Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Smith Newell Penfield House - 329 West 112th Street


In June 1886 Edward Roemer purchased five building plots on the east side of Manhattan Avenue, beginning at the northeast corner of West 112th Street.  A month later architect Charles T. Mott had submitted plans for a row of three-story and basement "brick and stone residences."  What had started out as a smooth process of erecting the homes would turn into a tumultuous journey.

By December Roemer was in financial trouble.  He first offered the unfinished structures for sale, then turned to architect and developer William J. Merritt for financial help.  Merritt and Roemer "met at the offices of The Title Guarantee and Trust Company," according to the Record & Guide, "where Roemer declared in writing that there was no judgment on record against him."  Merritt gave Roemer an $80,000 loan (about $2.35 million in 2023).

Shortly after the loan was made, Roemer lost the properties to creditors.  Merritt first paid off the judgment, making him now the owner of the five unfinished houses, and then on August 12, 1887 had Roemer arrested on a charge of grand larceny.  Merritt found a purchaser in William B. Pettit, the contractor, and his wife Mary.  They assumed the mortgages and completed the row, possibly bringing in architect to Joseph H. Taft at this time.

Mott's red brick, Queen Anne style homes were typical of his style, with bowed bays and dormers.  It was the corner house that grabbed attention from its architectural siblings.  Mott gave it a rounded corner tower with a "witches cap" roof.  A quilt-like brick frieze ran below the cornice.  The entrance was located above a doglegged stoop, the door balanced by a matching, abutting window.  An entablature above the entrance featured the bas relief portrait of a young girl, possible a silent memorial.

Fanciful faces peer out from the capitals of the pilasters, while a haunting portrait adorns the otherwise stark entablature.

In July 1890 the Pettits sold the completed row to Smith Newell Penfield and his wife, the former Sarah Elizabeth Hoyt.  The couple moved into 329 West 112th Street and rented the Manhattan Avenue houses for years.

Penfield was born in Oberlin, Ohio on April 4, 1837.  He and Sarah had met while students at Oberlin College and were married in March 1860.  The couple had one daughter, Georgia May.  Two other daughters, Clara Josephine and Mary, had died in infancy.

Penfield's interest in real estate was, perhaps, surprising.  The son of talented violinist Anson Penfield, he was a musical prodigy and first played the pipe organ in public at the age of seven.  As a boy he was the organist and choirmaster of an Oberlin, Ohio church with a choir of more than 100 voices.  Following his graduation from Oberlin College, he studied music in Leipzig and Paris, "under the great masters Moscheles, Papperitz, Reinecke, Richter, Hauptmann and Delioux," according to the 1904 book The World's Best Music.

Smith Newell Penfield, The World's Best Music, 1904 (copyright expired)

In New York he became the organist of the Broadway Tabernacle, and then the Second Presbyterian Church.  In 1885 he became president of the Music Teachers National Association.  Calling Penfield "a prominent figure in musical New York," The World's Best Music said, "His compositions consist of organ and piano music, songs, anthems, glee, a string quintette, an overture for the orchestra, a cantata with orchestral score, etc."  Penfield taught from the 112th Street house.  Identifying himself as having a "musical doctorate" in his advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune in November 1903, he offered training in "piano, organ, harmony."

Sarah descended from an old Southern family, her first American ancestor, Simon Hoyt, having arrived in Charlestown in 1628.  She, too, was involved in music.  The 1915 Woman's Who's Who of America noted that she was the composer of "'Columbia,' written for the words of 'My Country, 'tis of Thee.'"   

Sarah was, as well, highly involved in social and civic work.  She was a member of the New York City Indian Association, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and the College Women's Club.

In February 1895, Sarah and Georgia May hosted a Valentine-themed tea.  The New York Times reported, "One of the delightful features of last week was the pink tea given by Mrs. S. N. Penfield of 329 West One Hundred and Twelfth Street."  She and Georgia May were assisted in receiving by six unmarried socialites.

One of the most interesting entertainments Sarah gave was the "Colonial tea" for the College Woman's Club in December 1902.  The New York Times reported, "The decorations are to be the Continental Army colors and the rooms are to be lighted by old-fashioned tallow dips.  The hostess and the women assisting her will be in Colonial dress, and the refreshments are to be those of the Colonial period."

In December 1917 Smith N. Penfield was involved in a horrific fall.  Almost two years later, in its July 1919 issue, The American Organist said he had "received severe injuries...which made him a cripple for the rest of his life."  Later that year, in December, Penfield fell seriously ill.  He died in the 112th Street house on January 7, 1920 at the age of 83.  The New-York Tribune called him, "one of the foremost church and concert organists" of the city and a "widely known composer."

Sarah Hoyt Penfield would live to be 95 years old.  In 1932 she laid plans to attend Oberlin College's centennial commencement.  The Mansfield [Ohio] News-Journal wrote, "She wanted to celebrate the 75th anniversary of her own graduating class," even though she was the only surviving member of that class.  On June 22, 1933 the newspaper reported, "And so she came from her New York City home by automobile...The long trip from New York took too much for Mrs. Penfield's frail body."

Sarah was unable to attend the ceremonies.  She remained in the home of two nieces and, instead, sent a letter.  Not long after it was read to the assemblage, Sarah Hoyt Penfield died.  The Mansfield News-Journal wrote, "Throngs of Oberlin college alumni departed for their homes last night and as they left, the school's oldest woman graduate died peacefully almost within earshot of their cheerful farewells."

The West 112th Street house was, by now, being operated as a rooming house, the tenants of which were not all law-abiding.  Among the residents in 1921, for instance, was 19-year-old Arthur Ricarder, who was arrested that year for car theft.

In October Elias Shuter drove his wife to the Astoria Theater in Queens.  When they came out, their automobile was gone.  Police found Ricarder driving it and he was arrested.  The Daily Star reported that Ricarder "said he had bought the car from a man named MacArthur, but had been unable to locate MacArthur."  He was formally charged with larceny on February 27, 1922.

George Milliadis, who worked as a "counter man" in a cafeteria on Ninth Avenue, lived in a room here in 1933.  On September 22 that year, 38-year-old Frank O'Boyle came into the cafeteria and "became disorderly," according to Milliadis later.  In attempting to remove the unruly customer, Milliadis brought out a wooden club and struck him on the arm.  O'Boyle fell backwards, striking his head.  He died in Bellevue Hospital later that night.

Milliadis was charged with homicide.  The 32-year-old was being held on the second floor of the West 47th Street police station early the next morning when he suddenly leapt from his chair and out the window.  Twenty feet below the window was a fence rimmed with sharp iron spikes.  The New York Evening Post reported, "Detectives, who had been booking him on a homicide charge, ran out and found him hanging, impaled on the fence."  Before he died at Bellevue Hospital, he told the police, "I want to die.  All my life I've had nothing but trouble."

In 1954 329 West 112th Street was converted to apartments and furnished rooms.  The once-proud residence suffered neglect over the next few decades.  When it was sold in 1998, it was described by a realtor as "a run-down brownstone."  Nevertheless, the changes in the neighborhood and resultant soaring Harlem property values were reflected in the sale price of $500,000 (closer to $830,000 in 2023).   

In 2006 a renovation brought the Penfield house back to a single family home, with an apartment in the basement level.

photographs by the author
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  1. I'm wondering about that weird little building behind it.

    1. It is a 3-story rowhouse, also designed by Mott, which was dramatically remodeled in the late 20th c.