Friday, May 5, 2023

Henry Anderson's 1902 247 West 137th Street


On May 3, 1902, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Geraldine Broadbelt had purchased a 275-foot long parcel along the northern side of 137th Street, east of Eighth Avenue (today's Frederick Douglass Boulevard).  The article noted, "Fifteen 5-story American basement dwellings will be erected on the plot."  The Harlem neighborhood had begun developing from farmland and summer estates into a high-end suburb a decade earlier.

Broadbelt hired architect Henry Andersen to design the ambitious row.  In a separate article, the Record & Guide said, "The specifications call for hot air heating, open plumbing, electric lighting, tile roofing, hardwood cabinet work, etc."  Andersen's regimented line of Renaissance Revival  style homes was configured in a repeating A-B-C-D pattern, giving the impression of the English "terrace."  Designed as mirror-image pairs, the slight differences were the treatments of the doorways and the tympani of the second floor windows--the A and C models receiving base relief portrait rondels, the Bs and Ds given carved ribbon-swagged wreaths.

Among the C models was 247 West 137th Street.  It's low, five-step stoop rose to a rusticated stone base.  The framed, double-doored entrance was crowned by an entablature decorated with a carved wreath and a prominent lintel supported on high scrolled brackets.  Stone bandcourses at the second floor provided a striped effect against the background of red brick.  The fifth floor was sandwiched between two modillioned cornices.

The two cornices were intact when this photo was taken in 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Gloria Broadbelt sold 247 West 137th Street in April 1903 to Charlotte J. Hurley for $15,000 (approximately $477,000 in 2023 dollars).  It was the beginning of a dizzyingly rapid series of turnovers in ownership.

The house would be sold two more times before Alice G. Opper purchased it in September 1906.  She leased it to a proprietor for use as a high-end boarding house.

Among the residents in 1908 were Samuel and Hattie H. Brownold.   That October, just as the weather was becoming cool enough to need a warm coat, Hattie advertised her Persian lamb coat for sale.  It was possibly a subtle hint of domestic troubles.

The landlord did not renew his lease the following September, and Alice Opper advertised 247 West 137th Street for a new tenant:

Beautiful private street and rear; convenient subway, elevated; 17 rooms; tiled baths; water all bedrooms; open plumbing; hardwood; completely redecorated; immediate possession; board, rooming; $1,600

The asking monthly rent would translate to about $4,100 today.  Elias Isaacs answered the ad, taking on the existing boarders, including the Brownolds.  Moving in at the same time was Douglass Isaacs, possibly Elias's son, who operated a billiard room on West 59th Street at Columbus Circle.

Samuel and Hattie H. Brownold had been married since February 22, 1897.  They had a son, Melvin, who was 12-years old when Isaacs took over as landlord.  Samuel Brownold's temper and controlling personality made even dinner gatherings in the boardinghouse uncomfortable for the residents. 

Court papers would later reveal that Brownold had an "entirely ungovernable temper," and would repeatedly berate his wife and son in public, using "vile and abusive language."  At dinner, Brownold's abuse of his son could even become physical.  

In one instance, Brownold threw open the windows of their rooms and hollered out, "I want the neighbors to know what kind of a wife I have.  I want the neighbors to know how my wife treats me."  Hattie would later complain in court that she was "scandalized among fellow boarders and neighbors and suffered humiliation in their presence."

As things worsened, in September 1910 Brownold wrote a letter to Hattie's parents telling them to take her in, as "she was not wanted."  Simultaneously, he told Melvin to go with his mother and "get out of the house."

Hattie endured the derision.  Brownold's continual loud, verbal abuse prompted Elias Isaacs to intervene, warning Brownold to be quiet.  A textbook case of an abusive spouse, his increasing control over Hattie included his refusing to allow her to communicate with her parents, and disallowing her to use the telephone unless he were present.  On November 16, 1910, he found her on the phone and "tore the receiver from her hands and refused to permit her to speak."

Finally, with herself and her son on the verge of breakdowns, Hattie filed for divorce in December 1910.  Among those testifying at the hearing was Elias Isaacs who said Brownold "always acted in a very dictatorial and domineering fashion towards his family, and seemed to regard his wife more like a child than as a wife."  He recounted, "Hardly a meal passed without a quarrel of some kind."  When Hattie would ask him not to should at Melvin during dinner, "he would then turn on her often causing her such humiliation that it was necessary for her to leave the dining room."

The anonymous bas-relief profiles with early 20th century hairstyles may have represented friends or relatives of of the stone carver.

With the uncomfortable drama ended, the house returned to peace.  There were two artistic residents in the subsequent years.  One advertised on April 6, 1915 saying, "Experienced tenor seeks position, church, chorus or quartet."  And another, Harry P. Kuhn who lived here in 1917, was a member of the Society of Independent Artists.

As the demographics of Harlem changed, by the end of World War I all of the boarders in 247 West 137th Street were Black.  Among them was the family of W. H. Matthews.  On October 28, 1920 Mrs. Matthews gave a Halloween party in their rooms for her Sunday school class of the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Anna Warner hoped to find domestic work in June 1923.  Indicative of the times, she noted her race when placing her advertisement:  "Houseworker--Light colored; city or country."

Things became too much for 32-year-old resident Jane Allen to bear on June 22, 1925.  The New York Age reported that early that morning she "was treated by Dr. Goldberg for swallowing iodine.  The cause of her act was unknown at the time the ambulance took her away."  Jane's attempt at suicide was unsuccessful.

Isabelle Younge's life seems to have been more pleasant.  She was secretary of the Mystery Girls, a female social group, in 1934.  On December 1 that year The New York Age reported, "The Tea sponsored by, November 4th, proved to be so enjoyable that the girls have been deluged with requests to repeat it."  The article gave the details of the upcoming encore, advising that any questions to be sent to Isabelle Younge.

By the early 1940s 247 West 137th Street became the Monarch Lodge Home.  The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was Harlem's largest fraternal order.  On September 9, 1944, The New York Age reported, "The Manhattan School of Lecture No. 1, held its meeting recently at the Monarch Lodge Home, 247 West 137th street."

The Monarch Lodge counted among its members Casper Holstein, who was born in the Virgin Island.  Generous with his significant wealth, he was a supporter of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association and a patron of the Harlem Renaissance.  Poet Langston Hughes said that Holstein was "a great help to poor poets."  Holstein, as well, loaned money to start-up Harlem businesses.  His wealth, however, came from a dubious source.

Considered by some to have invented the illegal gambling game known as numbers, he amassed a fortune.  He owned Harlem apartment buildings, a country home on Long Island, and land in his native Virgin Islands.  He was an influential member of the Monarch Lodge, running at one point for the position of national head.

It is unclear how long the lodge remained in the house.  At some point the cornices were removed, and the building converted to apartments.  There are ten apartments in the house today.

photographs by the author
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