Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The 1891 Robert Twombly Bryan House - 228 West 138th Street


photo by Mark Satlof

On August 16, 1890 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "One of the most important building operations ever undertaken in this city is about to be commenced in Harlem."  The article explained that developer David H. King, Jr. intended to cover the entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues with "buildings of a first-class character."  King had commissioned three architects to design his project, assigning the blockfront on the south side of 138th Street to James Brown Lord.

Lord designed his row in a modern take on Georgian architecture.  Each of the three-story residences was clad in brownstone at the basement and parlor levels, and red brick above.  While most were designed as mirror-image pairs with shared split stoops, 228 West 138th Street sat independently between two such pairs, boasting its own dog-legged stoop with elegant iron railings. 

It became home to Robert Twombly Bryan, a well-known tennis player.  When he moved into the West 138th Street house, he was a member of the Lenox Tennis Club and Seventh Regiment Tennis Club.   The Lenox Tennis Club's grounds were between St. Nicholas and Manhattan Avenues, and 122nd and 123rd Streets.

In 1901 Bryan and another Lenox member, Louis J. Grant, formed a new organization, the New York Tennis Club, with Bryan as its president.   But in doing so, they usurped their former club's courts.  Both men were promptly sued by the Lenox Tennis Clubs which charged they "went secretly to the owner of [the tennis courts property] and without notice to said Lenox Tennis Club" persuaded him to transfer the lease to them.

Bryan left West 138th Street before 1905, when Dr. DeWitt Stetten, a surgeon with Lenox Hill Hospital, and his wife, the former Magdalena Ernst, occupied 228 West 138th Street.  The couple had a daughter, Margaret.

Stetten would be later described by The New York Times as "an outstanding surgeon."  He would help found the Blue Shield movement in New York and the Blood Transfusion Association.  The DeWitt Stetten Pathology Laboratory at Lenox Hill Hospital would be dedicated to his memory in 1952.  

The Stettens had a second child, DeWitt Jr., on May 31, 1909.  He would follow his father's professional footsteps, eventually making significant scientific contributions as a biochemist.  At the time of his birth, the family had been gone from the 138th Street house a year.

In 1908 it became home to the widowed Henry Schottenfels, a well-to-do lace importer.  Moving into the house with him was Henry's sister-in-law, Mina, and her two daughters, Sara X. and Agnes, and son Erwin.  Mina's husband, Julius Schottenfels, had died in 1904.

The family was highly involved in Jewish organizations.  Henry was a member of the Jewish Protectory Aid Society.  In 1901 Sara X. became secretary of the New York branch of the National Council of Jewish Women.  (She was, as well,  a suffragette and member of the League of Women Voters.)  Mina was a member of the United Order of True Sisters, a national Jewish organization.

Like their neighbors, the Schottenfels' names occasionally appeared in society columns.  On March 7, 1909, the New York Herald reported that Mina had given a dinner for 30 "in compliment to Miss Lisette Cohen and Mr. Erwin Schottenfels, whose engagement has been announced."  

In 1910 Henry leased the house to Louis Bartung for the summer social season in anticipation of the extended family's travel to Europe.  On April 10, 1910, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. Mina Schottenfels and her daughters, the Misses Sara X. and Agnes of 228 West 138th Street, will sail for Europe on Saturday, April 23, to be gone some months."

Henry appears to have sailed separately.  He was headed home on the liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse on December 5 when a disturbing incident occurred.  The New York Times reported that Henry was among other first class passengers including John Jacob Astor IV and his son Vincent "on deck enjoying the afternoon promenade" at 2:15 when one of the ship's two propellers fell off.  The article noted, "There was no panic, but great anxiety at once."  Henry and the other well-heeled passengers made it home with only about a 12-hour delay.

The demographics of West 138th Street changed drastically following World War I as the Harlem neighborhood became the center of Manhattan's Black community.  Ada and Joseph Lord purchased the former Schottenfel house.  It was being operated as a rooming house by 1921 when Augusta Savage and her 14-year-old daughter rented rooms.

Born in Green Cowe Springs, Florida in 1892, Augusta's parents had been born into slavery.  She began sculpting in clay as a little girl.  According to Jill Lepore in her Joe Gould's Teeth, Augusta recalled, "At the mud pie age, I began to make 'things' instead of pies."  It was a problem to her minister father, who considered sculpture "idolatrous."  Savage said, "My father licked me five or six times a week and almost whipped all the art out of me."

Sculptor Augusta Savage, from the collection of the National Archives

Divorced from her carpenter husband James Savage when Augusta and her daughter moved into the 138th Street house,  she was studying at Cooper Union and working in a steam laundry to support them.  

In 1923 Augusta was accepted to attend the Fontainbleau School of Fine Arts in Paris, one of just 100 Americans chosen.  But then the offer was reversed by an American committee that included some of the most recognizable names in American architecture and art--Thomas Hastings, James Gamble Rogers, Edwin E. Blashfield, and Whitney Warren among them.  On April 24, The New York Times reported that Ernest Pelexotto "admitted that refusal was based on the ground that she is a negress and that a number of Southern girls intended sailing on the same ship she had chosen, to begin art studies at the same academy."

Public outcry was, rather surprisingly for the period, intense.  Appeals were made to the French Government and a delegation was sent to President Harding.  The decision, however, was not reversed and Augusta was unable to attend the prestigious school.  The widespread publicity however, got the attention of Hermon Atkins MacNeil, who invited her to study with him.  Augusta Savage would go on to become an important sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance.

photo by Mark Satlof

In 1940 the rooming house was operated by James and Geraldine Walter.  They had 16 roomers, eight of whom were married couples.  The residence continued to be operated as a rented rooms until a renovation completed in 2000 resulted in one apartment per floor.  

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Mark Satlof for prompting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

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