Friday, February 24, 2023

J. F. Miller's 1889 308-312 West 115th Street


As the Harlem district changed from one of rural summer estates and farms to blocks of prim rowhouses and stores in the late 19th century, real estate develop P. H. McManus was a strong proponent.  He moved his family into a house on West 135th Street and erected rows of handsome homes.  In September 1888 J. F. Miller filed plans for another--11 three-story brick rowhouses on the south side of West 115th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues (today's Frederick Douglass Blvd. and Manhattan Avenue, respectively).  Miller arranged them in groupings of two and three.  Nos. 308 through 312 were designed in the Queen Anne style, with Romanesque Revival influences.

Perfectly balanced in an A-B-A configuration, each of the 12-room houses was approached by a dog-legged box stoop.  Romanesque Revival appeared in the arched openings and terra cotta eyebrows of the second floor.  It was Queen Anne that took center stage, however, with terra cotta panels, tympani and band courses, and quirky metal hoods over the third floor windows of the end houses.  The center residence, which at 17-feet-wide was an imperceptible one foot wider that its siblings, boasted a striking second floor oriel and a prominent gable that overlapped the pressed metal cornice.

By 1892 the recently married H. Richard Payne and Bertha B. Payne lived at 310 West 115th Street.  Tragically, Bertha died in the house on January 19, 1893 at just 20 years of age.  H. Richard Payne remained at least through 1895.

Living next door at 312 West 115th Street was Henry Steinhardt, whose liquor store at 315 Bowery was the scene of a bizarre incident on the night of May 16, 1895.  Policeman Timothy Keyes, who was on duty that night, was described by The Evening Telegram as having a reputation "of being observant and highly intelligent."  At 10:00 he blew his whistle in front of Steinhardt's liquor store.  "Policemen in plenty and a crowd of people were soon on the scene," said the newspaper.

Keyes explained that he peered into the store and saw a juvenile burglar on his knees, working the safe.  The would-be thief looked up, saw the policeman, and bolted to the rear of the store.  The Evening Telegram reported, "Keyes says the burglar was about seven years old, of the male sex and had brown eyes, untidy hair and a pale complexion.  He wore short dark trousers, a striped shirt and a small round cap."

The police surrounded the store to prevent escape.  A messenger notified the station house and a telephone call was made to Steinhardt.  At 1:00 in the morning he and two salesmen arrived.  By then the policemen had broken in by smashing a lock.  An hour-long search of the premises were made and all the doors and windows were found to besecure.  Steinhardt and the salesmen decided to wait until daylight inside the store.  At 7:00 they gave up.  The Evening Telegram titled its article "Burglar Vanished in Air" and ended it saying that Officer Keyes was "of a sober disposition, and was not addicted to ghosts."

Living with the Steinhardts in 1896 was E. J. Saunders.  He became involved in the push to have sculptor Ernst Herter's marble monument to poet Heinrich Heine, called the Lorelei Fountain, brought to New York.  Sculpted in 1896, it had been intended to sit in Dresden, but antisemitism and the German Empire's nationalist propaganda derailed the plans.  In February 1896 Saunders signed his name with scores of other businessmen imploring the Board of Aldermen to accept the fountain.  (It was accepted and now sits in Joyce Kilmer Park.)

At the turn of the century 308 West 115th Street was occupied by F. M. Davis and his wife.  The couple ran Grangely Hall, a private school for boys and girls, within the house.   When a crime wave hit the district in the summer of 1904, the Davises were hit hard.  On September 12 the New York Herald reported that there had been 42 robberies within a 35-day period.  The article noted that on August 12 the "house of Mrs. Davis, No. 308 West 115th street, [was] entered by [a] thief and nearly everything of value taken."  It would not be until New Year's Day 1905 that the James G. Walker, alias Lawrence Macy, was captured.

At the turn of the century, 310 West 115th Street became the fraternity house of Columbia University's Beta Theta Pi chapter.  A member wrote in the 1900 Convention Minutes:

We rent a very comfortable house five minutes walk from college at 310 West 115th street.  A colored man and his wife take care of it and do the cooking.  We own all the furniture in the house, including a pool table.  As yet we have not started to think of building, but that is merely a question of time.  Land and building are expensive in New York, but we hope that some plan will present itself that will enable us to own a house before many years...Four men live in the house.  We can accommodate seven or eight.

Among the members living here in 1903 was A. E. Thurber, who also served as secretary of the Intercollegiate Lawn Tennis Association.  The chapter continue to rent the house for several years.  Upon its departure, 310 West 115th Street was operated as a rooming house.  (Rooming houses differed from boarding houses in that there were no meals provided.)  It was offered for rent in March 1918, the advertisement reading, "Furnished rooming house, $300 cash; all rooms rented; in good order."

No. 312 was also a rooming house by 1912.  Two of its tenants were well-known criminals--"Red" Walker and "Jew" Baylies.  They were spotted by Detectives James and Gus Reilly and James Fiman on a westbound crosstown 116th Street streetcar on September 6 that year.  The pair was unwilling to be arrested and a "hard fight" resulted.  "The fight in the car," said the New York Herald, "caused intense excitement in 116th street and alarmed the many passengers in the car."  That "excitement" was no doubt intensified when the detectives determined "it was necessary to subdue their opponents with drawn revolvers."

At the station house they were charged with having "jimmies" and other burglar tools on them.  Detectives escorted the pair to their rooms at 312 West 115th Street, "where a large quantity of silverware, jewelry and men's and women's articles of apparel were found."

Following World War I 308 West 115th Street was also operated as a rooming house.  Truck driver Joseph Giordano lived here in 1922.  He was driving along Skillman Street in Brooklyn on July 14 that year, the sign on his truck reading "Carpets and rugs cleaned, dyed, washed and repaired."  During the Prohibition Era, random stops of trucks was common and that afternoon Giordano was pulled over.  Police Lieutenant Patrick Sheridan asked the 21-year-old, "What have you got in there, son?"

Giordano was unexpectedly candid.  "Whisky," he said.

The truck was searched and detectives found 110 burlap bags of 660 bottles of rye.  They also discovered that the license plates were fake.  Not surprisingly, Giordano was taken in.  Police believed the illegal liquor was "cached in the harbor."  The New York Times explained, "The burlap bags were dripping wet and the corks showed the effects of immersion.  Smugglers are suspected of bring contraband up the harbor and hiding it under water in bags attached to a buoy until the coast is clear for delivery to trucks."

The decline in the neighborhood was reflected in the death of Leonard Mastromanaco, who lived at 312 West 115th Street in 1933.  The 18-year-old was playing cards on the night of October 12 when two men called him into the hallway.  The Yonkers Statesman reported, "They held a whispered conversation in the hallway and suddenly one of the strangers fired at Mastromonaco."  The bullet entered his left temple and he died at the Harlem Hospital later that night.  Police told reporters the argument was "over a young woman."

At the time of the incident, 308 West 115th Street was owned by Jacques Danielson and his wife Fannie, who was better known by her penname, Fannie Hurst.  The novelist's Imitation of Life was published that year.  It is doubtful that the Danielsons lived in the 115th Street house, and most likely rented it.  They sold it in November 1934.

All three houses suffered in the subsequent decades.  No. 310 was converted to furnished rooms in 1937.  By the last quarter of the 20th century, at least one of the homes had been acquired by the city in a valiant, but failed, rehabilitation effort.  On February 8, 1988 The New York Times wrote, "The city had hoped to stem the decay of the housing by seizing it from tax-delinquent landlords and by quickly turning it over to new managers.  But the buildings, often in the poorest neighborhoods and in need of major repairs, proved unattractive to investors."  

The article pointed out 308 West 115th Street, where it said the single-room occupancy building had been redesigned into apartments by the city, "creating some that were windowless."  It noted, "One apartment did have an 8-by-10, single pane skylight, but it had been nailed shut and had been covered with a glass dome."

Time and a rediscovery of the neighborhood changed all that.  In 2003 308 West 115th Street was reconverted to a single family home with a basement apartment.  Plans were filed for interior renovation of 310 West 115th Street in 2017.   The trio creates a charming architectural ensemble on the ever-changing block.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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