Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The 1885 Dundonald Flats -- 71 West 83rd Street


The original entrance stoop (left) has been converted to a flower bed and the entrance relocated to the right.

In 1884, the development of the Upper West Side had reached as far north as West 83rd Street.  In its article titled "The March of Improvement on the West Side" on June 28 that year, The Record & Guide commented, "in a few years more the improvements will take in a good part of the ground up to Eighty-fifth street."  The article noted that Thomas Cochrane was already busy on West 83rd.

The developer had hired the architectural firm of D. & J. Jardine to design a five-story flat building at 71 West 83rd Street, just east of Ninth Avenue (soon to become Columbus Avenue).  Completed the following year, the brick-faced Dundonald Flats was a restrained take on Romanesque Revival.  The wide, elliptically arched entrance was accessed by a short stoop protected by solid stone wing walls.  A continuous terra cotta eyebrow joined it and the two arched windows at this level.  Instead of the expected stained glass transoms within the arches, the Jardines filled them with unique pressed metal panels of swirling floral vines.

The windows of the second and third floors, separated by quilt-like panels of terra cotta tiles, gave the impression of two-story arches.  The fifth floor openings sat above delightful carved half-bowl pseudo balconies.  Because the building extended to the property line--where the stoops of the rowhouses began--D. & J. Jardine were able to chamfer the eastern corner of the building, offering additional light and ventilation into the front apartments.

Each floor held a single apartment of eight rooms and a bath.  They soon filled with financially comfortable professionals.

Among the early residents was broker David M. Kellam.  He made a costly decision in October 1894.  Earlier that year Henry E. Simmons had given him four bank notes payable in June.  Now, five months later with the unnegotiated notes expired, he took them "to a man in Pine Street, who had changed the dates."  After a two-day trial and four hours of deliberation, Kellam was found guilty of forgery.  Six years later he was still serving his sentence in Sing Sing.

Physician Leonard G. Weber lived here in 1907 when he was called to a nearby emergency at the home of mining broker Louis Straus at 18 West 83rd Street.  As Davie Kellam had been, Louis Straus was suspected of forgery.  The mining broker was accused by his employer, William A. Avis & Co., of forging bills of lading for about $25,000 and taking out loans on them.

The firm hired private investigators to follow Straus and watch his movements.  On November 28, 1907, the Fulton County Republican reported, "Private detectives have been about his house for three days.  A day or so ago he is said to have told a representative of Avis & Co. that they would never get him.  He pointed to something in his pocket."

That morning William A. Avis and his lawyer went to the District Attorney's office and filed charges.  At 8:15 a.m. two detectives climbed the stoop of the Straus house with a representative of Avis & Co., asking to see Louis Straus.  The man who answered the door led them to the parlor.  

"I am Louis Straus," he said.  But he did not match the description the detectives had been given, and the Avis employee insisted that this man was not Straus.  "While they were arguing a woman screamed upstairs," said the article.  "The detectives ran up."

There they found Louis Straus writhing on the floor of a bedroom.  Next to him was an empty bottle that had contained cyanide.  The detectives called for Dr. Weber.  By the time he arrived, Straus was dead.  (It was later learned that the imposter in the parlor was Straus's brother.)

When America entered World War I, resident Thomas O'Kelly enlisted in the 165th Infantry.  On October 15, 1918, he and his company were surrounded by the enemy during a battle near Landres-et-St. Georges, France.  It became essential that a "battalion runner" make it through what the Adjutant-General's Office would later describe as "murderous fire" to get word to regimental headquarters.  O'Kelly, now a corporal, witnessed each one of the runners gunned down on the battlefield and killed.

His subsequent actions that day would earn him the Distinguished Service Cross.  Despite the obvious danger and disregarding his comrades' warnings, O'Kelly charged into the fray.  The Adjutant-General's Office wrote in 1919, "When he had gone but a short distance, he was wounded in the leg, but by crawling and limping he managed to reach his destination."  O'Kelly returned to West 83rd Street after the war a hero.

Actress Marguerite Daniels was living here on February 26, 1921 when she married Archibald Irving Lodge.  Marguerite's career had started out only two years earlier in an ensemble in Come Along.  In 1920 she played Olivia in The Girl in the Spotlight, and had a lesser role in Her Family Tree.  As was so often the case, it appears that her stage career ended with her marriage.

In 1941 the original entrance and stoop were intact.   image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Major change came to the building in 1946, when a remodeling was completed that resulted in nine single-room-occupancy rooms per floor.  The entrance was moved to the east, most likely to gain the extra floor space previously taken up by the wide hallway.  Surprisingly, the Jardines' striking metal tympani were preserved and the stoop was retained, transformed to a flower bed.

The easternmost window became the new entrance, and the original stoop was remade into a flower bed.

Among the tenants paying $45 a month for his room in 1971 was 57-year-old bachelor Joseph Albani Levesque.  He worked for the Parks Department as an "attendant," described by The New York Times journalist Thomas P. Ronan that year as "the lowest paying job in the department."

Levesque's job entailed picking up paper with a sharp-tipped instrument and keeping weeds down along the Henry Hudson Parkway from 79th Street to 130th Streets.  His day began with his "stabber," and when all the paper and trash was picked up, normally by lunchtime, he turned to cutting grass and weeds.  But it was not his rather mundane routine that drew attention, but how it accomplished it.  He jogged, never stopping.  Ronan wrote, "The energy with which he approaches his job has often attracted passing motorists."

City Parks Department foreman Matteo Monaco said, "The man's a demon," and Parks Administrator August Hecksher said, "I think Mr. Levesque is probably our most visible Parks Department employee."  Levesque explained it simply, "You've got to keep moving."

George W. Hodge, another roomer, was 21 years old in 1972.  He was arrested on February 20 that year following the discovery of the body of 30-year-old hairdresser, Thomas E. Lawrence in the hallway.  Lawrence, who lived on Central Park West, in the hallway, had been stabbed to death.

A second renovation was completed in 1982.  It returned the building to apartments, either two or three per floor.   And, happily, other than the careful relocating of the entrance,
the exterior of D. & J. Jardine's highly unusual structure  remains surprisingly intact.

photographs by the author
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