Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Clarence F. True's 1891 157 and 159 West 88th Street


Real estate developer Charles G. Judson effectively kick-started the career of architect Clarence F. True in 1890.  In private practice for only five years after leaving the office of Richard M. Upjohn, True was receiving scattered commissions.  But Judson, whose office was in the same building with True's, contracted him to design a string of rowhouses that year.  The two would work together on several similar projects going forward.  Among the first would be two side-by-side houses on West 88th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, begun in 1891.

Judson squeezed two residences into a 26-foot-wide plot.  Yet True's deft designing successfully disguised their narrow proportions.  The Romanesque Revival design reflected the creative take on historic styles that would become True's trademark.  He explained his often playful liberties saying he hoped to eliminate "the wearisome sameness and unattractiveness" of Manhattan townhouses.

In this case, he designed the homes to be at once harmonious and yet individual.  They were among his earliest American basement, or what he termed "low-basement entrance" houses.  Instead of the high stoops so expected in rowhouses at the time, these were fronted by five-step porches.  The planar-to-rough face stone transition of the first floors was separated by projecting bandcourses that held hands by means of a Gothic boss between the entrances.

The symmetry of that level gave way to individualism above.  True gave 157 a faceted bay supported on an intricately carved base at the second floor, which provided a balcony to the vast grouped windows at the third.  The house was crowned with a projecting, tiled roof.   The architect forewent the bay at 159, but carried on the identical spandrel panels for visual continuity.  Above the arched fourth floor windows, a peaked dormer with a blind lancet window was flanked by bas relief carvings of fearsome winged beasts.

Construction was completed in 1892, and on December 28, Judson sold 157 West 88th Street to Homer and Mary A. McConnell Bostwick.  As was common, the title was put in Mary's name.  Bostwick, described by the New York Herald as "a wealthy real estate dealer," had offices on East 86th Street and on Columbus Avenue, and was a captain in the 22nd Regiment.  Upon the death of his father, Dr. Henry Bostwick, in 1883, he inherited "a large estate," according to The Sun.  He and Mary were married on October 12, 1886 and had a daughter the following year.  According to Bostwick, he spent $3,000 to furnish the new house--just over $92,000 in 2022.

The family moved into 157 West 88th Street in March 1893.  Their two live-in maids slept in the upper story, and the Bostwicks' bedroom was on the third floor.  Their five-year-old daughter slept "in a little bed" in the same room as her parents, according to the New York Herald.  Just two months after they moved in, that bedroom would be the scene of terror and chaos.

On the night of May 6, 1893, the entire household went to bed at 10:00.  At around 11:15, Mary woke "just in time to see a man crouching and creeping at the foot of her bed," reported the New York Herald.  "He had passed the child's bed and was making for the place where hung Mr. Bostwick's trousers, in which were almost a thousand dollars."  For a moment, Mary was paralyzed with fright.  "Then she found her wits and screamed with all her strength."  The burglar rushed out of the room.  Homer, thinking his wife was having a nightmare, grabbed her arm and told her to be quiet.

Just then a crash was heard on the stairway as the fleeing burglar lost his footing in the dark and tumbled down the stairs.  Mary ran to the rear window and screamed, "Help! Murder! Police!" while Homer threw open a front-facing window and did the same.  Mary witnessed two men scramble over the fence and run away.  Because there were no houses yet on West 89th Street, the burglars easily escaped.  Downstairs, the rooms had been ravaged.  The thieves had made off with the equivalent of $9,000 today in silverware--most of it wedding presents.  Both surprising and galling was the fact that they had smoked some of Bostwick's cigarettes (leaving ashes covering the tablecloth), and "had also eaten oranges at the table, thrown the skins on the floor and helped themselves freely to a pitcher of cream," said the article.

Thanks to Mary's scaring them off, they were unable to get to her dressing case with $2,000 in jewelry, or her husband's cash.  In the kitchen were found the shoes belonging to one of the burglars, which he had taken off so as to move noiselessly through the house.

At a reception in the 22nd Regiment Armory, the Bostwicks became acquainted with Frederick J. and Minora Hones.  A close friendship developed and the two couples were soon entertaining one another in their respective homes.  But, as it turned out, another relationship was simultaneously forming.  In the summer of 1893, Mary Bostwick traveled to California to visit her family.  In her absence, according to The Sun, "Bostwick and Mrs. Hones both put up at the Lake Dunmore Hotel at Brandon, Vt...It was alleged that Bostwick and Mrs. Hones were intimate at this place during the summer, and that on their return to this city Mrs. Hones used to visit at the Bostwick home, from which Mrs. Bostwick was still absent.

In September 1894, Bostwick walked out on Mary, taking rooms at the Empire Hotel.  A month later, Minora Hones left her husband and moved into an 81st Street apartment.  In September 1895, Mary sued Homer for separation, charging cruelty and abandonment.  Simultaneously, he was named in the divorce suit that Frederick Hone filed against his wife.

In court on September 16, 1895, things got ugly.  Mary accused Homer of cursing at her and of coming home drunk one night.  His attorney admitted that once his client had been drunk, adding, "there was enough to drive any man to drink."  Bostwick requested that custody of their daughter be turned over to one of his five married sisters.  "He said that his wife should not have her custody," wrote The Sun, "as she is an atheist."  He insisted that the first argument the two had had was over the christening of the child. "which she opposed."

The well-publicized divorce case ruined Homer.  The untidy publicity forced him to close his real estate offices and he was ousted from his military position.  In the settlement, Mary retained possession of the 88th Street house, although at the turn of the century she appears to have been renting it to Jessie Taylor.  Living in the house with the widowed 56-year-old in 1900 were his three daughters and an 18-year-old Irish maid, Annie Ward.  In June 1904, Mary Bostwick sold 157 West 88th Street to Louisa Lenk.

In the meantime, things were less dramatic next door.  Dr. Henry F. Quackenbos and his wife, the former Annie Rebecca Moore, had purchased 159 West 88th Street in October 1895.   The couple had been married five years earlier.  They had two daughters, Rebecca, who was four-years-old when they moved in, and Ethel Nevel, who was two.

Quackenbos came from a line of distinguished physicians.  His grandfather, Dr. A. J. Quackenbos was described by The New York Times as "an old-time medical celebrity," and his father, Henry F. Quackenbos, Sr., had been nationally known, was the personal physician of Archbishop John Hughes, and had been in charge of Bellevue Hospital during the 1849 cholera epidemic.

By the time Quackenbos purchased 159 West 88th Street, he was a well-respected gynecologist and surgeon associated with St. Elizabeth's Hospital.  As Homer Bostwick had done, he put title to the property in his Jennie's name.  The family lived quietly here until May 1905, when they sold the house to Helen Ayres.

Louisa Lenk sold 157 West 88th Street around 1908.  It became home to J. Arthur Polhemus, a partner in the insurance firm of Polhemus Brothers, and his wife Louise.  The couple maintained a summer home in Rockland County, New York, where Polhemus was active in Democratic politics.  Louise died "suddenly" in September 1913.  (The term often referred to a heart attack or stroke.)  To settle her estate, a vast amount of New York City real estate was sold at auction in May 1915, including the West 88th Street house.  The auction listing described it as "A four story and cellar stone private dwelling, containing 8 rooms, 2 baths and butler's pantry."

It was purchased by real estate operator Alfred M. Rau, who had bought 159 West 88th Street in 1908.  He sold 157 to Cosmond Rose Hammerslough around 1916.  Hammerslough and his wife, the former Hortense Rohr, had two daughters, Olga Lee and Julia.  Living with them was Hortense's widowed mother, Sarah Rohr, and three servants.  Born in March 1867, Cosmond had graduated from Harvard University in 1905, and was by now the head of the clothing firm, Hammerslough Bros. founded by his father.  The family's summer home was in North Long Branch, New Jersey.

In March 1920 the family advertised for two servants, a "competent cook" and a "competent waitress."  A waitress was a maid polished enough to serve in the dining room, as well as in the parlor when Hortense had visitors.  The ad listed the wages as $60 per month for the cook and $50 for the maid--about $200 and $170 per week, respectively, today.  The ad specified, "country for summer," a relief to some servants who were dismissed by some families when they closed their townhouses for the summer season.

Olga Hammerslough's marriage to Clifford Barton took place in the Waldorf-Astoria on May 13, 1921.  The couple's honeymoon was not lavish.  The New York Herald commented, "Mr. and Mrs. Barton will pass the summer in North Long Branch, N. J."

Alfred M. Rau sold had sold 159 West 88th Street the previous year after converting it to a two-family residence.  And in January 1925, the Hammersloughs sold 157 West 88th Street.  In 1953 the former Hammerslough house was converted to apartments--one each on the first and second floors, and two each on the upper floors.  

In the early 1970's, psychologist Dr. Tom Levin and his social worker wife, Ronny Diamond, purchased 159.  Surprisingly, much of Clarence True's interior detailing survived and the couple embarked on a careful restoration.  In the last decade of the 20th century, architect Paul S. Gleicher and his wife, Lisa Sharkey, a producer of "Good Morning America," began reconverting 157 to a single-family home.  Their transformation was more challenging, since most of the period elements had been stripped out.

Today, the fraternal twins form a picturesque component of a charming block.  

photographs by the author
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