Friday, March 24, 2023

The Fletcher Henderson House - 228 West 139th Street


On August 16, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on what it described as "One of the most important building operations ever undertaken in this city."  Developer David H. King, Jr. had broken ground for an ambitious project of houses "of a first-class character" that would engulf the  entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today's Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues.  An interesting aspect of what were called the King's Model Houses was that the developer had hired three architects--Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce worked together on the full block, while James Brown Lord designed the homes on the south side of 138th Street.

Five months later, on January 27, 1891, the Record & Guide reported that King had expanded the project, writing that he "intends to build another block just north of the present block he is improving on 137th and 138th [sic] streets, 7th and 8th avenues."  The new portion, engulfing the northern blockfront of 139th Street, would follow the same plan as the others and be designed by McKim, Mead & White.

The block of homes designed by Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce were a creative take on the neo-Georgian style.  The World explained, "These houses form a whole block...There is a great court in the centre of the block."  Faced in beige brick and richly trimmed in white terra cotta, the 17-foot-wide homes were three stories tall above English basements.  

Like its neighbors, 228 West 139th Street featured a single-doored arched entrance that sprouted a dramatic, elongated keystone.  The splayed lintel of the parlor window was composed of alternating, foliate terra cotta sections, matched by smaller versions above all but one of the second story openings.  The exception, at the second floor, was crowned by a lintel in the form of a fasces, and an arched panel with a wreath and garlands.  Above it all was a brick parapet with balustraded openings.

Elaborate terra cotta elements distinguished the houses.

The block filled with professional families and No. 228 West 139th Street became home to the Joseph Clark Robinson family.  Robinson and his wife, the former Mary Frances Cramer (known familiarly as Fannie) had three children, Mary Edith, Alice Nelson, and Clarence Cramer.

Joseph Robinson was listed in city directories as a clerk--a somewhat nebulous term that ranged from an office worker to a highly responsible position within a bank or corporation.   When the family moved into the 139th Street house, Clarence, who was just 12-years-old, was already enrolled in the "Sub-Freshman" scientific course at the College of the City of New York.

On June 14, 1896, The World began an article saying, "The entire upper west side of the city is in a state of alarm, because of a daring robbery carried out yesterday afternoon in one of its most aristocratic sections."  The article continued:

The scene of the robbery was the elegant home of Henry [sic] C. Robinson, dry-goods merchant in Worth street, in one of the King model houses, No. 228 West One Hundred and thirty-ninth street.

Six months earlier the Robinsons had hired a servant, Johanna Herran, described by The Sun as "a German girl, about twenty years old."  On Saturday afternoon, June 13, "Mr. Robinson and his entire family were at the Sunday school picnic of the Mt. Morris Baptist Church, and the servant was alone in the house," according to the article.  The reporter said that around 2:00 "two rough-looking men rang the bell."

The World wrote, "'We're from the gas company,' said one of the men, ' and want to examine the gas meter.'"  Johanna told them the family was away and they should come back another day.  

"We can't waste time coming back," he replied.  "We're bound to attend to the meter now."  The World said his manner was authoritative and the fact that the men carried notebooks convinced the servant to admit them.  She took them to the cellar where one of the men grabbed her by the throat and forced her face-first onto the concrete floor.  At this point the second man sat on her back.  He stuffed a gag which he had fashioned from a handkerchief and a small piece of kindling into her mouth and secured it.  Johanna's arms were bound behind her back with another handkerchief, and her legs were tied with twine.  The World reported, "This done, the poor girl, who thought she was to be murdered, was left lying face downward on the cold concrete.  Her face had been bruised on the floor and her nose was bleeding."

At 4:00 the family returned home.  When no one answered the doorbell, they used their key to enter.  The Sun reported, "The house was in confusion, and a glance into the dining room showed that the thieves had made off with the silver."  Fannie Robinson called to Clarence Andrews, the 16-year-old son of Police Commissioner Avery Andrews, who was in his yard directly behind theirs.  The teen jumped the fence and helped in the search for the burglars, still thought to be in the house.

Young Andrews took a lantern to the cellar.  "There he found the servant, still bound and in a half-fainting condition," wrote
The Sun.  "Blood was oozing from her nose and mouth."  Clarence Andrews ran to the corner and found Policeman Thornton.  He and other officers arrived at the house and took Johanna's statement.  Afterward she went to bed, "suffering from the severe nervous shock."

According to The World, the burglars had nearly wrecked the house:

Everything was turned topsy-turvy.  Articles of clothing were strewn from first floor to garret.  All the drawers had been opened out and the contents dumped on the floor.  Mattresses were taken off of beds, and even carpets were torn up.  Much of the wreckage appeared to have been committed solely in a spirit of vandalism.

The thieves had made off with jewelry and silverware valued at "many thousands of dollars," according to The World.  As it turned out, Johanna was fortunate.  Two days later, Dr. Lewald, who had attended her, said, "If she had remained an hour longer with the gag in her mouth, she would be dead.  Fright and suffocation would have done the work."

Fannie came from an old New York family.  On February 8, 1897 The New York Press reported that she hosted a "whist afternoon" for The National Society of New England.

Around the turn of the century, the Robinson family left 139th Street.  Owned by an "E. Hamilton," it was leased in 1903 to the Jacob family.  On a single day, June 19, 1905, the New York Herald announced the engagements of sisters Jennie and Birdie Jacob--Jennie to Alfred Bleyer and Birdie to Morris Israel.

Living here in 1907 was salesman Solomon Piser.  He and a friend attended a crap game in the Bennett Building on Ann Street on Friday night, May 10 that year.  The room where the illegal game took place had been raided by police just a month earlier.  According to Piser, he and his friend "started a friendly crap game there" with another salesman named Louis Bloom and his friend.  Bloom was down $150 when Piser's friend briefly walked out of the room.  Piser told police, "Then the other two seized him," threw him to the floor and took $343 from his pocket and fled.  It was a significant theft--equal to more than $10,000 in 2023 money.

Despite having been involved in illegal gambling, Piser went to the police.  Louis Bloom was arrested at his house the next night.  "It was my money and I took it.  That's all," he told the arresting officers.  He refused to identify his friend.

In the post World War I years, the neighborhood was changing as Manhattan's Black community migrated northward.  A significant number of Black musicians--Eubie Blake, W. C. Handy, Billie Holiday and Noble Sissle among them--moved into the King's Model Houses, now known as Strivers' Row.

In 1924 pianist, orchestra leader, arranger and composer Fletcher Henderson and his wife Leora purchased 228 West 139th Street.  Born in 1897, Henderson would become one of the most prolific and influential Black musical arrangers in jazz history.

The year he and Leora moved into 228 West 139th Street, his band became the house band at the Club Alabam on West 44th Street.  Then, in July 1924 he landed what was intended to be temporary engagement at the Roseland Ballroom.  The reception by patrons was such that in October the orchestra was rebooked, now with Louis Armstrong in the group.  It was soon known as the best Black band in New York City.  Other members of the orchestra were Charlie Greene, Charlie Dixon, Buster Bailey and Elmer Chalmers.  By April 1925, The New York Age referred to the group as "Fletcher Henderson and his Roseland Orchestra."

Given little credit today, Leora was an important part of the Henderson Orchestra.  A trumpeter, music copyist, and arranger, she also handled much of the business end.  She organized tours, arranged rehearsals and handled other details.

This photo of Fletcher Henderson was taken in 1926, two years after he purchased 228 West 139th Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In April 1928 Fletcher's group appeared at the Lafayette Theatre in the revue Jazz Fantasy.   In reporting on the opening, the critic from The New York Age said in part:

There comes a time in every reviewer's life when the English language fails him in his efforts to do justice to a particularly inspiring show...And the trouble arises from the fact that the greatest of all bands--Fletcher Henderson's Roseland Orchestra--weaves such an entrancing spell about the revue that one feels as if he were treading on air and cannot adequately describe his feelings.

The Hendersons opened their home to musicians from time to time.  In his 1991 book Boy Meets Horn, jazz cornetist Rex Stewart wrote that shortly after Henderson asked him to join the band permanently, "both he and Miss Lee insisted that I come back to live with them at 228 West 139th Street."  He added elsewhere in the book, "Later I found out that Miss Lee (as we called Mrs. Henderson) had written my mother in Washington, telling her that she would keep an eye on me.  This she did, as much as possible."

And in 1934 saxophonist Lester "Prez" Young lived with the couple.  In this 1990 book The Imperfect Art, Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Ted Gioia quote Young saying, "I was rooming at the Henderson's house, and Leora Henderson would wake me early in the morning and play [Coleman] Hawkins' records for me so I could play like he did."

In the meantime, the West 139th Street house was occasionally the scene of entertaining.  On August 22, 1931, for instance, The New York Age announced, "Miss Dorothy Phillips of Boston will visit her cousin, Mrs. Fletcher Henderson, 228 West 139th street."  And the following year, on May 21, the same newspaper wrote, "More than a hundred graduates of Atlanta University, former students and friends, attended a reception at the home of their fellow-alumnus Fletcher Henderson and Mrs. Henderson, 228 West 139th Street, New York City, on Sunday afternoon, May 15."

By 1937 the Hendersons had left 228 West 139th Street.  It was operated as a rooming house for decades.  Never converted to apartments, it is once again a single-family home.

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

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