The son of builder Ralph Townsend, Ralph Samuel Townsend was born in New York in 1854. By the time he was in his late 20's, he was listed in city directories as an architect. His success was such that as the 20th century dawned, he was a real estate developer as well, owner of the Townsend Realty Co.
In 1909 his development firm began construction on a premier apartment building at the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and 91st Street. Although Townsend was now a partner in the architectural firm of Townsend, Steinle & Haskell, it appears he took the reins on designing the structure. The 11-story brick and limestone building would cost the firm $400,000 to erect, around $12.3 million in 2022.
Completed in 1910, Townsend's design straddled Renaissance Revival and the waning Beaux Arts styles. Seven floors of beige brick were sandwiched between a three-story rusticated limestone base and a stone-clad top story. Elaborate Beaux Arts copper-railed balconies at the second floor were surpassed by their stone Renaissance counterparts a floor above, the windows here surmounted by classical pediments upon scrolled brackets. Decorative lions' heads stared down from the pressed metal cornice.
Despite its entrance opening onto West 91st Street, the building took the more impressive address of 190 Riverside Drive. There were two sprawling apartments per floor, ranging from eight rooms and three baths to fourteen rooms and five baths. Rents ranged from $2,800 to $6,000 per year--or about $14,000 per month today for the most expensive. (Apartments facing the rear of the building were guaranteed light and air because of the broad courtyard between this and the building at the corner of 92nd Street. Once a lane to the Bloomingdale Road it had separated two estates, and could not be built on.)
Among the building's monied tenants was its architect, Ralph S. Townsend. Among its more colorful was the recently widowed Mary E. Luckenbach. Her 71-year-old husband, millionaire shipowner Lewis Luckenbach, had died of a stroke during dinner at the Hotel Frontenac in Thousand Islands, New York, on August 20, 1906.
For some reason, Mary Luckenbach was sued by Dr. J. Dennis O'Hagan in the winter of 1916. When the process server, Leopold Levy, arrived at the apartment in early February, Mary was in the bathroom. Her maid admitted the man into the apartment, then went to announce him. Instead of waiting in the reception room, as would have been expected (and proper), Levy followed the maid into Mary's bedroom. The New York Press reported, "Near the bathroom door Levy sneezed, Mrs. Luckenbach says, and when she opened the door to see what was going on Levy poked the papers at her." Mary formally protested the writ, said the article, "because she was served in the bathroom of her apartment in No. 190 Riverside Drive."
Society editors kept their readers updated on Mary Luckenbach's movements. On June 22, 1922, for instance, the New York Herald announced, "Mrs. Lewis Luckenbach of 190 Riverside Drive has opened Hillsite, her place at Huntington, L. I."
In the meantime, 190 Riverside Drive continued to lure wealthy residents. Mrs. Thomas Alexander Sperry was the widow of Thomas A. Sperry, founder and president of the Sperry & Hutchinson Company. Following her marriage to Edward Ismon Goodrich on October 27, 1917, The Sun noted, "The pair will take a short motor tour, and will be at home after January 10 at 190 Riverside Drive."
In 1920 Dr. Alfred Kimble Hills was married to Jessie Norwell, and they moved into 190 Riverside Drive. The groom, who was 69 years old, was the publisher of The Medical Times. He and his first wife, Virginia (who died in 1908), had erected their summer home, Alvine, in Hudson, New Hampshire in 1890. Following Virginia's death, he built a chapel there in her memory. Now Alfred and Jessie divided the summer months between Alvine and their estate in Pennsylvania.
The Hills' summer estate, Alvine, in Hudson, New Hampshire. from the collection of the Hudson Historical Society.
In the spring of 1930, Jessie Hills was faced with an uncomfortable decision. Dr. Hills suffered a stroke late in 1929, and, according to his doctor, "since then his mental incapacity has been increasing." Finally, in April 1930 Jessie applied to the courts to appoint a committee "to manage the property of Dr. Hills, a task which she contends he no longer is capable." Hills's fortune was estimated at about $14.6 million in today's money at the time.
In the meantime, Ralph S. Townsend died in his apartment at the age of 69 on November 5, 1921. Despite his remarkable achievements, he received only a single-line death notice in The New York Times.
A few months later, chairman and president of the American Molasses Company, Charles William Taussig, and his wife Ruth Adler moved into the building. Their summer home was in Bay Shore, Long Island. Ruth was busy in the spring of 1922 staffing the country house. On May 2 she advertised for, "Girls, two, white, one chambermaid, the other waitress; Bay Shore, L. I., for summer." On July 11, an ad read, "Cook, white; reference required; country. Apply between 11-2 Tuesday, Taussig, 190 Riverside Drive." When the family returned to the city, Ruth resumed her staffing. In October she was looking for a "laundress, experienced, 3 days a week." The ad noted "carfare paid."
The Taussigs hosted a dance in their apartment on November 26 which made headlines. They couple, apparently, were especially fond of the Bradley Orchestra, but that group performed at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Money finds solutions, however. The New York Herald reported that the "music for dancing was transmitted by radio-phone...It was probably the first time a dance was given with the orchestra over a thousand miles away."
The building had a brush with pop culture when its rooftop was used to shoot a scene from the 1968 film, The Odd Couple in June 1967. In it, Walter Matthau, as Oscar Madison, tells Jack Lemmon's character Felix Unger, that he had to move out.
Perhaps the most colorful couple in the building to date were John McKendry and his wife, Maxime de la Falaise McKendry. John McKendry was the curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while his wife came with a resume worthy of a book or motion picture.
Maxime was the daughter of British portrait artist Sir Oswald Birley. She grew up in the family's London house, designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, and their country estate, Charleston Manor in East Essex. She had wed Comte Alain de la Falaise in 1946, but her repeated affairs ended the marriage. She and John McKendry were married in 1967.
In the early 1970's, they took the unknown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe under their social wings. The New York Times journalist Christopher Petkanas later wrote, "the lavishly well-connected McKendrys were doing everything they could to launch him...The couple invited Mapplethorpe to the high-boho dinner parties they gave in their apartment at 190 Riverside Drive, where he met the Erteguns, the Kempners, people who could help."
Things devolved after John McKenry developed what Petkanas deemed "a messy one-way love affair with his protégé." McKenry, high on drugs, fell from a window trying to touch the moon. Although he survived, "drink killed him in 1975," according to Petkanas. Maxime's biographer, Patricia Morrisroe, wrote that she "detested" Mapplethorpe afterward.
Maxime de la Falaise McKendry's life was spellbinding. Having had affairs with the likes of Louis Malle, John Paul Getty III, and painters Bernard Pfriem and Max Ernst, she wrote food columns for Vogue magazine, designed scarves, linens and shoes for YSL, and was close with the Andy Warhol "Factory kids." She starred in Warhol's soap operas and in Paul Morrissey's Dracula. The remarkable woman died in Provence, France in 2009.
In 1996 Property Markets Group purchased the building, and in 1999 announced a conversion to a condominium. Some of the apartments had been broken up over the years, and on October 29, 1999 The New York Times reported Property Markets Group intended to restore them to their original sizes. The renovation budget of $150,000 per apartment included "installing new kitchens and baths while retaining turn-of-the-century architectural details like paneled living and dining rooms, decorative plasterwork and 10-foot-high ceilings."
In its more than 110 years of existence, Ralph Townsend's imperious building--a grand dame along Riverside Park--has refused to decline from the days when wealthy residents danced to Jazz Age music transmitted from a Chicago ballroom.
photographs by the author
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