Monday, April 3, 2023

The Lost El Dorado - 300-302 Central Park West


from The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1901 (copyright expired)

As the turn of the last century approached, fashionable residential hotels and apartment buildings rose along Central Park West.  Their developers took advantage of the sweeping park views and the guarantee of unobstructed light and ventilation that the park provided.  Joining the trend was John V. Signell, who hired the architectural firm of Neville & Bagge to design two identical, eight-story apartment buildings between 90th and 91st Streets in the spring of 1901.  The firm's plans, submitted in April, estimated the total cost of construction at $760,000, a significant $25 million in 2023.

The twin buildings were given a single name, the El Dorado.  Completed in October 1902, each had a two-story stone base and six floors clad in red brick and trimmed in limestone.  At each corner was a rounded, turret-like bay, and central light courts were give dramatic, soaring open archways.

The apartments ranged from 4 to 14 rooms, with rentals at $1,000 to $4,500 per year (a staggering $12,350 per month for the most expensive in today's money).  The Real Estate Record & Guide said on October 11, 1902, "Special features are an automobile room in the basement, a safe in every apartment, and rooms for servants on the roof."

The El Dorado (foreground) joined a long stretch of apartment buildings on Central Park West.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  

That the buildings had underground garages in 1902 testifies to the affluence of its intended tenants.  Only the very wealthy could afford automobiles at the time.  An advertisement touted the "extensive view of the lake and Central Park, its picturesque drives and bridle paths," and listed "every known modern convenience," saying:

Main bathrooms [are] equipped with shower attachments, majority of suites have three tiled bathrooms and separate entrance for domestics.  Tiled kitchen with sanitary garbage closets.  Interior woodwork in each apartment is the best cabinet finish, and every apartment contains a combination safe.  Parquet floors.

The El Dorado also offered "continuous hall and elevator service," and "long distance telephone in each suite."  Live-in servants were not only tactfully distanced in top floor rooms, separate from the apartments, but two of the four elevators in the buildings were dedicated for servant use.  

A typical floor plan of the two buildings shows three apartments per floor.  from The World's New York Apartment House Album, 1901 (copyright expired)
  
The apartments filled with socially prominent residents.  Among them was Fannie Ida Pritchard Helmuth, whose husband, Dr. William Tod Helmuth, had recently died on May 15, 1902.  He had been the long-time chair of the surgery department of the New York Medical College.  Fannie's early American ancestry entitled her to membership in the Society of the Daughters of Holland Dames, of which she was Director General.  She was assuredly acquainted with residents Mrs. Wright Edgerton and Mrs. Addison Allen.  All three women appeared in the 1904 Club Women of New York.

Charles Mortimer Hogan and his wife, the former Helen Clarke, were initial residents of the northern building.  Born in 1854, at the age of 13 he was hired as an office boy by the John Wanamaker department store and in 1896 became secretary and general manager of the Siegel-Cooper Company.  He was described by the Yearbook of the Pennsylvania Society of New York in 1906 as "one of the most notable department store men in the country."  

Hogan fell ill in the spring of 1905 and died just days later on May 20 at the age of 50.  His funeral was held in the apartment two days later.  The esteem with which he was held was reflected in the Siegel-Cooper department store's closing its doors at 4:00 on the day of the funeral.

New-York Daily Tribune, May 21, 1905 (copyright expired)

When the El Dorado was sold in December 1907, the Record & Guide saw the transaction as an affirmation of apartment house living.  Calling the sale "of especial significance at this time," the article said, "It shows that people of means are perfectly willing to invest in gilt-edge property, preferring this type of investment rather than the nerve-racking Wall Street 'securities.'"

Fannie Helmuth was still living and entertaining in the southern building in 1910 when The New York Times reported on her "luncheon for twenty-four guests" on February 8.  The guest of honor was the visiting president of the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs,  Mrs. Elmer Blair.   Fannie Helmuth would remain at least through 1914.

The social prominence of the residents was reflected in ten families in the southern building and eight in the northern building being included in the 1911 Dau's New York Blue Book of society.

Artist Herbert A. Morgan and his wife Abbie Pitou Morgan were residents of the northern building at the time.  Born in New York in 1857, Morgan had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and had been a member of the esteemed Salmagundi Club since 1892.  

Morgan's Portrait of a Woman was typical of his portraiture.  in private collection

Living in the northern building at the time were Warren Day Hanford and his wife Alice Newhouse Sherman.  The couple had been married in 1902.  Born in Vinton, Iowa in 1866, Hanford came to New York City in 1898.  He was the founder and head of W. D. Hanford, a produce firm and a vice-president of the Mercantile Exchange.

On April 10, 1915, Hanford attended a meeting at the Mercantile Exchange, after which he was stricken with "acute indigestion," according to the trade journal Chicago Dairy Produce.  The article said he "was immediately taken to his home, 302 Central Park West, in his car."  Colleagues who called the following morning were told the 48-year-old was "resting comfortably," but before noon "the end came without the slightest warning."   

The New York Produce Review & American Creamery reported, "The news of his death came as a most shocking surprise to his friends in the trade...Mr. Hanford was a man of apparently fine physique."  His funeral was held at the Central Baptist Church on West 57th Street.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A notable resident at the time was Francisco Madero, who lived in the northern building.  His father Evaristo Madero had served as Governor of Coahuila and had amassed an enormous fortune, making the Madero family one of the wealthiest in Mexico.  Francisco's son, Francisco Ignacio Madera, was the former Mexican President.  He had been deposed in a coup d'├ętat in February 1913 and assassinated.    

On September 3, 1916 Francisco Madero suffered a fatal heart attack in his apartment.  Two days later The Sun reported, "Prominent Mexicans, who were active in the affairs across the border prior to the murder of Francisco I. Madero, were seen yesterday morning at the funeral of Francisco Mader, father of the ex-President, which was held in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Gregory, 144 West Ninetieth street."

New Yorkers, especially those involved in the theater, were "much interested," according to The Sun, when they read on August 16, 1917 of the engagement of Oscar Hammerstein to Myra Finn.  The newspaper quickly cleared up the confusion the following day, writing, "the Oscar in question, however, is not the Oscar of opera fame, but a grandson.  He resides at 302 Central Park West."

An esteemed resident of the northern building was former judge Rufus B. Cowing.  Born in 1840 in Jamestown, New York, he was elected alderman at large in 1876 and at one point sat on the committee appointed to investigate the Tweed ring.  In 1905, after having tried more than 35,000 criminal cases, he told a reporter from The New York Times that he firmly believed "there is in every man more to praise than to blame."  The well-respected magistrate died in his apartment on May 7, 1920 at the age of 79.

English-born food concessionaire Harry M. Stevens lived in the southern building in the post-World War I years.  American's best-known ballpark concessionaire, he was dubbed by the New-York Tribune in 1920 as "the well known purveyor of double-jointed peanuts and hot frankfurters at the Polo Grounds and caterer at the metropolitan racetracks."  According to him, on a chilly day in April 1901 few ballpark attendees were interested in buying ice cream, so he sent an employee to buy buns in which to put hot German sausages known as "dachshund sausages" so patrons could hold them.  He therefore took credit for inventing the hotdog.

Stevens drew unwanted publicity to the El Dorado in 1920.  On September 5, the New-York Tribune ran the headline, "Harry Stevens Sued As Home Wrecker."  The article explained that one of his employees, Arnold Krakauer, had sued his wife for divorce and was now suing Stevens for $200,000 for alienation of his wife's affections.  The Sun reported, "Despite the fact that Stevens knew Mrs. Krakauer was married," he had intimate affairs with her not only at the Krakauer home, but in his El Dorado apartment over a period of a year.

At the time of Stevens's indiscretions, apartment buildings along Central Park West like the El Dorado were architecturally out of fashion.  One-by-one they were being razed and replaced by modern, Art Deco style structures.  

photo by Jay Dobkin

The end of the line for the El Dorado came in 1929, when developer Louis Klosk purchased the twin buildings, demolished them, and erected a modish 30-story replacement.  Klosk gave a nod to the former buildings by christening his structure the El Dorado.

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