Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The 1937 Rockefeller Apartments - 17 West 54th Street


photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the New York Public Library

Five years after ground was broken for the massive Rockefeller Center building project, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his son Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller embarked on another--two back-to-back apartment buildings nearby on West 54th and 55th Streets between Fifth And Sixth Avenues.  The Rockefeller Apartments would be the first commission for the newly-established architectural firm of Harrison & Foilhoux and undoubtedly resulted from the high esteem Nelson Rockefeller had developed for Wallace Kirkman Harrison.  (The two were also distantly related--Harrison's wife was the sister of  Abby Rockefeller's first husband.  Abby was Nelson's older sister.)

The nearly-matching buildings--at 17 West 54th Street and 24 West 55th Street--would be separated by a common garden.  Completed in 1937, their International Style design was cutting edge.  The architects ignored the current building codes by providing an additional 15 percent natural light and ventilation to the apartments than was required.  The most eye-catching elements of 17 West 54th Street were the four tower-like rounded bays with vast cantilevered windows.

Critics were impressed.  The often acerbic Lewis Mumford (who called Rockefeller Center, "bad with an almost juvenile badness") deemed the Rockefeller Apartments "the most brilliant and most successful example of modern architecture in the city."  Bettina J. Vigleze wrote, "These new Rockefeller apartment houses, each having six-room duplex apartments, are one of today's outstanding examples of modern architecture."

photo by Epigenius

The bays, "almost entirely enclosed in glass, serve as solariums and as dining rooms," said Vigleze.  There were six apartments per floor (four in the penthouse level).  Among their amenities were wood-burning fireplaces, "all-metal kitchen equipment," filtered air, and "intercepted call" service (which meant that for those residents who did not have a maid to answer the telephone, a lobby employee screened the calls).  

The Midtown location made the Rockefeller Apartments perfect for businessmen (especially those who would be working in Rockefeller Center) and executives who lived in the suburbs and needed a pied-à-terre.  According to Daniel Okrent in his 2004 Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, Nelson Rockefeller...

commissioned a real estate firm to seek tenants by canvassing every single firm that had offices in Rockefeller Center. He ordered Merle Crowell to beat the publicity drums.  He installed 'a full-size replica of a typical suite' on one of the RCA Building's setbacks, and even charged admission to those who wished to tour it.

The marketing blitz worked.  In the months before the building's completion, newspapers reported on apartments being leased to Nellie H. Sullivan, Mary T. Dougherty, and Mrs. Mary E. Fisher.  When the Rockefeller Apartments opened on October 1, 1936, the building was fully rented.

Another couple who had rented an apartment during its construction were publisher Eltinge F. Warner and his wife.  On October 15, 1936, The New York Sun reported that they "have returned from their dune house at East Hampton and are at the Savoy-Plaza prior to moving into one of the Rockefeller apartments at 17 West Fifty-fourth street."  The "dune house" was a massive mansion designed by Robert Tappan for the Warners in 1926.

Warner had been the publisher of the literary magazine The Smart Set, which he sold in 1930 to William Randolph Hearst.  Among the popular magazines he still published was Field & Stream.  He was also a partner in the silent motion picture firm Town & Country Films.

The apartments were the last word in modernity (note the hidden closet to the right)  photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Bringing unwelcome publicity to the address in 1938 was 24-year-0ld resident Benjamin Jolly.  In an era when even the hint of homosexuality could ruin one's professional career, he used it to his advantage.  But his scheme ended on August 26, 1938 when, according to The Sun, "an extortion gang operating in the midtown area was believed by the police today to have been broken up with the arrest of three young men."

Two nights earlier 26-year-old broker Stephen Hart met Jolly "on Broadway...and took him to his home at 77 West Fifty-third street," explained the article.  The next morning Hart went to his office.  Jolly left soon after, taking with him a golf bag and clubs.  Later Jolly's cohorts, brothers William and Lawrence Lee, appeared at Hart's Wall Street office and demanded money.  The trio had every reason to expect that their victim, like others before him, would not go to the police.  But they were wrong.  Hart stalled them, notified detectives, and when the Lees returned he gave them marked bills.  All three men were arrested.

The Rockefeller Apartments' proximity to the theater district attracted another type of tenant, as well.  In 1940 actor Louis Calhern and his actress wife Natalie Schafer lived here.  Calhern's chiseled features made him a matinee idol and by the time the couple moved into the Rockefeller Apartments he had appeared in 21 Broadway plays and several silent films.

Natalie Shafer in a 1942 studio publicity shot.  (public domain)

Natalie Schafer's Broadway roles were mostly supporting parts.  Her last play while living here was the 1941 Lady in the Dark starring Gertrude Lawrence.  It ran for 467 performances and closed in May 1942.  

Louis Calhern in the 1921 The Blot, from the collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

That was a pivotal year for the couple.  Louis Calhern's alcoholism ended their marriage that year.  Natalie relocated to Los Angeles to work in films.  Despite her dozens of roles over the subsequent decades, she is best remembered for the television character Lovie Howell on Gilligan's Island

Living here by 1940 were Lester J. Saul and his wife Rebecca.  Lester was 74 years old and his wife was 70.  Saul was highly respected in the clothing industry and had been president of the Wholesale Men's Furnishing Association.  

An illness that Rebecca began suffering around the end of 1941 became too much for her to bear.  On the morning of April 6, 1942 the Sauls' chauffeur became concerned when she did not answer the doorbell.  He notified the building superintendent, John Gibbs, who entered the apartment.  Rebecca was found dead on the floor of the kitchen with a gas burner on the stove open.  Her death was listed as a suicide.

By the late 1958s the Robert Ward Cutlers lived in the Rockefeller Apartments.  An architect, Cutler graduated from Syracuse University in 1928.  He was director and president of the Building Research Institute, president of the New York Building Congress, president of the Architects League of New York City, and president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  He and his wife, Doris Saxton were married in 1929.   They had two children, Denise and Robert Jr.   

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Doris founded the annual Doric Debutante Cotillion.  It was an outgrowth of her involvement with the Women's Architectural Auxiliary of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  The Cutlers' Rockefeller Apartments suite buzzed each year as the winter season approached.  On November 24, 1964, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ward Cutler will give a reception tomorrow in their home at 17 West 54th Street to honor the mothers of the six young women who will be presented at the Doric Debutante Cotillion at the Metropolitan Club on Dec. 26."

The Cutlers' summer estate was Land's Sake, in Old Chatham, New York.  The New York Times journalist Cynthia Kellogg commented on August 24, 1958, "when there are two theories of decor in one family, something has to give."  The solution for the Cutlers, she wrote, was that "Mr. Cutler decorated the small city apartment in his way.  Mrs. Cutler decorated the country house her way.  Result:  Everybody's happy."

Among the tenants in the late 1960's was lawyer and playwright Benjamin M. Kaye.   He was a founder and the senior partner in the legal firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler.  His unlikely side job as a playwright resulted in works like the 1926 She Didn't Say No! which was adapted as the 1941 motion picture, I Want My Wife.  His play The Curtain Rises opened in 1933 starring Jean Arthur, and On Stage was produced on Broadway in 1935.

As if two professions were not enough, Kaye was also a lyricist, writing the lyrics for songs like "Top of the Morning," "Remember Me" and "If Love Is Anything."  He was credited with bringing Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart together as collaborators.

Also involved in the theater was Muriel Knowles Shubert, the widow of Jacob J. Shubert--one of the three famous Shubert brothers.  Born in Huron, Ohio, she met her husband when she started work for the Shuberts as a chorus girl in 1919.  Following Jacob Shubert's death in 1963, she moved to 17 West 54th Street, living here until her death on March 26, 1970.

Among Mrs. Schubert's neighbors had been Prague-born musicologist and critic Jan Lowenbach and his wife Vilma.  Born in 1880, Lowenbach was trained in music as a boy.  From 1946 to 1948 he was the chief of the music department of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Arts and Education.  He escaped to Switzerland just prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, then relocated to New York in 1948.

While living in the Rockefeller Apartments, he lectured widely, wrote critical articles and commentaries on musicians, and music for periodicals in America and Europe.  He also wrote the librettos for Jaroslav Kricka's opera The Gentleman in White, and for Bohuslav Martinu's The Soldier and the Dancer.

photo by Epicgenius

Harrison & Foilhoux's striking Rockefeller Apartments was designated an individual New York City landmark in June 1984.

many thanks to Missy VanBuren-Brown for prompting this post
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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Jacob George Fischer House - 114 West 88th Street


In 1886 developer William Taylor purchased a vacant 125-foot-wide parcel on the south side of West 88th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  His architect, Samuel B. Reed, was given a formidable assignment--to squeeze eight houses into a plot that would normally accommodate no more than six.  When construction was completed the following year, Reed had created a streetscape of charming, 15-foot-wide homes, no two of which were identical, but all of which combined into a pleasing composition.  His overall Romanesque Revival row borrowed liberally from other styles.  Each residence had cost the equivalent of $267,000 in 2023 to erect.

No. 114 West 88th Street exemplified Reed's free-handed mixing of historic styles.  The parlor level, faced in rough-cut brownstone, was decorated with Romanesque carvings, including the skinny keystones and foliate bandcourse that gave the impression of capitals.  The arched openings of the second floor were joined by a single stone eyebrow, their tympana filled with elaborate carvings.  Typical of the Queen Anne style, the large windows at this level were framed in small panes, and the small opening between them was filled with stained glass squares.  A romantic stone and iron balcony fronted one of the windows.

The grouped openings of the third floor were joined by a single lintel and capped by an arch and keystone.  Above it, a handsome terra cotta portrait disc sat below a Flemish Renaissance style stepped gable.

The house appears to have been operated as a high-end boarding house in the 1890s.  Among the residents were J. E. Luddin, who was appointed a commissioner of deeds in 1893; and real estate developer James B. Gillie, who was erecting seven three-story houses a block away at 89th Street east of Columbus Avenue in 1895.  A less upstanding boarder was Samuel Johnson.  In the summer of 1898 he was arrested with 18 other men for running a "bucket shop" (an illegal gambling operation that took bets on the rise and fall of stocks).  Out on bail, he was arrested again on September 30 for the same offense.  He and his cohorts had simply moved the operation to a new location.

Shortly after that incident, the house was purchased by Edward G. Buchanan.  Although he was educated as a lawyer and had been admitted to the bar in 1876, he was the general agent of the Carbon Steel Co. and the secretary of the Kewanee Mfg. Co.

The parlor was the scene of Anita C. Buchanan's wedding to Horace J. Knapp on the evening of April 3, 1901.  The unusually subdued ceremony hinted at possible scandal.  The New York Herald said "Only the relatives and a few intimate friends were present," and "There were no bridesmaids, ushers or best man."  The article noted that Anita forewent "the customary bridal veil."

Around 1910, 114 West 88th Street became home to the Jacob  George Fischer family.  He and his wife, Elizabeth, had two daughters, Charlotta and Edna.

The couple would find themselves empty-nesters within a few years of moving in.  On Valentine's Day 1914 they announced Charlotta's engagement to Dr. Bissell B. Palmer, Jr.  The New York Times noted, "The wedding will take place early in the Summer."

Edga Olga would also wed a physician.  A year later, on December 4, 1915, her marriage to Dr. Edward A. Heinser took place in the St. Regis Hotel.  Charlotta was her sister's matron of honor.

Jacob George Fischer died in the 88th Street house on May 4, 1921, a month before his 63rd birthday.  Elizabeth remained here with at least one servant until her death in 1939.  The following year her estate leased the house to an investor.

Just months after Elizabeth Fischer's estate leased the house, it was boarded up, presumably because alterations were taking place inside.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

A renovation was initiated that resulted in one apartment each in the basement and parlor levels, and furnished rooms on the upper floors.  The configuration lasted until a makeover completed in 1997 resulted in two duplex apartments.   

114 West 88th Street is second from left.

The skinny house survives as an important component of Samuel B. Reed's fanciful and picturesque 1887 row.

photographs by the author
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Monday, May 29, 2023

The Lost Frederick's Photographic Portrait Gallery - 770 Broadway


Renovations in 1885 resulted in a striking make-over.  from Illustrated New York City and Surrounds 1889 (copyright expired)

George Parker was born in Boston on March 2, 1793.  After graduating from Harvard College, he added his middle name Phillips, and entered the counting room of his father, John Parker.  In 1844 he moved his family to New York City and into the recently completed mansion at the southeast corner of Broadway and 9th Street, in the exclusive Bond Street neighborhood.

The Italianate style house was faced in brownstone, its entrance accessed by a high stone stoop.  The Parkers would have as their neighbors some of the wealthiest families in New York, with names like Jones, Mason, and Astor.

Parker and his wife, the former Anna Mitchell Moore, had a daughter, Mary Trapman Parker.  Parker's daughter from his marriage to Harriet Walker, Harriette Lydia Boardman, was married to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 

By now George Phillips Parker was nationally known for his passionate stance against alcohol.  Upon the formation of the United Brothers of Temperance of New York on May 17, 1844, he was appointed vice president, with publisher and mayor James Harper as president.  Five months later, on October 7, the New York Herald reported:

We are happy to learn that active and efficient measures have been adopted for the establishment of a fund in this city for the relief of reformed drunkards.  This benevolent and much wanted movement has been originated by George Phillips Parker, Esq., a wealthy gentleman, formerly of Boston, but now a resident of this city, and who has for a considerable time devoted his personal labor and abundant means to the promotion of the great temperance cause.

Sadly for Parker, in 1845 he was expelled  from the United Brothers of Temperance for divulging the "private business of the order" to a newspaper reporter.  Undaunted, Parker forged on with his temperance work on his own.

An 1844 silhouette by Auguste Edouart depicts Parker (right) handing the United Brothers of Temperance pledge to Dr. David Osgood.  from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

George Phillips Parker died at the age of 63 on January 19, 1856.  His funeral was held in the Broadway house two days later.  In reporting his death, the Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College recalled his temperance work, saying he "contributed liberally from his ample means to promote its objects."

By the outbreak of Civil War, the Bond Street neighborhood was experiencing the incursion of commerce.  It is unclear how long Anna Parker remained at 770 Broadway, but in 1863 the basement was converted to a store, and she rented the house proper.  In the April 23, 1864 issue of The Round Table, book publisher Anson D. F. Randolph announced, "Will remove about the 1st of May from No. 660 to No. 770 Broadway, corner of Ninth street, east side."

Randolph published and sold "religious, standard, miscellaneous and juvenile books in a great variety," as worded in an advertisement that year.  Shortly after moving into the former Parker mansion, he turned his attention to the Civil War.  He was instrumental in the formation of the Soldiers' Free Library at the Battery Barracks.  

The following year he lent his support to the family of Union Army Sergeant Humiston, killed on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  So mutilated was his body that he was initially unidentifiable and buried among the unknown.  Then, as reported by The New York Times, "In his hand, however, was grasped a photograph of three little children, and this picture months afterward, let to his identification."  Now, to benefit his wife and children, Randolph sold copies of that photograph.

In 1876 the Parker family did not renew the lease of the upper floors.  An auction was held on June 21 of the furnishings which the auctioneer deemed "all strictly first class work and well worth the attention of purchasers."  The Parker estate then hired architect W. N. Griswold to install a storefront and make other alterations.  The new tenants were Fredericks & O'Neil, photographers; and publisher, Richard Worthington, who replaced Randolph.

Like Randolph, Richard Worthington dealt in a wide variety of books.  Among his many offerings in 1882 were the American Portrait Gallery, History of the American Fauna, Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy, Charles Dickens's Complete Works, and Thackeray's Complete Works.

R. Worthington published Baby's Picture Primer in 1880.

Charles DeForest Fredericks' photographic career was already firmly established.  In 1853 he had moved to Paris where he became the world's first photographer to create life-sized bust portraits, which were then hand-colored.  Returning to New York the following year, his studio at 585 Broadway was popular for its cartes de visites, or cabinet card photographs.  Among those he photographed were Civil War generals Philip Henry Sheridan and George B. McClellan, and the President's son, Tad Lincoln.  Ironically, actress Laura Keene who would be on stage when the President was assassinated, was photographed by Fredericks, as was actor John Wilkes Booth, who fired the fatal shot.

Charles D. Fredericks's portrait of Laura Keene, from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

On November 23, 1882 the New-York Tribune reported that R. Worthington "intends to close his retail department and to confine his attention to his own publications."  A month later an announcement in the newspaper was entitled "Closing Out" and offered "fine, standard and illustrated books" at sale prices.

Charles D. Fredericks now expanded into most of the building.  Mary J. Parker hired architect Jonathan B. Franklin to make renovations, including the removal of the stoop and a new storefront.

In January 1885 Richard Worthington declared bankruptcy.  Charles Fredericks now took over the entire building and in May that year brought Franklin back to make massive changes.  The architect's plans called for "raising attic to full story, new flat roof, also internal alterations, new beams, &c."  The changes would cost Fredericks the equivalent of $145,000 in 2023.

Charles DeForest Fredericks, from Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, January 1, 1894 (copyright expired)

Jonathan B. Franklin's renovations resulted in a fashionable Second Empire building.  The new, elegant cast iron storefront featured stained glass transoms that announced the firm's name and an elaborate entablature with a cast iron banner that read "Photographic Portrait & Art Gallery."  Decorative panels and frothy lintels embellished the second and third floors, and the new fourth floor took the form of a stylish mansard capped with ornate cresting.

On February 8, 1893, The Evening World commented on Fredericks's esteemed career.   "He has been taking pictures for fifty years [and] is the oldest photographer in New York...He has taken the pictures of most of our recent Presidents, including Harrison and Cleveland."  Only a year later, on May 25, 1894, Charles DeForest Fredericks died at the age of 71.

At the time of his death, the massive A. T. Stewart & Co. store covered the Broadway block from 9th to 10th Street.  In November 1896 Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker moved his department store into the building.  Almost immediately he began buying up the properties on the block to the south, and by 1902 had successfully acquired the entire parcel, including 770 Broadway.  The buildings were demolished to make way for the Wanamaker Annex, which survives. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Saturday, May 27, 2023

The Alan L. Dingle House - 245 West 138th Street


photograph by Mark Satlof

In the summer of 1890, developer David H. King Jr. embarked on what the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide said was "One of the most important building operations ever undertaken in this city."  Called the King's Model Houses, his ambitious project of homes "of a first-class character" would engulf the  entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today's Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues.

Architects Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce worked together on the design.  Faced in beige brick and richly trimmed in white terra cotta, the 17-foot-wide homes were three stories tall above English basements.  Their neo-Georgian design featured a single-doored arched entrance that sprouted a dramatic, elongated keystone.  The splayed lintel of the parlor window was composed of alternating, foliate terra cotta sections, matched by smaller versions above all but one of the second story openings.  The exception, at the second floor, was crowned by a lintel in the form of a fasces, and an arched panel with a wreath and garlands.  Above it all was a brick parapet with balustraded openings.  The New York World pointed out that the residences would surround "a great court in the centre of the block."

The houses engulfed a courtyard.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, April 9, 1892.  image courtesy of the Office of Metropolitan History.

In May 1894 David King sold 245 West 138th Street to Henry W. Harwood.  He and his family remained here for 16 years, selling the house in May 1910 to George H. Walker.  It would not be the last time Harwood held title to the property, however.

Henry Harwood supplied the mortgage to Walker.  In June 1917 he was forced to foreclose, and a month later sold 234 West 138th Street to Chauncey O. Middlebrooke.  That transaction did not work out well, either.  The following year Middlebrooke sold the residence back to Henry W. Harwood.

Eight years after he had first sold his former home, Harwood saw the last of it.  It was purchased on August 3, 1918 by Isabel Mackin, starting a game of real estate hot potato.  Macklin resold it three days later to C. Le Roy Butler, who quickly turned it over it to Ernest and Frederica Remaely.  They left in 1920 after purchasing a home nearby on Edgecombe Avenue and 138th Street.

photograph by Mark Satlof

Finally, 245 West 138th Street had a long-term owner in Cecilia G. Dingle and her family.  Almost certainly, her sons, attorneys John Gordon and Alan L. Dingle, purchased the property for her.  The family had come to New York City from their native Savannah, Georgia.

The West 138th Street house was well-populated.  Living with Cecilia were both sons, along with J. Gordon's wife and baby boy, and Cecilia's daughter, Clinton.  Clinton taught in the public schools.  All three of the Dingle siblings were well educated.  J. Gordon and Alan had graduated from Howard University, and Clinton from Atlanta University--a highly unusual achievement for a Black woman at the time.

The brothers' legal office A. L. & J. G. Dingle was nearby at 200 West 135th Street.  The firm quickly became involved in Harlem issues.  On February 2, 1926, for instance, a 14-year-old Black girl was trapped and assaulted in a barn in the Bronx by ten white men.  The men were arrested and each pleaded not guilty.

The Report of the Secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. that month noted that the victim "is in a very critical condition at Metropolitan Hospital on Welfare Island" and "the girl is destitute."  It said:

The National Office has retained Alan L. Dingle, a capable young attorney, who has been instructed to follow the case through for the N.A.A.C.P. both the legal side and the welfare end, and to take such steps as are advisable.  He has also been instructed to visit the girl, to talk with the hospital authorities, and to secure the girl's statement to be used in the event of her death.

In the meantime, the Dingle women made the house a social center.  On March 1, 1930, The New York Age reported, "On Washington's Birthday, February 22, Miss Clinton Dingle of 245 West 138th street, entertained at a luncheon and bridge.  Luncheon served at 3 o'clock after which bridge was in order."

John Gordon Dingle, Howard Academy Year Book 1918, (copyright expired)

J. Gordon Dingle suffered from asthma and was under the care of the family physician, Thomas H. Amos.  He seemed perfectly healthy at the office on January 21, but the following morning he died at the age of 39.  The New York Age said the asthma "finally weakened his heart."

Alan L. Dingle continued the legal practice he had begun with his brother.  Among his private clients were poet Langston Hughes and the estate of Madam C. J. Walker.  His prominence would result in Geraldine R. Segal's saying of him
in her 1983 book Blacks in the Law, "He has sometimes been referred to as the dean of the black bar of Manhattan."

Dingle's involvement in the Harlem community went beyond his legal practice.  He was President of the Harlem Lawyers' Association, Chairman of the Harlem Y.M.C.A., and upon America's entry into World War II became chairman of the 125th Street Rationing Board.

It appears that J. Gordon's widow died before 1940.  Living at 245 West 138th Street that year were Cecilia, Alan, Clinton, and J. Gordon's 15-year-old son, Gordon.

Alan L. Dingle The New York Age, December 23, 1944

Alan L. Dingle was 37 years old that year, and so the expectations that he would marry were few.  But then, on December 23, 1944, The New York Age reported, "Thursday evening, Atty. Alan Dingle, one of Harlem's prominent lawyers, became a benedict."  (The term, rarely used today, refers to a long-term bachelor who finally marries.)  He had married Ethel A. Gardner, a claims adjuster in the Brooklyn Post Office.  The article noted that the newlyweds would live at 211 West 149th Street.

It is unclear how long Cecilia and Clinton remained at 245 West 138th Street.  Unlike many of the homes along the block during the 20th century, it was never converted to apartments and remains a single family residence.

many thanks to reader Mark Satklof for requesting this post
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Friday, May 26, 2023

The Charles Peters House - 329 West 18th Street


By 1841 Charles Peters and his family lived at 213 West 18th Street (it would be renumbered 329 in 1868).  The two-and-a-half-story Federal style house was one of a row constructed several years earlier.  Faced in Flemish bond red brick it would originally have had one or two dormers at the attic level.  Federal style iron fencing guarded the areaway and elaborate stoop railings terminated in basket newels that perched atop stone drums.

Peters operated a butcher store on Eighth Avenue.  As was common, he and his wife Ann Eliza took in a boarder.  Sarah Hillhouse Percy, the widow of Jonathan Percy died here on March 1, 1848.

The next boarder in the Peters house was Theodore Passavant, a foundry operator.  When he moved into the house in 1851 he was a partner with R. B. Lockwood in Lockwood & Passavant, "Iron Workers and Founders," on West 25th Street near Tenth Avenue.  The business was reorganized on March 7 1853 when the partners parted ways and Passavant brought on George Archer, renaming the foundry Passavant & Archer.  Passavant remained with the Peters family through 1854.  

In 1859 three new boarders arrived.  James Neafie was a carpenter and builder who operated from the rear of 21 Jane Street, John Small worked as a clerk in the post office, and Zephaniah S. Webb was a physician.

Charles Peters died at the age of 61 on January 19, 1861.  His funeral was held in the parlor three days later.  James Neafie and Dr. Webb continued to board with Ann for another year.  She would continue to lease rooms afterward.

In September 1870 valuable items--worth about $3,000 in 2023 terms--went missing from the house.  It was not long before Barbara Hartman (described as "a middle-aged woman" by The New York Times), was arrested for the crime.  It appears that she was a servant, for after she pleaded guilty on September 13 to the charge of "having stolen $138 worth of jewelry and clothing from Ann Eliza Peters, of No. 329 West Eighteenth-street," Ann requested that she be let go.

At the time of the incident, Stephen D. Peters was working as a blacksmith at 659 Hudson Street.  He advanced in his craft, and in 1873 was listed in directories as a "wheelwright," a more specialized craftsman who built and repaired wagon and carriage wheels.

Following Ann's death, 329 West 18th Street was sold to Charles Edward Shopp and his wife, the former Thirza Maria Marshall in 1876.  Worked into the deal, it seems, was Stephen Peters's being permitted to live on in his childhood home.  He would remain until 1880.

It is certain that the Peters and Shopp families knew one another.  Like Charles Peters, Charles E. Shopp was a butcher and operated two stores on Eighth Avenue.  (It is possible he took over the Peters store upon Charles's death).  

Charles and Thirza had four sons.  Moving into the West 18th Street house with them were son John Marshal Shopp and his wife, the former Georgiana Eliza Huyler.  The newlyweds were married in 1874.  The population of the house was increased by one in October 1877 when their daughter Ethel May was born.

Tragically, on February 6, 1878, Georgiana E. Shopp died.  The wife and mother was just 24 years old.  Her funeral was held in the house on February 9.

The Shopp estate sold the West 18th Street house at auction on January 28, 1879 to Stephen S. Baker, who paid $7,875, or about $221,000 today.  He and his wife, Sarah J., had a daughter Eva Gertrude.

It was almost assuredly the Bakers who remodeled the house, raising the attic floor to full height and giving it a modern, neo-Grec cornice, and embellishing the openings with molded metal lintels.

Boarding with the family were Joshua Denby and his son, Edward, both builders.  Unfortunately, the Denbys' residency would be cut short when Joshua died at the age of 66 on November 3, 1879.  Once again a funeral was held in the parlor.

A more much joyous event occurred there on the night of December 12, 1894.  Eva Gertrude Baker was married at 8:00 to G. Harry Abbott in the Eighteenth Street Methodist Episcopal Church.  The New York Herald reported, "A small reception followed at the home of the bride's parents, No. 329 West Eighteenth street."

The following year Stephen S. Baker died.  Sarah sold the house on April 2, 1896 to real estate operators Eva G. Abbott and Lillie J. Mott.  They leased it to George H. Clark by 1899, who worked for an advertising company.

Clark's firm employed men to paste advertising posters where they would be seen by the most passersby.  Companies like his paid for the privilege of posting on blank walls, but fences around building plots and vacant lots were up for grabs.  That made for serious competition.

On May 16, 1899 a well-dressed Clark was walking along Broadway at 106th Street.  Ahead of him were four "bill posters" who worked for a rival firm, Van Buren & Co.  The workers, who were plastering advertisements on a fence, saw him coming.  The New York Press reported, "The men had always been enemies, and they decided that they would put some paste on his clothing."

As Clark began to pass the crew, they assaulted him with their brushes full of thick paste.  The article said, "He resented their actions and struck Ottinger with his cane.  A free fight followed."  A policeman "interfered" with the melee and placed all five men under arrested.  While the four bill posters were charged with disorderly conduct, Clark was charged with assault.

At the turn of the century John J. Hennessy purchased 329 West 18th Street.  A native Irishman, he was ardently proud of his heritage and was a long-term member of the American-Irish Historical Society.  He would remain in the house for decades, leasing space to one boarder at a time.  

In 1941 the original entranceway and stoop, with its basket newels, were intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Dr. Charles S. Baker was living with Hennessy in 1903.  He was in love with Myriam V. Levison and beseeched his fiancée to marry him as quickly as possible.  But, explained The Daily Standard Union, "Miss Levison had desired a church wedding and reception at her home and consequently refused Dr. Baker's pleading for a June wedding."

Myriam's mind was changed by a peculiar incident.  On July 5, 1903 The Daily Standard Union reported, "The other day, while riding with a few friends near Prospect Park, she had her future foretold by a gypsy woman who told her that she was engaged, but that she would never marry, as her fiancée [sic] was to be killed while trying to stop a runaway before the marriage day."

The article said that Myriam's friends laughed off the prediction, but that it haunted her.  On June 29, while they had dinner at the Hoffman House, Myriam related the story to Charles.  The Daily Standard Union wrote, "Promptly taking advantage of the opportunity, the doctor solemnly announced his decision to watch for runaway horses...unless she consented to be married to him at once."  And it worked.  Immediately after dinner the couple was married.

The Irish Callahan family boarded in the Hennessy house by 1916.  Living with Joseph F. Callahan and his wife was his widowed father-in-law, Daniel Dillon who was born in Cavan, Ireland.  Dillon died on November 18 that year.

The two families shared the house at least through 1929.  By 1940, when it was home to another Irish-American, James M. McNally, it had been converted to apartments and an iron fire escape attached to the facade.

The stoop is new, but the wonderful ironwork is original.  At the second step, boot scrapers worked into the railings helped keep mud from being tracked into the house.

At some point the stoop and entrance were rebuilt.  Sadly, while the Federal ironwork was preserved, the stoop drums and basket newels were lost.  A somewhat disproportionate and ungainly lintel was applied above the new entrance.

 photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Mann & MacNeille's 1925 424 East 57th Street


The transformation of Sutton Place in 1920-21 from a dingy block to one occupied by some of New York's wealthiest citizens quickly affected the surrounding blocks.  Coal yards and a brewery were eliminated to make room for upscale apartment houses.  In 1925 Horace Borchsenius Mann got in on the trend.

Mann was a partner with Perry R. MacNeille in the architectural firm of Mann & MacNeille.  They were best known for large urban planning projects such as Bristol, Pennsylvania, described by the American Architect in 1918 as "America's greatest single industrial housing development."  This project would be considerably smaller.

In 1925 Horace B. Mann purchased and demolished the three old buildings at 422 through 426 East 57th Street, half a block west of Sutton Place.  Mann & MacNeille then designed a six-story apartment building on the site.  Completed within the year, it was faced in rough-faced brown brick.  Its somber design was inspired by medieval Italian architecture and featured an arched corbel table below the understated cornice and tiled roof.  The firm handled the regulated fire escapes--often visual obstructions--by placing them in front of vast sets of French doors and windows, giving them a balcony effect.  The second through fifth floor windows on either side sat within slight recesses that rose to dramatic full-relief terra cotta rosettes nestled within rounded corbels.

Among the initial residents were Philip S. Platt, his wife and daughter.  He had long been involved in public health and social welfare.  In 1914 as Superintendent of the Bureau of Public Health and Hygiene, he had lobbied for sanitary public drinking fountains, saying in part, "The miles which one may walk in New York without finding a place to quench one's thirst, unless it be a restaurant, saloon, or soda fountain, is a deplorable fact."  The family was still in the building in September 1944 when Philip S. Platt was appointed executive director of the New York Association for the Blind.

The building attracted a number of artistic residents.  Living here in 1926 were illustrator and painter Eliza Buffinton, landscape artist George M. Bruestle, illustrator Herman Pfeifer, and concert pianist Howard Brockway.

George M. Bruestle, 1931, © Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0119275

George Bruestle and his wife, the former Emma Thompson moved into 424 East 47th Street in 1925.  Born in 1872, he had studied at the Art Students League under H. Siddons Mowbray, and in Paris.  A member of the Lotus Club and the Salmagundi Club, by the time he and Emma moved into the building, his works were in the permanent collections of the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Reading Museum in Pennsylvania.  (Today his paintings hang in other prestigious institutions like the Smithsonian.)

Stewart Woodford Eames and his wife, the former Jessie D. MacNeal, were also initial residents.  Born in December 1866, Eames came from an old New York family and was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars.  He had recently retired from the H. B. Claflin Company, a drygoods concern, founded by his maternal grandfather Horace Bringham Claflin.

Not long after moving into 424 East 57th Street, Jessie Eames died.  In November 1930, Stewart leased a bedroom in their apartment to a 28-year-old architect, John A. Frank.  With the Depression slowing construction projects, Frank seems to have come to New York City from Pittsfield, Massachusetts in hopes of finding work.  His chances, however, were bleak.  A report issued by the American Institute of Architects on January 20, 1931 revealed that more than 500 architect were unemployed, and institute spokesperson Julian Clarence Levi, said some were "in desperate need."

Early on the morning of January 20, 1931, Stewart Woodford Eames attempted to enter the bathroom and found the door locked.  His knocking and calling brought no response, so he had the building superintendent open the door.  They walked into the bathroom to find a horrifying scene.  Frank was in the half-filled bathtub, having slit both wrists and ankles.  A note on a nearby chair said in part, "to live longer would only prolong the agony."

The following year, on February 9, 1932, the 66-year-old Eames was crossing Fifth Avenue at 57th Street when he was hit by an automobile.  He died at Flower Hospital several hours later.

Resident Luella A. Palmer had an impressive career at a time when women normally held more subservient roles in the workplace.  Never married, she began working as a kindergarten teacher in 1897.  On February 15, 1912 she was appointed assistant director of kindergartens and six years later was made director.  She still held that title when she died on January 13, 1934.  Her funeral was held in her apartment on January 16.

Newspapers printed the praises from colleagues like associate superintendent William E. Grady, who called her "a progressive school woman," and said "The kindergartens of our schools achieved, under her able direction, a place among those outstanding in this phase of the process of education."

Another outstanding educator living here at the time was Sarah M. Dean.  Also never married, she was an 1895 graduate of Radcliffe College.  After teaching high school in Newton Massachusetts, she became head of the history department of the Brearley School for girls, noted as one of the most esteemed private schools in New York.  She was later appointed its principal and held the position until her retirement in 1921.

In the spring of 1935, Vera Stretz rented a five-room apartment here, paying $100 a month rent (about $2,000 in 2023).  A graduate of New York University and former substitute school teacher, the 26-year-old had just taken a job as bookkeeper and secretary to Dr. Fritz Gebhardt.  A German native, the 43-year-old Gebhardt was a political scientist.

Vera Stretz's residency at 424 East 57th Street would last only six months.  A romantic affair developed between her and her employer, who lived at the Beekman Tower at 3 Mitchell Place.  Gebhardt convinced her to move there, in an apartment discreetly two floors below his.  Presumably he subsidized the higher rent, and he could certainly afford to.  His personal fortune was reported by The New York Sun to be approximately $5 million in today's money.

Gebhard proposed to Vera with a engagement ring containing "a large diamond circled by emeralds," according to The New York Sun.  But the love-struck young woman's world came crashing down when she discovered in November that her lover had a wife and family in Germany.  On the night of November 11, a Beekman Tower resident notified Leslie Taite, the assistant night manager, that he had heard gunshots.  Taite responded to the 21st floor.  The New York Sun reported, "Miss Stretz was sitting on a settee beside the elevator.  He nodded to her as he walked past, but she seemed lost in thought."

He found Gebhart's apartment door open, and inside was the scientist's body, dressed only in a nightshirt.  Patrolman Holden arrived shortly afterward.  Vera told him, "Yes, I did it.  I was on my way to the station house to give myself up."

Resident Clarence Burgher (here by 1939) graduated from Princeton University in 1885.  Rather than enter the family business (his grandfather had co-founded the sugar-refining firm of Burgher, Hurlburt & Livingston), he became an attorney and inventor.  An avid yachtsman, his pastime spilled over to his professional life.  He was retained by yacht clubs and steamship companies as counsel.  In 1899 he invented the subsurface torpedo and for a decade was president of the company that manufactured it.

Living with Burgher and his wife Edith was their son, Fairfax Carter Burgher, who had also attended Princeton, and a maid, Irenie Ingmire.  The family's country home was in Rye, New York.

When the United States entered World War I, Fairfax left school to become an army aviator.  Following the war Princeton awarded him an "honorary war diploma."  But Fairfax's chosen career following the war may have been a bit of a disappointment to his parents.  Going by the stage name "Fairfax," he was a professional magician.  On January 25, 1939 The New York Sun reported, "A crowd of old and young Princeton graduates is to gather in the Mary Murray Room of the White this afternoon at cocktail time for a special Princeton party honoring Fairfax, socially prominent magician and fellow alumnus who entertains there."

An aspiring actor, as well, Fairfax played the role of Bersonin in the 1922 silent film The Prisoner of Zenda, and had a small part in the short 1929 film A Princess of Destiny.  Although his career continued to be chiefly as a magician, he would appear in television shows in the 1950s such as I Spy and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse.

The 49-year-old Fairfax was still living with his parents here as late as 1946.

The Billboard, October 26, 1946

Living here in 1980 was Carol Louise Conrad.  When she had to leave town on business for an extended period, she sought permission from the landlord, Third Sutton, to sublet her apartment to Mary Lou McGlynn.  Third Sutton replied with a letter dated September 19, 1980 denying that permission, but giving no reason.  Instead, the firm offered to allow Conrad to break her lease without penalty.

Conrad sued and in October won her case.  The ruling was upheld on appeal, the five-judge panel saying that a landlord's refusal to allow a sublet had to come with a reason.  "If he does not give a reason, the landlord has, in effect, consented to the sublet," said the court.  David Saxe, counsel for the Center for Consumer Advocacy, Inc. called it an "impressive and forward-looking decision for tenant rights."

Mann & MacNeille's 424 East 57th Street--a somber departure from the other Jazz Age buildings that were going up in the neighborhood in 1925--is little changed since those early years when this section of Manhattan was changing from what The New York Times had called "a slum" to one of the city's most exclusive residential districts.

photographs by the author
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