Thursday, January 5, 2023

The 1899 Rochambeau Apartments - 312 Manhattan Avenue


The entrance is above the stoop at left, while the service court nearly steals the attention.

John Reynard Todd and Henry Clay Irons were classmates at Princeton University, graduating in 1889.  The two formed the law firm of Irons & Todd at 320 Broadway.  But young Irons saw opportunity in real estate devlopment.  Decades later, The New York Times wrote that Todd "was prevailed upon by a friend, Henry Clay Irons, to aid in completing a half-finished apartment house of which the promoter had become insolvent.  The two had the structure completed, rented it and subsequently sold it at a profit."

It was the beginning of a successful real estate concern.  Irons & Todd would go on to construct major buildings like the Cunard Steamship Building, the American Woolen Building and the Equitable Trust Building.  (Following Irons's retirement, Todd's grandest project would be the construction of Rockefeller Center.)

In 1898 Irons & Todd began construction of mirror-image apartment buildings--the Rochambeau, at the northeast corner of Manhattan Avenue and 113th Street, and the Lafayette, on the southeast corner of 114th Street.  Faced in brown Roman brick and trimmed in limestone, the Colonial Revival buildings featured continuous corner quoins, and splayed lintels with layered keystones.  Light courts cut into the mass of the buildings provided ventilation and light to the apartments.

Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1908 (copyright expired)

Apartments ranged from six to nine rooms that, according to an 1899 advertisement, were both large and light.  The ad did not exaggerate.  The parlors were 18 by 22 feet, and the dining rooms 17 by 22 feet.  Calling the buildings "the handsomest apartment houses uptown," an ad promised, "They possess features and advantages not to be found in any other place in the city."  Living in the Rochambeau was not inexpensive.  Rents in 1899 ranged from $900 to $1,500 a year--equal to about $4,425 per month for the more expensive apartments in 2023.

Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1908 (copyright expired)

Among the initial residents were its builders.  Henry C. Irons and his wife had three young children, Helen Harcourt, Henry Clay Jr., and William Giberson.  (William was born in the apartment.)  John R. Todd and his wife, Alice Peck Bray, had one daughter, Frances Bray who was three years old when they moved in.

Residents of the Rochambeau enjoyed amenities such as uniformed hall boys, sometimes called doorboys.  They were available to carry packages from carriages to the apartments for female residents, post mail, and do other sundry errands.  Robert L. Douglas  was possibly the first hall boy to land a job in the Rochambeau.  Born in St. Kitts in the British West Indies in 1882, the he left home alone and settled in Harlem.  In his 2019 Breaking Barriers, A History of Integration in Professional Basketball, Douglas Start quotes Douglas as saying, "I was then working at 312 Manhattan Avenue near 114th Street as a doorboy for $22 a month.  I roomed downstairs in the basement where I paid the superintendent $3 a month for the room."

Bob Douglas, who earned the nickname "Smiling Bob," recalled that he saw his first basketball game in 1903.  (In his native St. Kitts, it was all about soccer.)  He had found his passion.  Known later at the Father of Black Professional Basketball, Douglas would own and coach the New York Renaissance from 1922 until 1949.

An early resident was Arnold Volpe, here by 1901.  He had arrived in America from his Russian homeland in 1898.   In 1902, while living in the Rochambeau, he married Marie Michelson, who was born in the same Russian town as he.  A composer and conductor, Volpe had been trained at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he was the protégé of director Anton Rubinstein.

Arnold Volpe in 1915.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

In 1904 Volpe established the Arnold Volpe Symphony, especially for young musicians.  He became the first conductor of the new Lewisohn Stadium orchestra in 1918, establishing summer concerts that featured classical and operatic works rather than the light fare the broad audiences expected.  Their success was surprising to many.

John Fredericks was the elevator boy in 1914.  In the early hours of February 21 he had fallen asleep so soundly that he was unaware that the building was filling with thick smoke.  Policeman McGrath smelled the smoke and traced it to the Rochambeau.  The Evening Telegram reported that he scolded Fredericks, "your place is afire, so ring ever telephone bell in the house."  While McGrath rushed out to turn in a fire alarm, Fredericks ran the elevator up and down until the smoke was too dense to continue.

"By that time the hallways were crowded with tenants, all coughing from the smoke, which poured in thick curls up the stairs and through the elevator shaft," said the article.  It noted, "In scanty attire men and women, some carrying children, who could not crowd into the elevator, fought their way either down the fire escapes or through the smoke filled hallways."  Happily no one was injured, and the fire was extinguished.  The Evening Telegram explained, "it is believed that some one placed a can of hot ashes too close to the woodwork."

On August 14, 1920, the Record & Guide reported that "the Rochambeau, a 6-story, high class elevator apartment house" was "now owned by a group of tenants."  The residents who banded together to purchase the building formed an early cooperative.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on September 9 listed rents for a 6- or 7-room apartment at $65 and $80 (about $1,000 per month on the higher end today).  It touted, "Co-operative plan makes this low rent possible."

By now the demographics of the neighborhood were noticeably changing as Harlem became the center of Manhattan's Black community.  The residents of the Rochambeau continued to be financially comfortable, however.  Living here was Al Rhone, described by The New York Age as "one of the oldest and best known club car porters on the New Haven Railroad."  While Rhone's position was, most likely, not well paid, the tips he received from the well-heeled passengers who came to know him provided him a comfortable income.

The cooperative experiment came to an end in 1936.  The Rochambeau was sold to the Green-Wood Cemetery, which spent about $100,000 in remodeling.  It quickly resold the building to William Perry Doing in November 1937 for $210,000 (just under $4 million today).  The New York Times remarked that the building "contains fifty-eight apartments comprised of 185 rooms."

The remodeled Rochambeau was soon home to newlyweds James B. Hardy and his bride Hazel Jones, a recent graduate of Howard University.  A successful businessman, Hardy was politically-connected in Harlem and was a major fund-raiser for Black office seekers.  Hazel became the dietician of the Colored Orphan Asylum.  But things within the young couple's household were rocky.  In her 2019 She Can Bring Us Home: Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer, Diane Kiesel writes, "Mr. and Mrs. Hardy reportedly got into a 'fistic encounter' during the 1939 Christmas holiday.  There were at it again in June 1940 in front of a bar on 116th Street, following a fraternity banquet.  Hazel finally had enough and moved out."

On April 9, 1938, The Pittsburgh Courier announced, "J. A. 'Billboard Standard Oil' Jackson, will be married 29 years, April 7th."  The article joked that he would spend the day at his home, 312 Manhattan Avenue drinking champagne.

James Albert Jackson had established the United States Department Commerce's Division of Negro Affairs under future President Herbert Hoover in 1927.  He earned the nickname "Billboard" when he joined Billboard magazine as the editor of a feature section on Black musical entertainment.  The position made him the first Black journalist to write a regular column for a national White publication.  In 1934 Esso Standard Oil Company hired him as "special representative to the black community."  He would spent two decades in that position.  

James Albert "Billboard" Jackson (original source unknown).

George W. Hodges was living in the Rochambeau in 1945 when his Early Negro Church Life in New York was published.  Also living here were Maude Seay Dixon Meyers and her daughter, Frankye A. Dixon.  Born Maude Mae Rubey in Macon, Missouri, in 1884, Madam Seay, as she was known professionally, was "one of the first Negro women to distinguish herself in business," according to the New York Amsterdam News in 1957.

A graduate of Northwestern University, in 1908 she and her husband Frank Seay had established Seay Millinery in Chicago based on her creations.  She had studied millinery with the French firm Griffin & Company.  In 1909 the Salt Lake City, Utah newspaper, The Broad Ax, noted that Madam Seay was "very popular and well known among the best class of Colored people on the south side [of Chicago]."  The article said "at all times she has on hand, a large display of the finest and most fashionable hats that can be found in this city, of her own creation."

Maude and Frank Seay divorced in 1910 and two years later she married pianist and composer William H. "Will" Dixon, who had founded the Will H. Dixon Music Publishing Co. in 1907.  It was their marriage that produced Francesca Alfreta Dixon, known familiarly as Frankye, born in 1915.  Dixon died at the age of 37 in 1917, and following World War I Maude married Captain Alonzo "David" Myers, who had served in France with the 24th Infantry. 

Madam Maude Seay, The Broad Ax, December 25, 1909 (copyright expired)

The couple went into real estate, buying and selling numerous buildings in the Harlem district.  On March 31, 1938 Myers was crossing Fulton Street in Brooklyn when he was fatally struck by a taxicab.  By 1940 the twice widowed Madam Seay and her daughter Frankye moved into the Rochambeau.

Maude Seay Dixon Myers (right) and her daughter Frankye Dixon pose by the stoop of the Rochambeau.  (original source unknown)

Frankye Dixon was a musical prodigy.  She was a graduate of the Julliard School of Music, the Institute of Music, New York University and Columbia University's Teacher's College.  She would not only become one of Harlem's foremost concert pianists, but a critic and editorial writer for the Amsterdam News, and a lecturer.  Frankye Dixon was a professor of Music at Howard University when Madam Maude Seay Dixon Myers died in her Rochambeau apartment on June 3, 1957 at the age of 72.  

Another celebrated resident was ballet dancer and choreographer Janet Collins.  Born in New Orleans in 1917, she was a pioneer of Black ballet and one of a handful of classically trained Black dancers in the 1940's.  Starting out on Broadway, she earned praise for performances in productions like Cole Porter's 1951 Out of This World.  Her dancing in that show caught the eye of Zachary Solov, the ballet master of the Metropolitan Opera.  She was living in the Rochambeau when she became the first Black ballerina to perform at the Met later that year.

Dancer Janet Collins.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Another Rochambeau resident at the time was Dr. Aubré  de Lambert Maynard.  Born in 1901 in Guyana, he migrated to the United States in 1906.  He and his wife Ethel had divorced in 1930 after two years of marriage.  He was now serving as the Director of Surgery at Harlem Hospital.

Maynard was on duty on September 20, 1958 when an ambulance rushed Dr. Martin Luther King into the emergency ward.  He had been stabbed in the chest with a letter opener at a Harlem department store book-signing.  Maynard and his team saved the prominent minister and activist's life.

On January 6, 1959, King wrote a letter to Dr. Maynard from Montgomery, Alabama.  It said in part:

I have been intending to write you ever since I left New York to express my sincere appreciation to you for doing so much to preserve my life.  I have no doubt that it was your skilled surgery and your genuine concern that brought me from a very low ebb to a healthy body again.  Your thoughtful and considerate concern will remain dear to me so long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.

Although the Rochambeau has lost a portion of its cornice, and the ground floor masonry has been unnecessarily painted, it still retains the distinguished presence that attracted well-to-do residents in 1899.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Lawrence Levens for requesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to


  1. This sentence makes no sense: "Jackson and his wife would leave the Rochambeau in 1940 to move to Washington where he established the United States Department Commerce's Division of Negro Affairs under future President Herbert Hoover." In 1940, Hoover was already a past President; FDR was the current holder of the office.

    1. You are normally not so caustic when pointing out an error. Thank you for catching it. The date was 1927, prior to his moving in, and has been corrected.

    2. I made a living doing proofreading and copy editing last century, and this stuff just leaps out at me.

  2. A big thank you to Tom Miller for the Rochambeau Post.

  3. Other prominent residences of "The Rochambeau" 312 Manhattan Ave include: Mrs. Dorothy and Charles Fuqua of the Ink Spots, Michigan C. Brown aka "Judge Mitch", Mr. and Mrs. Floyd J. Calvin and their daughters Bernice and Delores (1940), Richard Mason, Producer of Gil Noble's "Like It Is", Mrs. Beatrix McCleary, Dr. M. F. McCleary and their daughter Betty McCleary awarded Vasser Scholarship, Mrs. Joseph C. Hyman (1922), Foster Allen (1940), Mrs. John T. McNair, Emanuel Burris (1961), Fannie Thompson (1962), James A. "Billboard" and Gabrielle H. Jackson (1960), Thomas J. Vivian, writer/editor (1925), Miss Ruth Wallis (1941), Maurice F. Cantor (1927), Annabelle Liddle (1949), P. Davis (1960), Dr. Audrey de L. Maynard, the famed doctor the saved Dr. King's life at Harlem Hospital. Wiktor Labunski's "The Musical Artists Bureau" was also located at one time in the "Rochambeau" at 312 Manhattan Ave.