Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Maurice H. Harris House - 254 West 103rd Street


On April 30, 1892, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported on the just-completed group of homes at the southeast corner of West End Avenue and 103rd Street.  Five houses faced the avenue, while two opened onto 103rd Street.  "The houses have been built under the direct supervision of Messrs. Drought & Carew, who are among our most conscientious builders, and will stand the most critical inspection," said the article."  They were designed by architect Martin V. B. Ferdon.  The large corner house was four stories tall--a full floor higher than the others.  And its 15-foot-long, two-story extension to the east left 254 West 103rd Street somewhat estranged from its architectural siblings.

254 West 103rd Street, at the left, was a sort of step-sister to the other houses.  A balustrade ran above its rounded bay.  Real Estate Record & Guide, April 30, 1892 (copyright expired)

The article noted that the floors in rooms where carpets would be used were finished in hard pine, while "those of the halls, dining-rooms and foyer halls [had] oak parquette flooring."  The up-to-date amenities included "the latest scientific sanitary" plumbing, "electric annunciators, burglar alarms and speaking tubes."   (The annunciators were a system of push-buttons in various rooms that lit up a board in the basement level, telling servants the room from which the call had been made.  Speaking tubes allowed the servants and residents to then communicate.)

The wooden fireplaces in each of the major rooms matched the trim work.  The Record & Guide described the finish of the wood throughout as "like satin."  "The hall and dining-room and foyer hall are wainscoted high with paneled oak, and in the arches between the front and foyer halls and the staircases, Moorish fret-work imparts a richness to the finishes which is sure to meet with general admiration."  The "Moorish fret-work" reappeared on the second floor between the bedrooms and dressing rooms (those rooms were further separated by portieres).  The bedroom windows were embellished with "cathedral" or stained glass.  The top floors contained two large bedrooms, front and rear, and "marble lavatories and commodious clothes presses built into the rooms."

The Record & Guide mentioned, "In external appearance the houses are dignified and reposeful.  They are constructed of brown stone of selected quality, with just enough of ornamental sculpture to develop the grace and beauty of the design."

The intricate carvings included ribboned festoons, an urn and a bowl of fruit.

No. 254 West 103rd Street first became home to the John M. Hayward family.  Somewhat surprisingly, upon his death the house was bequeathed to his sons, William T. and Frank E. Hayward.  (The title to primary residences was most often held by the wife within well-to-do families and, if not, was normally inherited by her.)  The sons transferred title to their mother, Caroline A. Hayward, in January 1902.

She did not remain long.  In October 1903 an advertisement in the New York Herald touted the "exceptional three story dwelling."  It pointed out the advantages of the low extension of the house next door, allowing for "permanent side windows," a rare advantage in row houses.  Caroline listed the property at $25,000 (about $795,000 in 2023).

The house changed hands several times.  Caroline Hayward sold it to John Monks, who sold it to Sarah Wohigemuth in 1904.  She resold it to the Rev. Dr. Maurice H. Harris on February 1, 1906.

Born in London on November 9, 1859, Harris came from a rabbinical tradition.  Both his father, Henry L. Harris, and his brother, Isidore, were rabbis in England.  He arrived in the United States at the age of 19, first going into business.  The New York Times later said he was "one of the pioneer telegraph company promoters."  Then, in 1883 at the age of 24 and while attending Columbia University and the Temple Emanu-El Theological Seminary, he took a job as a "student-preacher" in a small Harlem synagogue.  It afforded him the income to pay for his education.

He was ordained in 1884, received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1887, and his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in 1889.  Around that time he married Kitty Green.

Harris's ordainment came at a time when a great number of Russian Jews were flooding into Manhattan.  He worked to help the new arrivals, founding the Federation Settlement and the Jewish Protectory.  He would later help found the Jewish Board of Guardians.

The Harrises had three children, Naomi, Ruth, and Adriel.  By the time they moved into the 103rd Street house, Harris was rabbi of Temple Israel of Harlem, on Lenox Avenue and 120th Street.  

The duties of a priest, minister or rabbi often require delicate diplomacy.  Such was the case on the afternoon of November 1, 1906 when Benjamin Grifenhagen, son of Alderman Max Grifenhagen, and Ermentine Kassel knocked on the door of 254 West 103rd Street and requested to be married.  Young Grifenhagen was 21 years old and his fiancée was 18.  Rev. Harris slyly sent the couple out on an errand, then quickly telephoned the alderman, who was just sitting down to lunch.

As he suspected, Grifenhagen had no idea of his son's plans to marry.  When told who his potential daughter-in-law was, he replied, "Kassel?  Oh yes!  Oh yes!  But good gracious!  Why they've only known one another since last Sunday!"

As it turned out, the Grifenhagen and Kassel families had attended the silver wedding anniversary of a family in Tuxedo, where the young couple met.  Alderman Grifenhagen told Harris he needed to make some calls--one to his wife and another to the Kassels.  

"You'll have to be quick," said Harris.  "I sent them out to look for witnesses.  It was a kind of a ruse.  I felt it my duty to let you know.  they'll be back in a few minutes."

Before long Alderman Grifenhagen was in the Harris study.  The families, who admired one another, had agreed to the match.  Grifenhagen told a reporter, "It was a case of love at first sight with the pair of them, and I suppose there's no way of checking a thing like that."  Nevertheless, he "had a little talk" with his son, during which he said "he should have though it worth while to consult us before he took such a step."

The Rev. Dr. Maurice Henry Harris.  The New York Times, June 24, 1930

Rev. Maurice Harris would officiate over a wedding eight years later that was much more personal.  On October 3, 1914 he and Kitty announced Naomi's engagement to George M. Wolfson.  The Sun reported, "The Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Harris will give a reception for their daughter and her finance at their home next Sunday."

In his study, Harris wrote several books, among them Jewish History and Literature, Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala, A Thousand Years of Jewish History, and The People of the Book: From the Creation to the Death of Moses.  He was described by Dr. Alexander Lyons as "one of the most distinguished figures of the American Jewish pulpit for almost half a century."

It may have been the plans to demolish the corner house and two of the West End Avenue houses to make way for a Rosario Candela designed apartment building that prompted the Harrises to sell 254 West 103rd Street to H. P. Bradford in 1921.  On January 4, the New-York Tribune noted, "The new owner will alter it into apartments."

Snarling griffins flank the slightly-eroded face of a man above the doorway.

Instead, Bradford sold it four months later to Dr. M. Muldberg for $35,000 (about $530,000 in today's money).  Muldberg immediate made interior upgrades, including updated plumbing.

Given the home's ownership by a rabbi for decades, its use during the early Depression years is a bit shocking.  On January 8, 1929, The New York Sun reported on two speakeasy raids made by Inspector Day just after midnight.  At 254 West 103rd Street, waiter Frank Martin was arrested and charged with possession of alcohol.  

Two years later, on April 16, 1931, the newspaper reported that William Morrison, 39, a former detective who lived at 501 West 162nd street, had been arrested.  Two rookie cops, Robert Brown and Jesse Taylor, according to the article, "went to work at 8 A. M. in plain clothes and their first tip concerned Morrison.  They went to the speakeasy at 254 West 103rd street Morrison is alleged to own and to disguise themselves dressed in overalls, pretending to be mechanics."

Morrison initially refused them entry, but they convinced him, "It's all right.  We're okay."  Each of the pair dropped a quarter in a slot machine and had no luck.  "The hell with that!" said Brown.  "Let's have a drink."

They ordered drinks, paid for them, and then "laid heavy hands on Morrison's shoulders."  The disgraced former detective was charged with "selling liquor in a speakeasy and operating a slot machine."  

A subsequent renovation in 1944 resulted in unofficial apartments.  Among the tenants was Florence Sharp, who was under the microscope of the Federal Government in 1953 for her position as legislative director of the Eleventh Assembly District Club, accused by a Senate Subcommittee of printing Communist propaganda.

In 1954 the basement, once home to a speakeasy, was converted to a small synagogue.  Living on the third floor in 1993 were television engineer Peter Feldman and Kerstin Hasenpusch.  After spending three months fixing up the apartment before moving in, they received an eviction notice three days later.  The couple fought the owner in court--refusing a $5,000 offer to leave and determined to save the threatened structure.  They triumphed and bought the vintage house.  

Working with architect James Wagman, the couple began the painstaking process of restoration.  The painted woodwork was removed, refinished and reinstalled; the windows were replaced (sadly, with flat instead of curved panes, a budgeting necessity); and the plumbing was updated, among other projects.

The last surviving remnant of Drought & Carew's 1892 project on the block, 254 West 103rd Street looks a bit lonely between the soaring apartment buildings on either side.  Nevertheless, the facade carvings, once deemed "just enough," still impart the "grace and beauty" they did over 130 years ago.

photographs by the author
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