Friday, April 28, 2023

The 1900 Paul Chopak House - 250 West 137th Street


In May 1897 architect John Hauser filed plans for seven rowhouses on West 137th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today's Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) for developer Charles E. Picken.  Simultaneously he filed plans for three others, for James C. Picken (presumably a relative) on the same block.  Charles E. Picken was apparently well pleased with the outcome.  In February 1900 Hauser filed plans for six abutting houses for the developer.

Similar to the earlier homes, the Renaissance Revival style homes were three stories high above tall English basements.  Hauser designed them in an A-B-C-A-B-C pattern, with the imperious B models, including 250 West 137th Street, demanding the spotlight.  

Hauser gave the parlor level restrained amounts of Renaissance style carving--in the center pilaster between the windows, in the panels below the windows, and in the spandrel panels flanking the arched entrance transom.  The viewer's eye was drawn to the second floor, where the center window sat within a balcony-like framing of engaged columns upholding a sumptuous arched pediment.  A pressed metal cornice and frieze completed the design.

On October 2, 1901 Picken sold 250 West 137th Street to Paul Chopak.  He and his wife, the former Antoinette Klein, had an eight-year-old son, Herman.  Chopak was the president of the real estate firm P. Chopak & Co., Inc.  

At the end of World War I, the neighborhood was rapidly becoming the center of Manhattan's Black community.  The Chopaks had left West 137th Street by 1919, after which their former home was operated as a rooming house.

Typical of the tenants was a woman who was looking for employment in 1921.  Her advertisement in The New York Times on March 13 read: "Cook--Experienced colored; private people; sleep out.  250 West 137th."  By "private people," she meant she wanted to work in a single-family home, and "sleep out" meant that she did not want to live with her employers.

A widow, 60-year-old Susie James, lived here in 1924.  On  the morning of March 29 that year she was hit by the automobile driven of Frank Faherty and died on the scene.

In addition to providing rented rooms, around 1931 the landlord made either the parlor or basement level available for club purposes.  Living here that year was Leon Hogan, the secretary of the Nautilus Exclusive Club, which met every Sunday night in the house.

While ostensibly a men's group, the Nautilus Exclusive Club's social events most definitely included females.  On March 13, 1932 it hosted the Suenos de Amor (Dreams of Love) dance at the Witoka Club.  The response was so great that at 8:35 the venue's management closed the doors, refusing additional ticket holders entrance.  They were later promised a full refund by contacting Leon Hogan.

In June 1932 the club chartered a boat for what The New York Age had promised would be "a trip of unexcelled merriment," on July 3.  The article said, "there'll be music and dancing, dining and, oh I forgot this is a prohibition era."  The newspaper directed, "Make your reservations early, communicate with Leon Hogan, 250 West 137th street."

Perhaps not to be outdone, another resident, Doloris Lee, co-founded the Ala Mode Girls in September 1932.  On September 10, The New York Age reported, "These girls of style and fashion breezed into Clubdom on Tuesday evening at 250 West 137th street, where they held high pow wow at their installation, where words of congratulations were voiced by the elite of clubdom."  Doloris Lee was made president.  She and the other officers were installed by "the genial M.C. George Sands."  The article noted, "Numerous clubs were represented and the party lasted into the yawning."

Like their male counterparts, the Ala Mode Girls hosted social events.  On October 12, 1932, a "guest night" was held in the 137th Street house, followed by an afternoon dance four days later.  The New York Age wrote, "Just next Sunday at the Popularity Studio these fashionable lassies will endeavor to show you what a real Matinee Dansente should be like.  Take it from Miss Lee the president you'll be surprised (but pleasantly tho)."

The Ala Mode Girls was not merely about social events.  On November 26, 1932 The New York Age reported that the club would sponsor a Charity Bazaar at St. Mark's Hall on West 138th Street the following month.  "Proceeds will be used to purchase baskets of food to be distributed on Xmas morning by members," said the article.  It noted, "Among the many entertainers that have donated their services is Ethel Waters, now appearing at the Lafayette Theatre."

In 1967 the house was converted to apartments, two per floor.  An advertisement in the N.Y. Amsterdam News on June 2, 1979 described, "2 rooms, private kitchen and bath, working persons preferred."

Hauser's handsome 1900 row.  250 West 137th Street is to the right, behind the white automobile.

Although the brownstone facade has been painted, 250 West 137th Street retains its commanding presence along John Hauser's dignified 1900 row.

photographs by the author
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