Friday, July 7, 2023

The 1893 Munroe Smith House - 635 West 115th Street


In 1896 Columbia University left its collection of Midtown buildings for a new campus in the remote Morningside Heights district.  The move created problems for fraternities and academic clubs, which had costly clubhouses downtown, and for faculty and staff.  Two Columbia professors, however, were far ahead of the game.

In 1891 Francis M. Burdick and Munroe Smith acquired two 25-foot-wide plots on the undeveloped block of West 115th Street, between Riverside Drive and Broadway.  The site was just one block west of the proposed campus.  The educators hired architect Henry Otis Chapman to design mirror-image houses at 633 and 635 West 115th Street.  Construction began in 1892 and was completed the following year.  

The handsome Colonial Revival style houses were faced in yellow brick and trimmed in terra cotta.  The design was dominated by the striking Federal-style arched doorways with leaded and stained glass sidelights and exquisite fanlights.  Each of the four stories was defined by a terra cotta bandcourse.  The houses shared a delicate dentiled cornice.

Edmund Munroe Smith, who went professionally by Munroe Smith, moved his family into 635 West 115th Street.  He and his wife, the former Emma Gertrude Huidekoper, had one daughter, Gertrude Munroe, who was two years old at the time.

Munroe Smith from the collection of the Columbia University Archives.

Smith was a very well-educated man.  He graduated from Amherst Collect in 1874, earned his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1877, re-enrolled in Amherst in 1879, and received his J.U.D. from the University of Göttingen in 1880.  That year he was hired at Columbia University as an instructor in history and Roman law.  When he and his family moved into the 115th Street house, he was a full professor of Roman law and comparative jurisprudence.

The Smiths' large house afforded them the ability to take in other Columbia educators.  By 1906 Dr. Henry Rogers Seager, a professor of political economy, lived with the family.  Born in Kiev, Russia, he earned his Ph.D at the University of Michigan in 1890.  Both he and Munroe Smith were members of the Century Association, the membership of which was composed of authors, artists, and "amateurs of letters and fine arts."  

Henry Rogers Seager, from the collection of the Library of Congress

Another Columbia professor, John Bates Clark, and his wife, the former Myra A. Smith (no relation to their landlord), were listed here by 1909.  Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1847, Clark taught economics.  His controversial views about capitalism had softened by the time he boarded with the Smiths.  Early on he had been a critic of capitalism, favoring instead German Socialism.  His views eventually evolved to make him a leading proponent of capitalism.

All three men wrote extensively.  They were the authors of academic books, articles and monographs in their respective areas.

The professors would have to find alternative lodging in 1910.  The Smiths moved out in 1910, and an advertisement in the New York Herald on October 2 offered the unfurnished house for rent.  It touted "11 rooms, 3 baths, immediate possession, refined residential section."

The house became home to Edward Purcell Slevin, his wife, the former Josephine Mary Hecker, and their daughter Elizabeth.  The couple's country home, East Clive, was in West Orange.  Another daughter, Paula, had been married on January 11 that year to Stephen Valentine Farrelly.

Only months after moving into 635 West 115th Street, Josephine died on March 15, 1911.  Edward remained in the house for years.

Then, on October 6, 1921, the New York Herald announced that "the Catholics of Columbia University" had purchased 635 West 115th Street "for occupancy as the Newman Club, an organization of Catholic students, who will occupy it after extensive alterations are completed."  The article added, "The present plans embody an assembly hall, committee meeting rooms, space for informal dances and other features, besides a library and reading room."

A chapel was installed in the basement level, where mass was said every day and twice on Sundays.  On the parlor floor was a "large comfortable reception room" where lectures were sometimes given, as well as social events.  The reading room and library were on the second floor.  Father H. F. Riley of the Paulist Fathers, the club's chaplain, resided in the house.

On April 7, 1922, the Columbia Alumni News reported on the opening of Newman Hall.  The article noted, "An inspection of the newly opened club house was made under the guidance of Father Riley, the resident Chaplain."  The Handbook to Catholic Historic New York City explained in 1927:

Newman Hall is the center for Catholic students.  The Newman Club of Columbia University was established in 1902.  Its headquarters at No. 635 West 115th Street is a meeting place for the members of the Newman Club in and around New York City.

The Newman Club remained until the early Depression years, selling the property to Armic Restaurant, Inc., which leased it.  Living here in 1938 was John M. Kelly, chief supervisor in the Department of Markets.  Kelly had been a city employee since 1920.  Two years later, Angelina Geminiani was leasing the house.  Living with her were her 17-year-old daughter, Regina, and two boarders, John and Eleanor Morgan.

The house in 1941 appeared little different than it does today.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1946 Columbia University purchased the former Smith house.  It became the center of the school's Modern China Research Project in 1958.  Professor Howard L. Boorman, its director, said that year, "One phase of this project is to compile a biographic dictionary of Chinese personalities as a basic reference tool to enable scholars to fill more readily the research gap for the transition period between 1911 and 1949."  The Modern China Research Project was still here as late as 1967.

Trouble came to Columbia University in the spring of 1972 when anti-war protestors shut down the campus.  On May 4, 1972, The New York Times reported, "Black and Latin students continued their occupation of Lewisohn Hall and an off-campus brownstone at 635 West 115th Street, which is owned by the university."  Over a week later, on May 13, the newspaper reported that the house had been "voluntarily vacated by the black and Latin students."

On the same day, the N.Y. Amsterdam News reported, "The University President has also agreed to an extension of the CEEP Program through 1974 and to provide the university facilities at 635 West 115th for the exclusive use of the CEEP Program."  That project, the Community Educational Exchange Program, "provides compensatory education for Harlem residents," as explained by The New York Times.

Later the building became home to the university's Office of Environmental Stewardship.  Appropriately, in November 2007 it was one of two Columbia buildings to receive a "green roof."  Nilda Mesa, Director of Environmental Stewardship explained in December that year, "Grass and plants growing on green roofs take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen, helping cool temperatures in the hottest months and cleaning the air supply."

While its fraternal twin next door has been slightly altered, 635 West 115th Street is remarkably intact, including its wonderful 1893 doorway.

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

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