Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The Edward J. O'Brien House - 313 West 80th Street

Developer Bernard S. Levy was prolific on the Upper West Side in the last decades of the 19th century.  He created long rows of residences as well as several "flat," or apartment buildings.  In 1894 he started on another project--a row of six houses on West 80th Street, just steps from elegant Riverside Drive.

Given the upscale neighborhood filled with spacious mansions, Levy's decision to squeeze six homes into the property is a bit surprising.   While other developers may have filled the parcel with four 25-foot wide mansions, Levy's six residences were 16- and 18-feet wide.

But what the homes lacked in width they made up for in architectural charisma.  Architect Charles Israels designed them in the Gothic Revival style.  Their rough-cut stone bases upheld three floors of beige Roman brick.  Israels configured them in an A-B-A-A-B-A pattern, the A models boasting angled oriels at the second floor and sharp gables at the fourth.  The houses were replete with stained glass.  It filled the first and second floor transoms, and announced the street number above the doorway.

Bernard Levy priced the houses at $24,500 to $26,000--the higher price equal to about $807,000 in 2023.  A brochure described:

On the low stoop entrance plan, with dining room, butler's pantry and kitchen on the same floor.  Two bathrooms, exposed plumbing, parlors in red mahogany, dining rooms quarter oak, second story oak, third and fourth stories ash, 17 rooms in each house.
Among the A models was 313 West 80th Street.  In June 1895 Levy sold it to Edward J. O'Brien and his wife, the former Nellie C. Mulgrew.  O'Brien was a member of M. O'Brien & Son, founded by his father Michael in 1852.  The New York Hotel Record called the firm "the well-known purveyors of first-class vegetables" and "one of the oldest firms in business in New York."

The O'Briens enjoyed a merchant class lifestyle.  On January 30, 1897, for instance, The Evening Telegram announced, "Mr. and Mrs. E. J. O'Brien, after an extended tour through Canada and the States, have returned to their New York residence, No. 313 West Eightieth street."  And on September 6, 1903 the New York Herald reported, "Mr. and Mrs. J. O'Brien and their granddaughter, Miss Cecelia A. Stallman, have returned from a stay in the North Woods."  (The O'Briens' daughter Mary A. O'Brien was married to Arthur C. Stallman.)

Nellie C. O'Brien died of pneumonia on January 8, 1907.  Her funeral was held in Holy Trinity Church on West 82nd Street.  The pain of his wife's death may have prompted Edward to leave their West 80th Street house.  Only weeks later, on February 23, The Evening Post reported that he had sold it.

313 West 80th Street is third from left within the charming row.

The house saw a relatively quick turnover in owners.  It was offered for sale again in September 1912.  An advertisement in The New York Times noted it contained "11 rooms, 2 baths and 3 toilets."  It was purchased by J. V. W. Du Bois, who resold the house three years later to Clinton M. Cruikshank.  He sold it to a tenant, French-born harpist, pianist and composer Carlos Salzedo, in September 1919.

Famed German-American conductor Walter Damrosch had said of Salzedo, "I do not think there is a man living today who is a greater exponent of the harp than Salzedo."  He had begun studying at the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine, and won the premir prix in harp and piano at 16 years old.  He moved to the United States when he was 24, playing harp at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Salzedo had just returned from fighting in World War I when he and his wife, pianist and singer Viola Gramm, moved into 313 West 80th Street.  His fame afforded them the ability to summer at fashionable resorts.  On April 19, 1918, while still renting 313 West 80th Street, Salzedo's advertisement in Musical America read, "Special Summer Classes and private instruction on the harp, in solo and ensemble playing, at Seal Harbor, Maine."

Carlos Salzedo, Shadowland magazine, November 1922

Renting a room with the Salzedos was voice coach Clara Novello Davies.  Her advertisement in Musical Courier magazine on August 21, 1919 promised, "All can sing if they know how to breathe."  She was the mother of actor, singer, and composer Ivor Novello.

About a week before that advertisement appeared, a crisis had erupted at 313 West 80th Street.  On August 12, The Evening World reported, "Devey has deserted the hearthstones of Madame Navello [sic] Davies, a vocal instructor, No. 313 West 80th Street, and probably is associating with other dogs not in his set at all.  Devey is a small brown Griffon dog that slipped out of the Davis home on Friday and has not been heard of since despite an offer of a reward."

Clara Novello Davies, Notable Welsh Musicians of Today, December 31, 1896

A friend of Clara Davies, millionaire brewer Jacob Ruppert, placed an advertisement in the New York Tribune reading:

Lost--A small brown Griffon dog, answers to the name Devey.  Friday, at Riverside Drive and 80th st; liberal reward.  Jacob Ruppert, 1639 Third ave...or Mme. Davies 313 West 80th st.

It is unclear whether Devey was ever returned to Clara Davies.

In his book Carlos Salzedo: From Aeolian to Thunder, A Biography, author Dewey Owens writes that by the 1920's, Salzedo and Viola (whom he called Mimine) were growing apart, she spending more and more time in Europe and he having "lightly concealed liaisons."  Although they would not divorce until 1926, the domestic circumstances may have prompted Salzedo to sell 313 West 80th Street in 1922.

The New York Herald reported on August 5 that the buyer was Max Schulman, "a physician who will alter it for his occupancy."  The renovations, which apparently were limited to the ground floor, resulted in two doctor's offices.  An advertisement appeared in The New York Medical Week on September 22, 1923 offering, "For Rent--Attractive office and furnished waiting room.  Dr. M. Schulman, 313 West 80th St."

Perhaps because of its narrow proportions, just 16-feet wide, the former O'Brien house was never converted to apartments.   In 2007 a gut renovation was initiated which resulted in the interiors being "modernized to perfection," according to a realtor.  Happily, because the house sits within a historic district, the exterior was preserved.  

Restauranteur Jeffrey Lefcourt, owner of The Smith, placed it on the market in 2017 for $8.3 million.

 photographs by the author
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