Saturday, March 18, 2023

The George Hall Baker house - 294 Manhattan Avenue


In July 1886 architect Charles T. Mott filed plans for five three-story brick and stone residences on the east side of Manhattan Avenue, between 112th and 113th Street.  Each of the 20-foot-wide homes would cost their developer, Edward Roemer, $13,000 to construct, or about $386,000 by 2023 conversions.   

Mott's red brick, Queen Anne style homes were typical of his style, with bowed bays and dormers.   He designed the four facing Manhattan Avenue as two mirror-image pairs, while the corner house at 329 West 112th Street, was the show-stopper.  

Construction dragged on because of financial problems.  Surprisingly, when the row was completed in July 1890 all five homes were purchased by Smith Newell Penfield, a renowned organist.  He moved into the corner house with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Hoyt.

Penfield sold 294 Manhattan Avenue to George Hall Baker on March 18, 1891 for $20,000 (around $615,000 today).  Baker and his wife, the former Ellen Eliza Atkins, had four children: George Friederich, Charles Atkins, Helen Julia, and Raymond Hall.

Baker was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts on April 23, 1850 to George and Mary Hall.  Upon his adoption by Charles and Wealthy Wells Baker, he received his new surname.  He and Ellen, who was known familiarly as Nellie, had married in 1875.  He graduated from Amherst College in 1874 and earned earn his post-graduate degree from Berlin University in 1878.  Upon his return to the United States, he helped compile The Century Dictionary.

The Manhattan Avenue house was convenient to his work.  In 1883 he was hired as assistant librarian at Columbia University and two years before buying the house was appointed Librarian-in-Chief.  Several years later, in 1913, the Annual Report of Chicago Historical Society mentioned: 

Under his administration the library made its greatest progress and acquired some of its most valuable collections.  He also instituted a new and very complete cataloguing system by means of which these treasures became thoroughly available to scholars.

George retired in 1899, earning the title Librarian Emeritus.  He now focused on "the study of art and art history and political science and literary work," according to The New York Times.

Not surprisingly, the Baker sons attended attended Columbia University.  Both Charles and Raymond became attorneys.  Following Charles's marriage to Marie Louise Johnston in 1908, the newlyweds moved into the Manhattan Avenue house where they would have three children.  Charles was, by now, a director and corporate counsel for the Harlem Contracting Company, vice president and counsel for the Pacific City Terminal and Contracting Company, and counsel of the Candelaria Gold and Silver Mining Company.  

George Hall Baker died in the Manhattan Avenue house at the age of 61 on March 27, 1911.  Ellen remained with Helen (who was still unmarried), and Charles's family.  At some point Ellen's brother, John Bangs Atkins moved in.  John's country home was in West Brattleboro, Vermont, where he and Ellen had been born.

Nearly four decades after moving into 294 Manhattan Avenue, Ellen died there on December 28, 1930 at the age of 79.  Her funeral was held in the house on the following day.  

Charles Atkins Baker was, by now, the head of the corporate law firm of Parker & Arron at 55 Liberty Street.  He was also a director of at least six corporations.  Still living his family in the Manhattan Avenue house were Helen, who was still single, and John Bangs Atkins.  John died at West Brattleboro on May 17, 1932.  Before the end of the decade the house was sold.  (Charles died in New Jersey on December 7, 1945.)

294 Manhattan Avenue is second from right.

The Baker house was converted to eight apartments in 1941.  After decades of decline, the neighborhood experienced a renaissance in the early 21st century.  No. 294 Manhattan Avenue was put on the market in 2009 at $2.4 million.  It was finally sold in the summer of 2011 for about half that amount.  It and its architectural siblings create a handsome presence facing Morningside Park.  Its well-preserved facade--albeit with painted brick and replaced stoop railings--begs to be restored.

photos by the author
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