photo by Anthony Bellov
Residents of the Upper West Side were already embracing the concept of apartment living in March 1898, when the architectural firm of Neville & Bagge filed plans for a six-story flat at 850-852 West End Avenue. The owner of record was listed as Mary E. Dempsey, whose husband, William Dempsey was conveniently named as the builder. The upscale structure would cost the Dempseys $50,000 to construct, or about $1.7 million in 2023 money.
A month later war broke out with Spain. Commodore George Dewey attacked the Spanish fleet on May 1, 1898, in a stunning victory now known as the Battle of Manila Bay. He immediately became a national hero and was later promoted to Admiral of the Navy.
The Dempseys christened their rising apartment building The Dewey. Completed in 1899, it competed with the lavish mansions that lined West End Avenue. Neville & Bagge had designed it in the Renaissance Revival style, with notable Beaux Arts influences. The entrance sat within a columned portico above a short stoop. The two-story rusticated base featured stone balconies at the second floor. Stone brackets that upheld the gently bowed bays of the third through fifth floors were carved with portraits of Dewey.
The top portrait bracket suggests its sculptor was slightly more skilled than that of the lower example. photos by Anthony Bellov
There were two apartments of seven or eight rooms per floor in The Dewey. Rents ranged from $900 to $1,200 per year, or about $3,350 per month in today's money for the most costly. Residents would enjoy the latest in amenities, like electric light, steam heat, "hot water; elevator, hall and telephone service." "Hall service" referred to the uniformed "hall boys" on staff to perform tasks like delivering mail and packages, running errands and such. An advertisement boasted, "superb hardwood cabinet trim and artistic decorations throughout; dining rooms fitted with handsome china closets; servants' toilet rooms."
Among the first of the residents were Charles H. Lammer and his wife. He was a commission merchant downtown and the stresses of business were taking their toll. Only months after their moving in, on October 23, 1899 the New York Herald titled an article, "Lammer Crazed By Business Cares." Indeed, the previous morning the 42-year-old had been committed to the insane pavilion of Bellevue Hospital "for examination of his mental condition." The article said, "He complained that his nerves had been overwrought from excess of work," adding that Lammer's doctor "is of the opinion that Mr. Lammer's complaint is only temporary." It is unclear whether he was ever released.
The names of almost all of the residents appeared in the New York Social Blue Book, the Club Men of New York, or the Club Women of New York directories. Among the initial families were those of Vermilyea Campbell Dorland, James Leeming, Leonard Benton and William Augustus Windsor.
James Leeming lived here with his wife and son, Harry. Born in Canada in 1857, Lemming was the general freight agent of the Erie Railway. The family's country home was in Cranford, New Jersey. In December 1902 they spent a week in Chicago, then boarded a train to New Jersey where friends had planned a Christmas celebration in James's honor.
The Sun reported that Thomas T. Riley and his wife "arranged the Christmas tree celebration at the Lakewood Hotel." Then, early on Christmas morning, Riley received a telegram saying that Leeming had been taken off the train in Buffalo suffering from appendicitis. The Sun said, "A later telegram said he had died at a Buffalo hospital after an operation."
A respected tenant was Rear Admiral William Augustus Windsor, whose wife was the former Rachel Josephine Noble. Born in Virginia in 1842, he was trained as a railroad engineer, but with the outbreak of Civil War joined the navy. He served not only in that war, but the Spanish-American War. In 1898 he was made chief engineer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He retired in 1903. Admiral Windsor died in his apartment here on August 29, 1907 and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Unexpected and unseemly attention was focused on The Dewey in the winter of 1908. William S. Bassett was the property clerk at the Soldiers Home of the United States Government in New York City. He enjoyed what The Brooklyn Daily Eagle termed, "a night of revelry in the downtown section of the city" on January 31. At 2:00 in the morning, he ended up at Rosenberg's saloon. According to Bassett, he "drank three glasses of beer and then fell asleep." He told police he did not wake up until 8:00 that night only to discover that he had been robbed of his gold watch, $54 in cash, and papers. Suggesting that he had been drugged, he filed charges of grand larceny against Harry Rosenberg, who was arrested.
Rosenberg's story was much different. He brought witnesses to court to substantiate his version. As reported in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he told the judge that "after coming into the saloon Bassett began spending money like a real millionaire, insisting on treating everybody who entered the place and showering money on musicians, waiters, cabbies and bartenders."
Finally, he turned over his valuables to the Rosenberg for safe keeping and fell asleep. And, according to witnesses, Bassett was not asleep those 18 hours. "Bassett," said the article, "had been very disorderly in the saloon, shooting his revolver and raising a disturbance all day Saturday." When the police arrived at the saloon to arrest Rosenberg, he showed them Bassett's items, which had been stored behind the cash register, just as he testified. A sheepish William S. Bassett left court with his watch, money and papers, and the charges against Rosenberg were dropped.
Living here at the time were the William Lichtenstein family. Surprisingly, Eugene R. Lichtenstein received his certificate to practice optometry in January 1909, and his brothers Solomon W. and Charles A. received theirs five months later.
Mrs. Lichtenstein joined friends on a trip to Brighton Beach on Sunday August 13, 1911. When she reached the shore, she realized the bag that had been tied around her waist was missing. In it were a "valuable pin set with two diamonds," $30 in cash and a storage receipt for two fur coats. She notified police, but it was not located. Four days later Eugene placed an advertisement in The New York Times offering a $150 reward--a significant $4,500 today.
Other residents included Lawrence Dade Alexander, a stockbroker, and his wife, the former Oline St. John; and pediatrician and author Emelyn Lincoln Coolidge. Dr. Coolidge was born in Natick, Massachusetts in 1861. The unmarried woman had not allowed her gender to hamper her ambitions. She attended the Women's Medical College in New York and received her medical degree from Cornell University in 1900. Since 1902 she had edited the "babies' page" in the Ladies' Home Journal, and was the author of The Mothers' Journal.
Emelyn Coolidge got her female independence and interest in pediatrics honestly. Her mother, Harriet Abbott Lincoln Coolidge, was an author and reformer who focused on improving the condition of infants in foundling hospitals and instructing new mothers in the care of infants. She was the author of several books, like The Model Nursery and What a Young Girl Ought to Know.
Dr. Coolidge was still living in The Dewey in 1922. By now she had written How to Feed the Baby from Birth to Three, The Mother's Manual, The Home Care of Sick Children, and several others.
The intricate limestone carvings include strange creatures, including two (bottom) that battle over a pineapple. photos by Anthony Bellov
By the 1920's, most of the well-heeled residents of 850 West End Avenue owned motorcars. The vehicles sometimes caused them trouble.
On Saturday, August 15, 1925, 21-year-old Harry A. Valk had two musical comedy stars, The Fairbanks Twins--Madeline and Marion--in his car along with Lee Carter. Madeline had been appearing on Broadway in Mercenary Mary and was about to take the show to Chicago. Marion was slated to take her place here. Neither scenario would play out.
Marion sat in the front seat with Harry and the others were in the back as Valk was driving along Riverside Drive. The New York Times reported, "As the machine approached Ninety-eighth Street, according to Valk, a taxicab swerved alongside, crowding the touring car to the curb, where it overturned." Doctors at first feared that Madeline's spine had been broken, but at the hospital she was diagnosed with a "wrenched back" and cuts. Marion was seriously lacerated, requiring 17 stitches in one wound on her arm.
Two years later, on July 26, 1927, 27-year-old salesman Irving Kaufman was driving in traffic on the Fallsburgh-Woodbourne road upstate. Growing impatient, he "pulled his sedan out of line to pass other cards," according to the Sullivan County Record. He struck a 70-year-old man who died an hour later. Kaufman pleaded not guilty and was jailed awaiting the decision of a grand jury. A week later he was charged with second degree manslaughter and held on $3,500 bail (a significant $54,500 in 2023 money).
English-born actress Marie Dayne moved into The Dewey in 1929. She had met her husband, entertainer Milton Douglas, in 1924 and three days later they were married. Now, on April 2, 1930 The Newburgh News reported, "Having married in haste and repented at leisure, Marie Dayne, actress, of 850 West End avenue, appeared yesterday before Referee Burr in an undefended divorce suit." The article noted that they had been separated for a year and "three months ago, said Mrs. Douglas, she obtained evidence he had transferred his affections to a women in The Bronx."
The scandal did not damage Marie's career. She went on to Hollywood where she appeared in films like the 1934 Song at Eventide and the 1935 Be Careful, Mr. Smith.
Living here in 1933 was 27-year-old Paul Garns, the manager of the Montclair Theatre in New Jersey. The Great Depression appears to have been taxing his lifestyle, and on December 7 that year the Bloomfield Mail reported that not only had Garns disappeared but "also $3,500 in receipts." The article concluded, "Police are searching for him."
A major change came to The Dewey in 1942 when it was converted to a single-room-occupancy hotel. There were now 18 SRO rooms per floor. And, as might be expected, the residents were no longer all respectable and upstanding.
Two of them, Patricia Harrison and Marie Martini, composed a tw0-person theft ring. The young women (Patricia was 28 and Marie was 25) would ensnare a male victim and while one had him preoccupied in a rented room, the other would clean out the pockets of his clothing. They could be confident that the thefts would go unreported, since the victims were unlikely to go the crimes to police and expose their own embarrassing transgressions.
Unfortunately for the women, that would not be the case with Edward Lovell. On March 15, 1946 they took him to a hotel in Midtown. When he got dressed, he realized a $700 diamond ring, his wallet and a fountain pen were missing. He notified police and Harrison and Martini were arrested. They both pleaded not guilty.
On February 12, 1948, undercover Federal narcotic detectives Costarella and Valerio went to room 104 where a drug deal had been previously arranged. Once inside, they displayed their badges and searched the occupants, discovering a large amount of heroin. Much to the dismay of the officials, the case was dismissed because Costarella and Valerio searched the men and their room without a search warrant.
A renovation completed in 2017 converted the former Dewey into a "studio hotel" with 15 "Class A units" per floor. While, sadly, nothing remains of Neville & Bagge's once luxurious interiors, the exterior appears almost exactly as it did when wealthy socialites moved into the building in 1899.
many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
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