Friday, March 31, 2023

The Rev. Frederick A. Toote House - 282 West 137th Street


In 1896, as the Harlem district was rapidly transforming from farmland and summer estates to one of rowhouses and stores, the development firm of Leith & Glenn planned six residences at 282 through 292 West 137th Street.  Designed by the firm of Neville & Bagge, the four-story homes were clad in beige Roman brick above a stone ground base.   

Completed in 1897, the easternmost house at 282 West 137th Street featured a low stoop with solid wing walls, one of which curved jauntily away from the steps to partial protect the basement entrance.  At the second floor a balustraded,  bowed balconette fronted the three windows, which were separated by engaged columns and crowned with splayed lintels and carved, foliate keystones.  Greek key bandcourses defined each upper story, and a pressed metal cornice and frieze crowned the design.

In 1901 282 West 137th Street was purchased by the Obermeier family.  Born in 1835, Charles Obermeier was a partner in C. Obermeier & Co. with Aaron Eichtersheimer, presumably the brother of Charles's deceased wife, Theresa Eichtersheimer.  The couple had had six children, at least three of whom, Leonard J., Maude, and Minnie, moved into the 137th Street house with Charles.  Also living with the family was Charles's sister-in-law, Marie, the widow of Imanuel Obermeier.

282 West 137th Street is at the left of the row.

The year the family moved into the house, Minnie graduated from Normal College.  She immediately began teaching Latin in the New York City public schools.  Leonard J. Obermeier was 24-years-old at the time.  He had graduated from Columbia College in 1896, and received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1899.

Leonard would go on to great success, being appointed Deputy State Attorney General in 1916.  While in that position he hired a young Fiorella La Guardia as his assistant.  The two would become close friends and Leonard would later serve as Mayor La Guardia's personal counsel.

The house was the scene of Maude's marriage to A. M. Fechheimer at noon on November 5, 1907.   A "member of several New York clubs," according to The New York Times, the groom had until recently been Chairman of the Board of the Young Folks' League of the Montefiore Home and president of the Young Folks' League of the Mount Sinai Hospital.  

On December 16, 1909 Marie Obermeier was crossing 139th Street and Seventh Avenue (today's Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.) when she was struck by the automobile driven by Dr. G. Harrington.  The physician placed the 74-year-old into his car and drove her to the nearest police station.  An ambulance was called and she was treated there.  Afterward, Harrington drove her home, apparently shaken but not seriously injured.

Three years later, on July 29, 1912, Marie died in the 137th Street house.  Her funeral on August 1 would not be the only one in the parlor that year.  Three months later Charles died at the age of 78, on October 31.

The Obermeiers retained possession of 282 West 137th Street , but were leasing it to a tenant who operated it as a boarding house by 1918.  Then, in 1920, as the neighborhood was becoming the center of the Manhattan's Black community, Leonard J. Obermeier sold the house to Cornelius L. Perdue.

Perdue rented rooms in the house while he worked.  His position-wanted advertisement on May 3, 1925 in The New York Times read:  "Chauffeur, colored, experienced, reliable; city, country, references.  C. Perdue, 282 West 137th St."

Irvin C. Miller, who was renting a room here in 1923, was reflective of the Harlem Renaissance taking place in the neighborhood.  The actor-author had formerly been part of the vaudeville duo Miller & Anthony.  His brother, Flournoy Miller, was one of the co-authors of the hit 1921 musical Shuffle Along, with music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, both of whom lived just a block away.

Among Irvin C. Miller's productions were Liza, which was currently playing at the Bayes Theatre, Put and Take, and Chocolate Brown.

Irvin C. Miller (original source unknown)

Unfortunately, Put and Take was a financial failure and on April 5, 1923 Vaudeville titled an article "Shows Bankrupted Him" and reported that Miller was insolvent.  The Billboard noted, "The members of the cast of the 'Chocolate Brown' Company are listed as creditors for salary."

By 1931, 282 West 137th Street was a private home again, owned by Rev. Frederick Augustus Toote and his wife, the former Lillie M. Tooks.  Rev. Toote was already an important figure in the Civil Rights movement.  Born in the Bahamas in 1899, he came to America and joined the Marcus Garvey movement, early on sitting on the board of Garvey's Black Star Steamship Company.  

On June 8, 1923 The Morning Telegraph reported on the trial of Marcus Garvey, who was accused of mail fraud.  In telling of the Rev. Frederick Augustus Toote's testimony, the journalist provided readers an up-to-date resume.  "He testified that in addition to his pastoral duties he is a director in the Black Star line, a national organizer, national public speaker and a former president of the [United] Negro Improvement Association."

On November 8, 1931, Frederick and Lillie brought home a baby girl, Gloria E. A. Toote.  The infant would go on to become as (or more) influential than her noteworthy father.

On Sunday morning, September 6, 1953, Rev. Toote was "enthroned as archbishop of New York," as reported by The New York Age.  The newspaper said "More than 2,000 members and friends filled the Pro-Cathedral of the Church of the Good Shepherd that morning.  Toote's sermon reflected his continued work for racial justice.  He said in part:

So have I faith in this Negro race.  Not long removed from a wicked slavery, they still manifest a great deal of servility to their former masters.  For this I pity them, but I have hope for them still.  The time is coming when with self reliance and self determination, cultivation of race conscienceness, race pride and race cooperation they will outgrow the slavishness of centuries past and honor and follow their leaders.

Gloria was studying at Howard University and graduated the following year, the youngest-ever graduate of its School of Law at the time.  For years the Urban League had been pressuring Time Inc. to hire Black writers.  In 1955 Gloria was hired as its only Black journalist, writing for the National Affairs Section of Time magazine.  She continued her education and in 1956 earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University with a dissertation on constitutional law and civil rights.

In 1957, the head counsel for Time, Inc. arranged an interview for Gloria with Greenbaum, Woolf & Ernest.  She later recalled, "My daddy said they would never hire me...When Morris Ernst hired me, I asked to call my daddy.  I phone him and was told that he had just died."  Rev. Frederick Augustus Toote had suffered a fatal heart attack in March 1957 at the age of 58.  

Lillie and Gloria remained in the 137th Street house.  At Greenbaum, Woolf & Ernest Gloria was among the first Black entertainment attorney/agents.  In 1966 she founded Town Sound, the only independent Black-owned studio in the country that recorded major white artists.  Among the artists who recorded there were The Animals, Gloria Lynne, Lloyd Price, the Isley Brothers and the Mothers of Invention.  Additionally, Gloria Toote created a record label with James Brown.

Following her work in Richard Nixon's reelection campaign in 1971, she was made assistant director of ACTION.  In 1973 she became head of the Office of Voluntary Action Liaison, working at the White House.  And on June 24, 1983 a press release from the Reagan Administration announced that Gloria E. A. Toote had been appointed Vice Chairman to the President's Advisory Council on Private Sector Initiatives.

Gloria E. A. Toote, from the collection of Penn State University

In 1984 Gloria co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women.  Its first chair person was Shirley Chisholm with Gloria its vice chair, a position she would hold until 1992.

Lillie Tooks Toote underwent surgery in the fall of 1987.  Complications rose afterward, and she died at the age of 79 on October 9.  Among those participating in her memorial service on November 14 at St. Philip's Episcopal Church on West 134th Street were nationally-known singer Ed Townsend, singer-actress Sally Blair, and pianist Lynn Richards.

Gloria E. A. Toote died in Palm Desert, California in 2017.  Her home for decades remains a single family house, its brick and stone painted today, but otherwise remarkably intact after a century and a quarter.

photographs by the author
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Thursday, March 30, 2023

The "Hell's Kitchen Crash Pad"--R. H. Bechaidner's 1886 452 West 50th Street


In September 1881 The New York Times described the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood as “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square in this part of New-York.”  A year later James D. McCabe, Jr., in his New York by Gaslight, wrote, “The city contains two classes of tenement houses.  Those of the first class are occupied by well-to-do working people; those of the second by the very poor.  The first are large, neat-looking structures, and are kept as clean as the great number of people occupying them will permit; the second are wretched abodes of misery, and often of vice and crime.”

Despite McCabe's over-simplified observations, some real estate operators were attempting to improve conditions in Hell's Kitchen.  Others, unfortunately, were taking advantage of them.  In 1884 architect R. H. Bechaidner filed plans for three identical five-story tenements at 448 to 452 West 50th Street.  The Real Estate Record & Guide listed Charles A. Buddensiek as "reputed owner."  Each was projected to cost $15,000 to construct (about $436,000 in 2023).

The Record & Guide's hesitance was based on Buddensiek's current legal problems.  His sordid reputation and shady ways of conducting business had caught up with him.  And on June 27, 1885, the journal reported, "The conviction of Buddensiek is an important thing to every man, woman and child who lives in a New York house."  Calling him "a rascal" and his tenements "man-traps," the lengthy article said in part, "The longer he built, the worse he built."

The project was taken on mid-stream by three separate developers.  Godfrey Haas took over the construction 452 West 50th Street.  Completed in 1886, like its identical neighbors it was designed in the neo-Grec style (although the entrances with their scrolled brackets and half-fluted pilasters were decidedly Renaissance Revival).  Four floors of red brick sat upon a brownstone-clad base.  Bands of brownstone connected the sills and lintels of the openings and complex, handsome mental cornices crowned the design.

While the fluted pilasters and scrolled brackets harkened to the Renaissance, the single anthemion perched on the entranceway pediment was purely Greek.

Expectedly, the apartments filled with working-class families, not all of them law-abiding citizens.  Living here in 1903 was 45-year-old Louis Pflugner, who operated a junk shop at 408 West 41st Street.  About two blocks away was the large factory of William E. Lyford's Hartford Carpet Corporation.  In September that year Lyford complained to police that "his company had been systematically robbed of wool," estimating his loss at $25,000 (about $795,000 today).

Four undercover men were put on the case.  On October 24 they watched as two of Lyford's drivers loaded wool onto two wagons, then followed them to Pflugner's shop.  The detectives waited until the wool was unloaded and when the two drivers and their helper came out of the shop, arrested them.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "In the shop they found four bales of wool, weighing about 800 pounds each.  they also found, they say, bags of wool amounting in all to about $1,000 worth of property."

The New York Sun said, "When Pflugner was arrested he and two of his employees were putting the stolen wool up in bales."  Pflugner denied any guilt, but, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, could not "give any explanation."

Among the tenants in 1913 was truck driver Joseph Benson.  The 24-year-old was drunk on the job on October 20 that year.  When Policeman Dockstader ordered him to pull his wagon over, according to the New York Herald, "Benson whipped his horses and turned west in Thirty-second street."  He crashed into a bus and the automobile of John Mannes, the president of the Grand Rapids Furniture Company.  Dockstader arrested Benson, climbed onto the wagon and ordered him to drive to the police station. 

The inebriated young man was not ready to loose his freedom.  "When they turned into Sixth avenue, Benson urged the horses, which began to run."  The truck hit an elevated railroad pillar, throwing both the driver and the policeman onto the pavement.  The drunk driver was held on $500 bail awaiting his hearing.

The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood had not greatly improved by World War II.  Church, welfare and reform groups attempted to assist the residents by offering educational and recreational programs.  E. A. Gilbert, the director of the Home Recreation Library of the Boys Athletic League came up with a unique idea in December 1940.  By providing little girls the opportunity to "adopt" baby dolls and care for them, he hoped "to promote neatness and cleanliness."  A month later, the adoptive "mothers" were judged on the maternal care they had shown.

On January 30, The New York Sun reported, "Eileen Haberlack, 8 years old, who lives at 452 West Fiftieth street, was the proudest girl in her neighborhood today, for her adopted doll won the prize."  (An unplanned prize, incidentally, was given to a non-participant.  The article said, "And a prominent gentleman was Peter (Tubby) Youngsworth, 6, of 643 Tenth avenue, who tried to crash the party with his teddy bear.")

A terrifying incident occurred here that year.  Mrs. Helen Swift lived on the fourth floor.  On May 8, 1943 her 23-year-old son-in-law, Edward Clark, who lived in Queens, brought his three children, three-year-old Edward Jr., two-year-old William, and seven-month-old Thomas for a visit.  When Helen left the apartment to go shopping, Clark fell asleep.  At noon he awoke to find the building on fire.

Unable to leave the apartment because of thick, black smoke in the hallways, he yelled from a window for help.  Women on the street who had fled the building pleaded with the responding firefighters, "Save the three babies upstairs!"  An aerial ladder was raised to the window and three firefighters clambered up, each bringing down a child with Clark following behind.  Two of the children and Clark were burned and treated at a hospital.  In the meantime, the blaze which spread between the fourth and fifth floors was extinguished.

Three decades did not improve conditions.  In their 2003 book A Goodfella's Guide to New York, Henry Hill and Bryon Schreckengost described 452 West 50th Street in the 1970s saying, "This West Side residence was known as a Hell's Kitchen crash pad for some of the city's worst.  There was always someone up or something going on here.  If you needed to score some junk, buy a gun, or have someone clipped at 4 A.M. on a Tuesday, you came here."

Among the most notorious of the residents in 1975 was Patrick "Paddy" Dugan, a junkie.  He shared an apartment with Billy Beattie, a bartender at the 596 Club.  That summer Dugan murdered his closest friend, Denis Curley in front of several witnesses.  In The Westies, Inside New York's Irish Mob, T. J. English writes, "Hell's Kitchen had always been a violent place, but the idea that someone would shoot his best friend because of a barroom argument was horrifying to a lot of people.  It represented a new kind of violence, where the traditions of loyalty and friendship no longer seemed to mean much."

Street justice played out at 452 West 50th Street.  On November 17, 1975 Paddy Dugan disappeared.  English wrote, "The last anyone saw of him he was headed for his bachelor pad at 452 West 50th Street."  Later it was discovered that Dugan had been murdered in his apartment, then beheaded and his private parts severed.

The 21st century finally brought change to the 50th Street block.  The apartments in 452 West 50th Street with their modern appliances and refinished floors no longer harbor murderers or murder victims.  On the outside, however, there is little change to the building since Godfrey Haas hoped to improve living conditions in Hell's Kitchen more than 135 years ago.

photograph by the author
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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The 1851 James O. Smith House - 9 West 8th Street


photograph by the author

In 1832 the Board of Aldermen changed the name of the stretch of West 8th Street between Fourth and Sixth Avenues to Clinton Place in honor of former Governor De Witt Clinton.  Plots along Clinton Place were being developed around 1834, but it would not be until 1851 that Dr. James Owens Smith completed construction on his handsome home at 81 Clinton Place (renumbered 9 West 8th Street at the turn of the century).

Smith had already established an impressive reputation.  Immediately upon graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1825, he became ship's doctor of a Columbian frigate.  His first voyage was to Caracas, Venezuela, where yellow fever was raging.  The Sun reported, "Several of the local physicians had died from the disease and others had fled.  Surgeon Smith went on shore, and succeeded in bringing the disease under control by causing the town to be cleaned and drained and closing the saloons."

Sir Robert Ker Porter, the British Consul, appointed Smith his personal assistant and "took him into his household," according to The New York Times years later.  After five years in Venzuela, Smith returned to New York following his father's death.  "Sir Robert Ker Porter and others tried to induce him to return to Venezuela, but he determined to remain here," said The New York Times.  Just two years later, Dr. Smith battled another epidemic--cholera.  The New York Times wrote, "Dr. Smith's success during the reign of the epidemic brought him an extensive practice."

James Smith's Italianate style house was three stories tall above a high English basement.  French windows opened onto a cast iron balcony at the parlor level, and molded lintels crowned the upper story openings.  The cornice, with simple block brackets, was a holdover from the earlier Greek Revival style.

Smith was unmarried, and moving into his new home with him were his sister's family.  Elizabeth Edith and her husband Emile Henry Lacombe had two sons, James Pierre, who was 11 years old at the time, and Emile Jr. who was six.  Emile H. Lacombe was a commission merchant with offices at 71 Broad Street.  The New York Times would later describe him as "a successful merchant of the old school type."

It may have been Lacombe's poor health that prompted the family to share a home with Smith.  He died in the Clinton Place house in 1851, the same year they moved in.  Ten years  later, on January 27, 1861,  Elizabeth Smith Lacombe died.  Her casket sat in the parlor until her funeral there three days later.  James and Emile Jr. remained with their uncle, a lifelong bachelor.

James Pierre was married to Mary C. Burckle nine months after his mother's death in Calvary Church near Gramercy Park.  The couple moved into the Clinton Place home, and it once again had a mistress.   In 1862 a son, James Pierre Jr. was born.

That year Emile Jr., who had been studying at Columbia College, put his education on hold to serve in the Union Army.  Returning to New York in 1863, he graduated Columbia Law School in 1865.

Tragically, James Pierre Lacombe, Jr. died at the age of 11 on November 6, 1873.  His funeral was held in the house at 1:30 on the afternoon of November 8.

Emile's legal career was advancing rapidly.  In 1875 he was made Assistant Corporation Counsel for New York City, and in 1884 became Corporation Counsel for the City of New York.  He had married Elizabeth E. Tryon and the couple had two children, Rufus Tryon, born in 1876, and Elizabeth Aimee, born a year later.

There would be three funerals in close succession within the Clinton Place house.  James Pierre Lacombe died on October 14, 1884; Dr. James Owens Smith died on January 30, 1885; and Elizabeth Tryon Lacombe died on December 29, 1885.

In reporting on Dr. Smith's death, The Sun began saying, "Nearly every morning for fifteen years past a robust old gentleman, with a brisk and hearty manner, has left his residence, 81 Clinton place, for a short walk on Broadway.  Every afternoon the same old gentleman drove in an open carriage in Central Park, bowing right and left to the many acquaintances he met.  He was Dr. James Owens Smith, for over fifty years a physician in this city...He was a bachelor, and was 83 years old."

Emily Henry Lacombe inherited the Clinton Place house.  On May 26, 1887 President Grover Cleveland appointed him a judge in the United States Circuit Courts.  

Judge Emile Henry Lacombe.  from the collection of Harvard University.

It is unclear when Emile H. Lacombe left his childhood home.  He retained ownership, however, and by 1895 it was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  At the turn of the century, the once refined residential street had become highly commercialized.  It lost its lofty name and became a mere continuation of West 8th Street.  On January 29, 1903 The New York Press reported, "Judge E. Henry Lacombe of the United States Circuit Court [sold] the four-story English basement house No. 9 West Eighth the Washington Square Home for Friendless Girls."

Established on December 27, 1865 as The Home for Fallen and Friendless Girls, the name had been changed in 1899.  The  objects of the organization were:

To provide and maintain a home for friendless girls who have fallen, or who are in circumstances that may lead to their fall, from want of employment, destitution or evil association, and who voluntarily commit themselves to the care of this corporation and conform to its rules and regulations, where they will receive proper instruction and training in housework, plain sewing and skilled labor, with the view of their being established as soon as possible in virtuous homes.

The managers hired the architectural firm of M. L. & H. G. Emery to convert the Smith house "for lodging house purposes."  The cost of the renovations was $5,000, or about $159,000 in today's money.  Included was the installation of a commercial space at sidewalk level for added income.

Although the Home's objects stressed that the girls "voluntarily commit themselves," that was not always the case.  Some, like Millie Brusch, were sent here by a court magistrate.

Millie worked for a brewery and fell in love with another employee.  He wooed her with a promise of marriage until she fell victim to his advances and "was ruined."  Millie purchased her wedding gown, only to find out from her lover's mother that he was, in fact, already married.  In October 1905 she plotted her revenge.  She went to the brewery with a revolver "with which to kill the man," said The Evening Telegram on October 25, "and carbolic acid for herself."  She waited all day, but he never appeared.  When night fell, she decided simply to kill herself.  She was merely wounded and was taken to the Lebanon Hospital.

Attempted suicide was a jailable crime.  In court, "she told Magistrate Baker she was sorry she had tried to killer herself, and promised not to repeat the attempt."  The magistrate felt compassion for Millie, who was now deemed a fallen girl, and instead of sending her to jail, she was sent to the Washington Square Home for Friendless Girls.

Another involuntary resident was 19-year-old Rosetta Luce.  She lived in New London, Connecticut where she met a New York man in the summer of 1907.  According to Rosetta, he "told her of the money to be made in the mills and shops of New York."  Joseph Rosencranz brought her to New York where, according to The Evening Post, "she was held a prisoner in East Thirty-second Street for a week."

Rosetta was rescued early in September.  The Evening Post reported, "Joseph Rosencranz was arrested and charged with abduction and grand larceny, and the girl was sent to the Washington Square Home for Girls."  Two weeks later Rosetta was back in court.  She was arrested in Long Island City "after she escaped from the Washington Square Home for Girls."

Rosetta's excuse to the magistrate was straightforward.  "Things were dull at the home.  The magistrate had sent me there.  I just got tired of it and thought I would go out for a while.  So I left when no one was looking.  I don't see why I should be arrested.  I got tired and walked out."

After operating from 9 West 8th Street for four decades, the Washington Square Home for Friendless Girls moved to 68 East 82nd Street in April 1945, selling the house to an investor.

In 1952 composer John Cage had his studio in the building.  Here, according to David Revill in his Roaring Silence, John Cage: A Life, was where "field recordings were catalogued and spliced."

On September 9, 1953 The New Curiosity Shop opened in the commercial space.  The New York Times said it was "devoted to gifts and decorative household objects new and old."

A renovation completed in 1972 resulted in two apartments on the second floor, and one each on the third and fourth.  The top two floors were combined into a duplex apartment in 1975.  

In 1992 the ground floor was the Tom Goslin Studio.  Discovered by Andy Warhol in 1979, Goslin had begun designing wallpaper in 1991.  The New York Times described the wallpapers as depicting "over-scaled images in starling colors, like Botticelli's Venus, as well as sunflowers, bees, griffins and fleurs-de-lis."

image via

Above the commercial front, the 1851 Smith house is surprisingly intact--a relic of a period when this section of West 8th Street was an exclusive residential enclave. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Irving School - 35 West 84th Street


Charles and Anna McDonald were a successful husband-and-wife real estate development team in the latter part of the 19th century, focusing much of their attention on the Upper West Side.  On August 14, 1886, in an article describing the dizzying pace of construction in the neighborhood, the Record & Guide wrote, "Charles McDonald is preparing the foundations for five four-story brown stone dwellings on the north side of Eighty-fourth street."

The McDonalds commissioned architect Henry L. Harris to design the row.  Relatively forgotten today, Harris was busy at the time creating rows of speculative houses.  And like the McDonalds, he worked primarily on the Upper West Side.  The recently-popular Queen Anne style was a favorite of the architect and he used it again for the 84th Street row, while liberally adding Renaissance Revival touches.  Designed in a balanced A-B-C-B-A configuration, the residences were completed in 1887 at a cost of $18,000 each, or about $523,000 in 2023.

The center house, 35 West 84th Street, rose four stories above a high English basement.  In its article, the Record & Guide had noted "one of the characteristics of the building movement on the west side is the large use of rock-faced stone instead of the dressed stone which has been used almost exclusively in the older parts of the city."  And here Harris used the chunky stone for the basement and parlor levels.   The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows were originally fronted by railings that suggested balconies.  Above the openings at this level were foliate carvings and panels decorated with triangular pediments, each (originally) adorned with carvings like the bowl of fruit that survives over the central opening.

The undressed stone reappeared in the upper stories in the form of gear-like voussoirs.  The half-story mansard was fronted by a prominent triangular gable decorated with a modified Queen Anne sunburst.  In place of the expected wavy sunrays, Harris had substituted fern fronds and flowers.

William A. and Mary G. Topping purchased 35 West 84th Street.  Topping was a director in the Anglo-American Reduction Co. and the Fallsburgh & Monticello Railroad Co.  The couple had a daughter, Josephine S.  The family lived here until 1896 when the house was sold to Charles C. Cunningham.

It was sold again in April 1899 to Dr. Lewis Dwight Ray and his wife, the former Isoline Doty Brown, for "about $31,000," according to the Record & Guide.  The price would translate to just over $1 million in 2023.

Born in New York City in 1861, Ray had graduated from Columbia University in 1882, later earning his Ph.D. from New York University.  He and Isoline, a graduate of Hunter College, were married in 1888. 

In 1890 Ray founded the Irving School, a private institution for boys.  It offered "thorough preparation for College or Business."  Isoline was among the select teachers, whose classes averaged eight students.  

The West 84th Street house was converted for the school's purposes, including transforming the basement to a gymnasium.  On September 14, 1899 an advertisement in The Evening Post was headlined, "Irving School (Boys), Dr. L. D. Ray, reopens Sept. 28th in its New Building, 35 West 84th Street."  It announced:

Primary, Intermediate, and Collegiate grades.
Gymnasium 18x58.  Playground 200x225
Dr. Ray is now at school daily.

A fuller description read:

Irving Schoolhouse is a modern building, with sanitary plumbing, heating, and ventilation.  Attention is called to its well-furnished rooms, to its laboratory and manual training shop, to its indoor and outdoor gymnasium, and to its private playground.  Professional teachers not only teach in this school, but also prepare their pupils carefully for the following day's work.

Rather than spending their summer months in fashionable resorts like Newport or Bar Harbor, the well-to-do Rays often traveled.  On July 10, 1914, for instance, the Columbia Alumni News noted, "Louis D. Ray, headmaster of the Irving School, 35 West Eighty-fourth Street, New York, and Mrs. Ray recently sailed for Asia Minor, where they will spend the summer."  It proved to be a somewhat perilous time for world travel.  

Upon their return, Dr. Ray wrote that on August 4, 1914, they were on the steamship Galicia traveling "through the Straits of Otranto, just beyond Corfu, having come from Constantinople and the Piraeus.  In the Straits, we saw an English fleet of four gunboats and four torpedo boat destroyers, but since England had not declared war at that time, our Austrian boat was not molested."  

Nevertheless, the couple was nearly stranded abroad.  When they prepared to return to Italy, they were told all boat and train service had been discontinued.  Ray wrote, "if we wished to continue our way there, we would have to either try our luck on a troop train or hire a motor.  The next day, we decided to do the latter."  The couple endured repeated gunpoint baggage searches, a ride in a peasant's wagon, and other hardships before finally boarding a steamship home.

The following summer's travel was less exotic and less dangerous.  On October 10, 1915, The Sun reported, "Dr. and Mrs. Ray spent the summer in western Canada, making short trips to the Panama Exposition and to other points of interest along the coast."  When the school reopened that fall the enrollment had greatly increased, prompting the addition of new teachers.  

The school had already outgrown the rear yard as outdoor space.  A year earlier The Sun reported, "Every afternoon and Saturday mornings many Irving boys are with instructors at Van Cortlandt Park or elsewhere for outdoor sports, wherein football at present has the larger share."

On June 18, 1916, The Sun reported, "Two leading New York city schools, Irving School and Berkeley School, have been consolidated and are to occupy a new school building on Eighty-third street near West End avenue."  Now named the Berkeley-Irving School, Dr. Ray remained as the headmaster and Isoline as a teacher.

image via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services.

The former Ray residence and Irving School now became a boarding house, home to residents like Ralph R. Perry, who had served in the navy during World War I.  Born in 1895, he was still an active member of the service, an ensign, while living here in 1921.  Another resident at the time was Fred E. Welsh, who operated his amateur radio station from the house from 1924 through at least 1926.  The residents continued to be middle class, like Philip T. Collins, who was appointed to the position of parole officer in 1931 with a yearly salary of $3,000 (about $55,500 today).

A renovation completed in 1971 resulted in apartments, one per floor.  

photographs by the author
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Monday, March 27, 2023

The Lost William F. Foster "Iron House" - 300 Riverside Drive


A delicate and delightful iron fence surrounded by property.  (original source unknown)

Born in Taunton, England in 1841, William Fowler Foster arrive in America in 1856, first settling in Chicago.  Foster began a silk business in the burgeoning frontier city, amassing a fortune.  Then, like so many businessmen, he saw everything he had worked for wiped out when downtown Chicago burned for two days on October 8 through 10, 1871.

The resolute Foster started over, turning his attention from selling silk to the manufacturing of gloves.  Around the time he married Bertha M. Fox, he invented what The Sun would describe as "a fastening for gloves which was instrumental in building up his fortune."  He and Bertha relocated to New York City where he established a glove factory, Foster, Paul & Co., in Harlem.  The Sun said he "extended it until he had become one of the largest manufacturers of gloves in America."

Foster's invention made the gloves secure, and their donning and removal simple.

Within three years, Foster, Paul & Co. had relocated his offices to 84 Reade Street and established a large factory on East 14th Street.  Before the turn of the century the firm would own a substantial building at 365-367 Broadway where it employed 150 women.

William and Bertha M. Foster lived at 533 East 120th Street in 1887.  That year they laid plans for an opulent home to the west, along the developing Riverside Drive with its magnificent views and refreshing breezes.  The northern part of the Drive was just beginning to see the rise of magnificent mansions, like the Samuel Gamble Bayne house at 108th Street, completed that year.  The Fosters purchased the southern half of the block between 102nd and 103rd Streets and commissioned architect Halstead Parker Fowler to design their home.  His plans, filed in January 1888, estimated construct costs at $70,000, or just over $2 million by 2023 conversions.

Whether it was Foster or his architect who decided to use cast iron in the construction is unclear, but it was a bold step and almost unheard of in domestic construction.  Using a cast iron facade accelerated the building process and the mansion was completed within a few months.  Fowler's three-story, Renaissance Revival design was intended to catch the breezes from the river, with faceted bays on the front and side elevations.  The panels were cast to resemble undressed stone and a broad, complex Renaissance Revival frieze ran below the balustraded cornice.  A deep, columned porch provided support for a second story solarium.  The unusual residence quickly earned the nickname "the Iron House."

The Fosters had only just moved in when, in July, they brought Fowler back to enlarge the house with a "one-story brick and iron extension."  The "glass and iron roof" mentioned in the plans suggests a conservatory.  The addition cost Foster the equivalent of $59,000 today.  Two months later Fowler would design a two-story brick stable to the rear of the property.

Foster's greatest pride was his massive library in his new mansion.  The Sun mentioned, "many of his friends were surprised when he showed them a catalogue of over 1,400 volumes, which he had carefully selected while deeply immersed in business affairs."  The Fosters additionally owned a valuable collection of oil paintings.

In 1893 Bertha's unmarried sisters, Carrie and Emma Gertrude Fox, were visiting from Chicago.  On the afternoon of December 17 William took them for a carriage ride along Riverside Drive.  "Their carriage was driven by Mr. Foster's coachman, and was drawn by a pair of big black horses, that were both gentle and valuable," said The Sun.  At around 5:00, as they were returning home, disaster struck.

"As they were nearing Seventy-third street," reported The Sun, "the coachman saw two buggies come racing down the avenue, each drawn by a fast horse.  Neither driver would let the other pass."  Foster's coachman pulled the carriage as far to the curb as possible and stopped.  Nevertheless, one of the racing buggies crashed into the carriage "with tremendous force."  The coachman was tossed into the gutter.  Foster jumped out and called to the women to do the same, but they were too shocked and unnerved to move.

William Foster pulled Carrie from the carriage.  As he had her about half way out, the horses became frightened and started off.  "Mr. Foster held tight to the young woman, but he could not prevent her falling, and she was struck by the wheel of the coach and whirled about."  A terrified Emma Fox was still in the carriage as the two panicked horses galloped away, with the coachman and Foster running behind.

At one point, the carriage struck a metal fence upheld by iron posts.  The article said, "Then followed a display of fireworks that is likened to the blaze and sparkle the trolley leaves in its train.  The steel axles of the heavy carriage struck the wire posts one after another and raised a stream of sparks."  Emma's screams of terror only added to the fright of the horses.  The runaway carriage destroyed the fence for three blocks.  Each time it struck a fencepost, another explosion of sparks occurred.  At 76th Street one of the horses became tangled up in the wire of the fencing.  "The other dragged its mate along for ten or fifteen feet," said The Sun, "and then was seized by three men who had been walking down the footpath."

Emma was removed from the carriage, unhurt but shaken.  The racing drivers had disappeared, their buggies left in pieces on the Drive.  Foster's carriage, which he said had cost the equivalent of $37,300 in 2023 money, "was a wreck."  Perhaps worse, one of the horses had a deep, 18-inch cut on hits flank.  According to Foster, it "was one of quite a famous pair which were owned by the son of Gen. John A. Logan."  It was unclear at the time if the horse could be saved.  Luckily, while Foster  had bruised his knee and Carrie Fox was "somewhat bruised and shaken," none of the party was seriously injured.

The following year the Fosters seriously considered another move.  On October 6, 1894, the Record & Guide reported that William had purchased the country estate of Laura B. Field at Hastings-0n-Hudson for $45,000.  The eight-acre property included a "stone mansion and outbuildings."  He simultaneously paid $40,000 for an adjoining 11 acres and "is said to contemplate the erection of a costly residence."  

The Sun explained that his intention was "to build there a Roman villa."  But his vision of what The New York Times described as "an extensive country place, to be known as Sabine Farm," would not come to pass.  Just as the plans were finalized, in March 1895 Foster was diagnosed with cancer.  The Sun reported later, "recognizing the fatal nature of his disease, he had to forego the realization of his idea."

Foster's death came quickly.  He died on December 3, 1895 at the age of 54.  His will was extremely generous to his employees.  In reporting on its terms on January 16, 1896, The New York Times said, "It is with his former employes [sic] that the deceased millionaire's will is liberal beyond parellel [sic]."  To 11 of his business employees he gave annuities of $500, and to 13 others annuities of $300.  To 27 others and to five of his domestic staff, he gave annuities of $100 each.  For an employer to provide an annual income to his employees after his death was nearly unheard of.  (There was a total of 150 annuities in his will.)

Bertha erected this handsome monument for her husband in Woodlawn Cemetery.  photo by Howard Dale.

Bertha remained in the iron-clad house.  It was the scene of Emma Gertrude Fox's marriage to Roberto Friedrich Bahmann of Cincinnati on October 29, 1905.  Carrie, now married, was the matron of honor and Bertha gave the bride away.  The New-York Tribune reported that the ceremony "took place in a bower of palms and under a lovely bell of white chrysanthemums.  The house was beautifully decorated with smilax, Southern laurel and white chrysanthemums."

On March 9, 1917, New York Herald noted that Bertha's home, "known as 'the iron house,' is one of the show places of the Drive.  There are about fifteen servants living in the house."  Several weeks before that article, a burglar had entered the residence and had partially cut a valuable painting from its frame before being discovered and running off.  Immediately after the incident, Bertha installed burglar alarms.  They soon proved to be a valuable investment.

At around 7:30 on March 8, while Bertha was at dinner, a maid on the third floor, Annie Girlke, saw a man who had shimmied up a drain pipe entering a window.  The New York Herald reported that the burglar alarms "were set in operation by the maid the moment she saw the burglar climb in the window."  Hearing the gongs, coachman Carl Peterson and his two sons rushed into the house and up the stairs, where they came face-to-face with the intruder.  The thief drew a revolver and threatened to shoot if anyone made a sound.

The New York Herald wrote, "Nevertheless Peterson called for help, and Mrs. Foster and [the] servants promptly locked themselves in rooms."  The burglar climbed out the library window on the second floor, dropped to the ground and fled.  The ringing of the burglar alarms drew scores of people from homes and apartment houses.  By the time police arrived, the burglar was long gone.  "So terror stricken were those within, however, that it was almost fifteen minutes bef0re they recovered sufficiently to admit the policemen."  The newspaper noted, "Although Mrs. Foster kept much valuable silver and jewelry in the house, the police believe that the thief was after some of the paintings in the library."

On March 2, 1922 the New York Herald reported that developers Harris, Albert and Samuel Sokolski had purchased the Riverside Drive property, "on which is the large residence of Mrs. Bertha M. Foster."  The article noted, "The buyers will erect on the corner...a fourteen story apartment house and a nine-story apartment adjoining the street."

Calling the Foster mansion "one of the residential landmarks of Riverside Drive," The New York Times said the property was "the largest site in that section overlooking the Hudson under single ownership."  The mansion and outbuildings were demolished later that year and replaced with the 300 Riverside Drive apartment building.

photo by Deansfa

Bertha died two years later at the age of 66 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the memorial she had erected for her husband 27 years earlier. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Fitting In - 9 East 64th Street


In 1884 Ulysses Simpson Grant and his wife, Fannie Josephine Chaffee, purchased the double-wide brownstone at 7 and 9 East 64th Street from Alvin J. Johnson, paying the extravagant amount of $150,000.(more than $4.25 million in 2023).  The son of the former President, he was a successful attorney with the firm of Davies, Work & McNamee.

Property values had risen by the turn of the century, when vintage brownstones were being razed or transformed into modern American basement mansions.  In 1906 railroad mogul James J. Hill purchased the sumptuous mansion at 8 East 65th Street, directly behind the former Grant house.   Two years later The New York Press announced he had paid $500,000 for "Nos. 7 and 9 East Sixty-fourth street, a four-story high-stoop brownstone house."  The National Real Estate Journal explained that Hill purchased the house simply "to  secure light and privacy" for his 65th Street residence, and he promptly demolished it.

Hill died in 1916 and his estate sold the vacant lot the following year.  It was purchased by John Sergeant Cram and his wife, the former Edith Claire Bryce in 1928.  The couple hired the architectural firm of Strass & Barnes to design a house at 9 East 64th Street, leaving the plot at 7 undeveloped, apparently as a garden.  The resulting two-story, vaguely Art Moderne structure was rather peculiar.  A cantilevered slab-like marquee hovered above the entrance and a single, large window punctured the unadorned second floor.  The New York Sun called the house "handsome," and made a note of its "40-foot living and dining rooms."

The Cram house, with its large second-story window, sits just in front of the parked delivery vehicle.  The one-story house to the left was built by Edith Cram on the site of the garden in 1939.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Born in 1851, Cram graduated from Harvard College in 1872 and Harvard Law School in 1875.  Closely affiliated with Tammany Hall, he was an intimate friend of Charles Francis Murphy, known as "Silent Charlie" and "Boss Murphy."

Edith was, perhaps, even more interesting.  She was well-known nationally for her anti-war speeches and peace initiatives.  She was the founder of Peace House and during World War I tirelessly expressed pacifist ideals in newspapers.  She was, as well, a staunch proponent of women's rights, advocating for birth control and sitting on the Advisory Council for women's educational fields at Cooper Union.

J. Sergeant Cram died on January 18, 1936. Three years later, on January 17, 1939, The New York Sun reported she had sold 9 East 64th Street to Adolph Levitt, chairman of the Doughnut Corporation of America.   The article noted that she had already hired architect Louis Kurtz to design a single-story house on the garden plot next door, saying "A one-story residence in this aristocratic section of Manhattan will be unique."

In 1958 9 East 64th Street became home to newlyweds Anthony Brady Farrell and Kathryne Barbara Mylroie.  Farrell was a Broadway producer and owner of the Mark Hellinger Theater.  Kathryne was an actress, known to audiences as Kate Manx.  Their residency (and marriage) was relatively short-lived.  They divorced on July 30, 1964 and Kate died of an overdose of sleeping pills on November 15 that year.

The former Cram house became home to the Samuel Rubin Foundation, Inc., which remained well into the 1970s.  Then, on June 19, 1994 The New York Times reported that record magnate David Geffen had bought the "two nondescript one-story [sic] houses" at 7 and 9 East 64th Street, noting he "has hired the architect Richard Meier to design a town house for the double lot."

Two years later the newspaper reported that Geffen "changed his mind and put the building back on the market."  Calling them "the pair of dilapidated two-story brick buildings," the article said they had been purchased by Theodore W. Kheel as the site of a "headquarters for three foundations, with rental apartments above."  Kheel's group, the TASK Foundation, had paid $4 million for the properties.

On April 28, 1996 The New York Times explained that architect Henry George Greene's design would meld into the mansion block.  "The proposed $6 million seven-story Renaissance-style limestone building...will echo its grand neighbors on the outside.  While the foundations take the bottom floors, the top five stories would be devoted to three full-floor two-bedroom apartments and one penthouse duplex."  Kheel predicted "Rents on the apartments will be expensive."

Demolition began in January 1997.  To assuage the neighbors like Ivanna Trump, Gianni Versace and Edgar Bronfman Jr., Kheel hosted "the quintessential block party," as described by Nadine Brozan of The New York Times on January 22, 1997.  He explained that the erection of what would be called Foundation House would "be discommoding people there for about 14 months, so this is a kind of apology for the unavoidable inconvenience."

But Kheel changed his mind mid-stream.  As the building rose, on August 13, 1999 The New York Times reported that it would now be a "high-end town house condominium."  Kheel had hired the Greenwich-based architectural firm of ERG Architect to tweak Henry George Greene's plans.  Journalist Rachelle Garbarine explained the five-story structure, "designed to blend with its neighbors, will have three condominium apartments, ranging in size from 3,300 to 6,800 square feet, and in price from $3.9 million to $7.5 million."  ERG Architect principal E. Ronald Gushue said, "I reorganized the facade to include more classically inspired details and proportions.  I made it more harmonious with neighboring residences done at the turn of the century."

The building was especially remarkable in one respect.  Theodore W. Kheel was what Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times called "an environmental showman."  Kheel explained the building "is also meant to illustrate how energy-saving technology and environmentally sensitive construction methods can pay for themselves."

To that end, the two deepest holds in New York City--"each deeper than the World Trade Center is tall"--were drilled into the bedrock.  The 1,500-feet-deep holes would "tap stored energy in the rock."  Kheel added, "We're not going to change the world with one little building.  But we can set an example.  Geothermal will be our best expression of what can be accomplished."

In September 1999, before construction was completed, all three of the condominiums had been sold.  The largest, a quadruplex with a 1,045-square-foot garden on the below-grade level cost $11.1 million.  Today's casual passersby might easily mistake the new kid on the block with its remarkable backstory for a century-old townhouse.

photographs by the author
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