Wednesday, July 19, 2023

J. F. Miller's 1889 318 through 322 West 115th Street


Real estate developer P. H. McManus was busy erecting rows of handsome homes in the rapidly developing Harlem district in the late 19th century.  In September 1888, his architect J. F. Miller filed plans for eleven three-story brick rowhouses on the south side of West 115th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues (today's Frederick Douglass Blvd. and Manhattan Avenue, respectively).  Miller arranged them in groupings of two and three.  Nos. 318 through 322 were designed in the Queen Anne style, with Romanesque Revival influences.

Perfectly balanced in an A-B-A configuration, each of the 12-room houses featured a dog-legged box stoop.  The arched openings and terra cotta eyebrows of the second floor were Romanesque Revival touches.  The Queen Anne style, however, was dominant, appearing in terra cotta panels, tympani and band courses, and the quirky metal hoods over the third floor windows of the end houses.  The center residence, which at 17-feet-wide was an imperceptible one foot wider than its siblings, boasted a striking second floor oriel and a prominent gable that overlapped the pressed metal cornice.

The center house became home to Dr. Edwin D. Simpson.  His methods were no doubt viewed with some suspicion by main line physicians.  In announcing his joining The American School of Metaphysics in November 1897, The Metaphysical Magazine said, "Dr. Simpson is a Theosophist, with a strong occult tendency, as well as a successful physician; qualities which, it would seem, should harmoniously combine to make the true metaphysician."  

Simpson's practice had begun like that of most other doctors.  The North American Journal of Homoeopathy said he "was for many years an old school man, but became convinced of the trust of homoeopathy and affiliated with us.  He was particularly interested in psychotherapy and taught this subject and physiological drug-therapy to the students at the New York Homeopathic College."

Simpson died on June 23, 1905.  For several years he had worked closely with Dr. Wallace Belding House, who lived nearby at 203 West 113th Street.  House not only absorbed Dr. Simpson's practice, but moved into 322 West 115th Street.  In its November 1905 issue, The Homoeopathic Record reported, "Dr. Wallace Belding House announces his removal to No. 320 West 115th Street, New York City, where he will occupy the offices and succeed to the practice of the late Edwin D. Simpson, M. D."

Born in Brooklyn, Michigan in 1871, House was educated in the Midwest, and in 1902 The Medical Visitor called him "one of the shining lights in the talented Ohio colony in New York City."  In April 1903 he was appointed "examiner in lunacy" and assistant neurologist to the out-patient department of Flower Hospital.

House's intimate relationship with his former colleague's family was strengthened on October 16, 1907 when he married Edwin D. Simpson's daughter, May.  The young woman who had spent much of her youth in the house now became its mistress.

Dr. House had to make a difficult decision in 1909--one that would not be challenging at all for a physician today.  He was chairman of the annual alumni dinner of the New York Homoeopathic Medical College and Flower Hospital at the Waldorf-Astoria.  One member, Dr. Charles G. Pease objected  vociferously to the custom of after-dinner cigars.  The New-York Tribune reported that he "gave notice to the alumni that they would have to choose between him and the vile weed."  His note to Dr. House said in part:

Can you conceive of anything more monstrous and unprofessional than a roomful of doctors in an atmosphere of poisonous vapor, their lips puckered around a cigar or pipe stem, as they suck narcotic vapor from a weed?  Certainly not a picture that angels delight to look upon.

Dr. House was somewhat taciturn about the matter, the New-York Tribune saying he "did not go into the question very deeply."  He did confirm, however, that "as the majority of the physicians at the dinner desired to smoke, cigars had been provided."  And so, said the article, "Dr. Pease says he is sorry he can't attend, but he has a horror of gazing upon a roomful of doctors inhaling poison into their systems."

The Houses remained in 320 West 115th Street until 1910, when they moved into a home on West 78th Street.  In the meantime, 318 West 115th Street had been home to Civil War veteran A. Livingston Washburn and his wife, Rhoda.  Not coincidentally, Rhoda was the sister-in-law of Dr. Edwin D. Simpson.  She died in the West 115th Street house on August 13, 1907.

By 1914 the former Washburn home was being operated as a rooming house.  Living here that year was Jerome O'Driscoll.  A stenographer with the Civil Service Commission, he earned $1,050 per year, or about $29,500 in 2023 terms.

No. 320 West 115th Street, too, became a "furnished room house" after the Houses left.  Both it and 322 West 115th Street were operated by Louis E. Bowen, who lived in 320.

In 1911, a boarder in 320 West 115th Street, Professor G. G. Simonelli, advertised "Italian instruction, translations, researches; lessons at pupils' residence; only by appointment."  And the following year a resident, Herbert Eisenberg, was hired by the city as a "Searcher," with an annual salary of $1,050.  Like his next-door neighbor Jerome O'Driscoll, in 1914 Christian A. Merz was hired by the city as a Civil Service stenographer.  The government's pay scale was nothing if not consistent.  His salary was the same as O'Driscoll's and Eisenberg's.

In December 1920 all three houses were sold to Schutter Homes, Inc., which quickly sold them separately.  They continued to be operated as rooming houses for decades.  Not all of their tenants were upstanding citizens.

Fred Small lived in 318 West 115th Street in 1921.  The 40-year-old was a glassblower who had come to New York from Lynn, Massachusetts in 1920.  He caused an upheaval within the house on the night of March 6, 1921 when he came home drunk "and created a disturbance," according to The New York Times.  His landlady called the police who arrived with a patrol wagon.  "Small had barricaded himself in the bathroom," said the article, "turned on the gas and began tearing the fixtures from the walls and ceiling."  The three responding policemen forced the door open and "overpowered him after a struggle."  When the patrol wagon reached Harlem Hospital, Small was dead.  Dr. Brandstein said his death "was due to alcoholism and gas poisoning."

Four months later, one of the roomers at 320 West 115th Street was arrested.  Robert Umstead, who was 18 years old, was caught in Buffalo with two other men in a stolen car.  They had taken the vehicle from 44th Street and Broadway on June 13, and then used it for a crime spree.  On June 28, The New York Times reported that Umstead was one of the "three young men, believed by the police to be the trio of bandits who during the last month committed many hold-ups by means of an automobile between here and Niagara Falls [who] were locked up in Police Headquarters yesterday."  When apprehended, Umstead had two loaded revolvers on him.

All three stoops were intact in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

More respectable were Sam and Mary Young, who lived at 322 West 115th Street in the 1930s.  The young Irish-born couple ran the Old Log Cabin Grill at 103rd Street and Columbus Avenue, and the Log Cabin Hotel in Rockaway Beach.  The couple provided transportation from Manhattan to the hotel.  A 1934 advertisement said, "During the summer season buses will leave Young's Old Log Cabin Grill...every Friday."  It noted, "The Log Cabin Hotel is made up of nice, light, airy and large furnished rooms with the privilege of light housekeeping.  There is also an indoor and out-door restaurant where good home cooked meals are served at low prices."

Mary Young died on Christmas Eve, 1934.  Her wake was held in 322 West 115th Street.  Sam remained here for several more years.  

In the 1980s, a single room in 318 West 115th Street with "no cooking" cost $75 per week with two weeks' rent paid in advance and two weeks' security required.  Two doors away at 322 West 115th Street, rooms were slightly more expensive.  A well-worded advertisement in October 1983 was titled, "Is Harlem on your mind?" and offered "studios, ranging from $75 to $125 per week."  (The more expensive rent would translate to about $340 today.)

The West 115th Street neighborhood underwent significant change in the 21st century.  A renovation completed in 2012 resulted in two duplexes within 322 West 115th Street, and then in 2019 the house was reconverted to a single family home with one apartment in the basement.

The architects' released this rendering in 2015.  via

In 2015 Madison Advisory Group announced plans to combine 218 and 220 West 115th Street and add two-stories set back from the roofline.  Designed by CTA Architects, the remodeled building contains six condominium apartments.

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

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