the late 19th century, designed a group of seven houses in 1891 for Francis M. Jenks.  Four faced West End Avenue, while the other three were on West 77th Street.  Completed the following year, they included 354 West End Avenue, an eclectic mix of French Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival styles.  

Like its neighbors, it was three-and-a-half stories tall above the English basement.  A full-height, three sided bay provided a balustraded balcony to the tiled mansard level.  Here a dramatic gable ornamented with a carved tympanum and topped by two shield-holding lions added architectural drama.  Often whimsical in his designs, True added a subtle difference to the three houses at 352 through 356.  Each had a carved decoration below a third floor window.  Next door at 352 was a spread-winged owl, while 354 received a somewhat shiver-inducing bat.

The 19-foot-wide house was sold to 33-year-old Albert Loftin Johnson and his wife Kate on January 9, 1893.   A fascinating figure, Albert was the son of a Confederate States Army colonel who moved his family north following the Civil War.  Albert and his brother, Tom, initially went into business in Ohio where, according to the New-York Tribune, they "started with a few mules in the street railroad business."  Tom later turned to politics, serving in the United States House of Representatives and in 1901 would be elected mayor of Cleveland.

The brothers' success garnered each a fortune, and before moving his family to New York City, Albert purchased the Cleveland baseball team of the Players' League, and in 1890 bought the Cincinnati Reds.  In New York, however, he focused much more on the street railroads.  When he moved his family into the West End Avenue house, he was president of the Allentown & Lehigh Valley Traction Co., the Nassau Electric Railroad Co., and the Yonkers Railroad Co.  He was vice-president of the New York State Street Railway Association and a director in three other street railroads.

Albert's wife, the former Kate Mitchell, was also a Southerner, and, like he, came from a Louisville, Kentucky family.  Their summer home on the Shore Road in Fort Hamilton was described by the New-York Tribune as "one of the handsomest on the Shore Road in Brooklyn.  The house overlooks New-York Bay and the Narrows, and is of unique architecture.  It combines many characteristics of Spanish and Roman types."

Albert L. Johnson.  New-York Tribune, March 27, 1901 (copyright expired)

Albert's fortunes increased when he and his brother sold the Brooklyn Rapid Transit system for "more than $4,000,000," according to the New-York Tribune.  Albert then came up with a plan to build a railroad tunnel below the East River to Brooklyn and under the Verrazano Narrows to Staten Island, which would create an unbroken route from Pennsylvania to Staten Island.  The New-York Tribune reported, "He offered to make the fare three cents for passengers in any part of greater New-York, and if the tunnel cost more than the $8,000,000 which it was decided could be spent on the Brooklyn extension of the Rapid Transit tunnel, Mr. Johnson offered to raise the capital himself."

The controller, the mayor, and other officials met to discuss Johnson's ambitious plan on March 26, 1901.  While Controller Bird Sim Coler said he was "in favor of the main features," and Mayor Robert Van Wyck was "impressed with the desirability of Mr. Johnson's plan," the Rapid Transit Commission's counsel, Albert B. Boardman was not convinced.  Asked if he would deposit $150,000 "as an evidence of good faith," according to the New-York Tribune, Johnson replied, "I'll put up $200,000.  I mean business.  I've got $1,000,000 and more, too."

Johnson would never see his sweeping proposal executed.  At the beginning of that summer, his brother Tom and his mother were spending time with the family at the Fort Hamilton house.  There, on July 2, 1901, Albert L. Johnson suffered a heart aneurism and died at the age of 40.  The Street Railway Journal wrote, "The death of Mr. Johnson will come as a surprise to his friends, as he was a man of powerful physique, who always led an outdoor life in his railway work, and never had any several illness."

At the time of Albert's death, he and Kate had four children, ranging from eight months to nine years.  Tom L. Johnson was named executor of the estate and he was extremely tight-lipped about the details.  On July 9 the New-York Tribune wrote, "He would not express any opinion as to the value of the estate, which was difficult to determine."  The newspaper made its own vague estimate of its being in the millions.  While reporters were told that everything was left to Johnson's family, even those details were kept secret.  "The mother would get more than the children, but as to the proportions of the division Mayor Johnson would not say."

Kate and the children left the West End Avenue house within the year.  It soon became home to Dr. Walter G. Douglass and his wife.  The affluence and pedigree of the dentist earned the couple a listing in Dau's Great New York Blue Book of society.  Douglass's personal fortune was increased in 1907 following the death of his mother, Amanda B. Douglass.  Of her large estate, he received the equivalent of over $1 million in today's money.

While other wealthy New Yorkers filled their spare time with raising thoroughbred horses or yachting, Walter Douglass preferred billiards and card playing.  On March 19, 1907, in reporting on an upcoming pinochle tournament, The Tammany Times noted that among the judges would be "Dr. Walter G. Douglass, who for years held the amateur billiard championship of the New York Athletic Club."

That summer Douglass's name appeared in the newspapers following a disturbing incident in Coney Island.  He and a group of friends had dined at Feltman's Restaurant there on July 13, 1907.  He later told police, "As a windup they ordered a round of drinks."  The group, it seems, had already had more than their fair share of cocktails, and when the drinks were brought to the table, the head waiter stepped in, directing that they not be served.

The Sun reported, "An altercation followed."  Indeed, it did.  Douglass and the head waiter engaged in a physical battle that ended with the water hitting Douglass over the head with a bottle, ending the fight.  The wealthy dentist was locked up on charges of disorderly conduct.  "Douglass's clothes were saturated with blood and his injuries were dressed in the Emergency Hospital," said the article.  While a friend bailed him out, he was required to return to Coney Island the next day to appear before a judge.

In December 1912, Mary Evelyn Manuel, who had been living in the upscale Hotel Gotham, leased 354 West End Avenue.  She had recently taken over the care of her two nieces, Horsinia and Jessie Muller, 15- and 13-years-old respectively.  They were the daughters of Mary's sister who had died on February 27, 1911.  The girls' father, Adrian H. Muller, who was vice-president of the General Railways Company, had  been separated from their mother, and now ceded their upbringing to Mary.

When Mary Manuel allowed Horsinia and Jessie, now 17- and 15-years old, to attend a dance in January 1914, she could never had imagined the repercussions.  There the girls met 21-year-old Herbert Huber and his 22-year-old cousin, Rex Jones.  One week later, Horsinia and Jessie left 254 West End Avenue, met their new boyfriends, and took a train to Maryland where they were married. 

When news of the elopements reached Adrian Muller, who to date had shown little interest in his daughters' upbringing, he was enraged.  The New-York Tribune explained on February 2, "Mr. Muller at first began to exercise his parental right to storm a bit."  Mary, Adrian, and the newlyweds discussed it all in the parlor of the West End Avenue house.  The New-York Tribune reported that since the two grooms "are well employed and connected with good families, Mr. Muller decided to make the best of it."  He agreed to allow his daughters to remain married, with the stipulation that they live apart from their husbands for one year.

The True-designed houses, to the left, harmonized architecturally with the southern half of the block, designed by Edward L. Angell.

Herbert and Horsinia, however, could not stand the wait.  Horsinia sneaked away and the couple rented an apartment.  Muller promptly had Herbert arrested for abduction.  In the meantime, Mary kept Jessie under lock and key.   On March 19, The Knickerbocker Press reported, "In order to prevent her from following the example of her sister and eloping with her husband, Mrs. Leslie Muller Jones, fifteen years old, has been locked up in her home by her aunt, Miss Mary Manuel, of 354 West End avenue."

In a clever move, on March 26, Horsinia requested that her husband be appointed her guardian, "in an attempt to prevent her father from trying to have the marriage annulled," according to The Sun.  She did not hold back in her testimony, saying, "My father has never shown the slightest regard for me and I have not lived with him or been supported by him for the last ten years.  I have been maintained by my aunt, Miss Mary Evelyn Manuel of 354 West End Avenue."  And she stressed that both hers and her sister's marriages were legal.  "The age of consent in Maryland is 14 years, and I want no action brought to annul my marriage by my father or anyone else."

Henry Huber was awarded guardianship of his wife, thwarting Muller's attempts at intervention.  The marriages of both girls were upheld by the courts.

In 1918 the house was leased to Charles H. Torrey.  Then, on June 3, 1920, it was sold to attorney Charles Adrian Brodek.  Born on January 20, 1872, he had earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1893.  Six years later he married Hortense Josephy and they would have three children, Edith Joyce, Catherine M. and Frances.

Just four months after moving into the house, Edith Joyce was married in the ballroom of the Hotel Gotham to Jack Marqusee.  Catherine was her attendant.  Little Frances was just 10 years old.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Wealthy New Yorkers closed their homes during the summer to spent the warm months at their country estates or fashionable resorts.  In 1922 Charles Brodek went to extreme lengths to safeguard the house.  The New York Herald reported, "The windows were barred, the doors protected with iron gratings, burglar chains were across the inside door and even the doorbells were boarded up.  A trusted watchman was on duty at night."

The Brodeks knew the watchman well, and had employed him to stay in the residence at nights during their absence for years.   But on June 23, 1922 Brodek returned from the country and as he entered through the basement door he realized it had been jimmied.  "Everything was in disorder," wrote the New York Herald.  "Coverings were torn from the furniture, bureau drawers had been opened and their contents thrown on the floor; the house was topsy-turvy.  Upstairs he found the thirty inch safe, where valuables were kept, open and empty."

A police investigation revealed that the burglars had made their way across the rooftops during broad daylight, forced open the scuttle on the roof of 354 West End Avenue, and ransacked the house.  "Working down stairs the thieves were forced to jimmy their way out," said the article.

The burglars got away with jewelry, silverware, imported rugs and clothing, including Hortense's Russian sable scarf.  The value of the haul in today's money would be about $130,000.

In 1912 George Weider was sent to prison for burglarizing the mansion of J. Pierpont Morgan.  He was sent to Sing Sing again in 1918 after robbing the home of D. W. Potter.  He was released in 1922 and picked up where he had left off.   In the three weeks after his release he burglarized no fewer than four homes, including the Brodek house on May 30.  This time the family was somewhat luckier.  While Weider made off with thousands of dollars in jewelry from some of his victims, he got only $300 in case from the Brodeks.

Charles Adrian Brodek sold 354 West End Avenue in 1926 to attorney Charles H. Herbst, a partner in the law firm of Herbst, Balaban & Weinstein.  In 1938 it became the home of Joseph Rountree and his wife, who had previously been the proprietors of the Rountree Hotel in Washington D.C.

Perhaps because of its narrow width, 354 West End Avenue remained a single family home until 1967, when a renovation resulted in two duplex apartments above the basement level.

photographs by the author
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