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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