Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The James Baldwin Apartment - 137 West 71st Street


John T. Farley was a significant player in real estate development on the Upper West Side in the late 19th century.  In 1890 he and his wife Marie T. Farley partnered on a project--four 21-foot-wide rowhouses on West 71st Street between Broadway and Columbus Avenue.  Designed by the equally-prolific architectural firm of Thom & Wilson, the four-story-and-basement homes featured high stoops, fully-framed openings through the third floor, and unassuming cornices.

An advertisement in the New York Herald on February 4, 1891 warned potential buyers that 137 West 71st Street was "the only one left in the row," and noted it was "finished in the same elegant manner which characterizes all our work.  The trim is hard wood throughout."

When this photograph was taken in 1941, 137 West 71st Street was the last of the 1890 row to survive.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Within three weeks Spencer D. Schuyler purchased 137 West 71st Street for $40,000--around $1.23 million in 2023.  A widower, he put the title in the name of his adult daughter, Estelle L. Schuyler.  Spencer Schuyler was president of the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company, director of the Maxim Powder and Torpedo Co. and of the Underground Railroad Company, and a member of several exclusive clubs.

Schuyler's Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company produced the Zalinski Dynamite Gun, invented by D. M. Medford.  The artillery pieces were intended for warships and used compressed air to fire dynamite-filled shells, sometimes called "aerial torpedoes."  The USS Vesuvius, armed with three 15-inch Zalinski dynamite guns, saw action in the Spanish-American War.

The Schuylers did not remain at 137 West 71st Street especially long.  In May 1895, Cora L. Dutton "entered into a contract with Miss Schuyler to purchase the house for $52,500," reported the New York Herald.  The Duttons' stay would be even shorter.

Cora and her husband Stephen A. Dutton paid Estelle the first installment of $3,125 and moved in.  Living with them was Dutton's younger brother and business partner, Simeon.  Stephen Dutton was president of the Scott Ice and Coal Company and a real estate operator.  Lily Alys Godfrey, a potential client, said "he invited me to call upon him at his home, No. 137 West Seventy-first Street.  He had the most exquisite place in New York, he said.  He had paid $70,000 to have it furnished."

It was not long before Estelle Schuyler realized she had been taken.  On November 24, 1896, the New York Herald reported that the first payment was the only one she received from the Duttons.  "Owing to Miss Schuyler's absence in Europe they have been allowed to occupy the house undisturbed.  On her return next month, however, proceedings to eject them will be begun."

Eviction was the least of the Duttons' worries.  On November 24, 1896, the New York Herald ran the headline, "Dutton, Prince of Swindlers," and reported on his ongoing trial on charges of selling worthless investments and properties that did not belong to him.  He was found guilty and sentenced to Sing Sing prison.  On December 28, Simeon Dutton arrived at the Tombs prison downtown to say goodbye.  He never returned to the West 71st Street house, however.

As he started to leave, he ran into Detective Cuff who said, "Why, I've been hunting all around town for you, and here I find you where you weren't expected.  I have a warrant for your arrest.  You have been indicted by the Grand Jury for swindling a Brooklyn woman out of some real estate."

With the Duttons finally gone, Estelle Schuyler sold the house to millionaire Albert Tilt for $40,000.  Tilt had made his fortune in the silk industry.  He was the head of the Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company founded by his father, Benjamin B. Tilt.  He and his wife, the former Adelaide V. Raynor, had three grown children, Benjamin B., Albert Jr., and Adelaide Estelle.  Living with Albert and Adelaide Tilt were their daughter and her husband, lawyer Frederick Adams Acer.  The Tilts' country estate, Mount Arlington, was in Morris County, New Jersey where, according to the New-York Tribune, they had a "delightful summer home" and "a fine stable of driving and saddle horses."

The Tilts soon relocated to a mansion at 5 East 67th Street, while the Acers remained in the West 71st Street house with their two children and two live-in servants.  Albert Tilt died on May 2, 1900 at the age of 59.  He left a substantial fortune and an odd codicil to his will that suggests there was a strain in the relationship between him and either his daughter, or her husband, or both.  He left the title to 137 West 71st Street in trust with The Fifth Avenue Trust Company to be used by "my said daughter and her family" for as long as they desired.  But they were required to pay rent.  Whenever they chose to leave, the house was to be sold.

It was not long before more drama erupted.  Early in 1902 Acer sued Adelaide for divorce, saying she had been unfaithful with "a man prominent in club circles."  Adelaide accused Frederick of dalliances with "a woman well known in theatrical circles."  It was a high profile battle.  The New York Herald noted, "Mrs. Acer belongs to a family of great wealth...Mr. Acer is a lawyer of considerable promise."

When the domestic problems began, Acer sent their two children, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, to Buffalo where his mother lived.  Adelaide, according to the New York Herald, "was told that she could never see them again."  And so, in March 1902, Adelaide and two maids went to Buffalo, took rooms near the Acer house, and surveilled the situation. On March 14 they waited in a carriage and when the children took a stroll with a maid, Adelaide "picked them up and, putting them in a carriage that was waiting, drove with them across the Canadian line."  Acer now added kidnapping to the charges against his wife.

Rather surprisingly, given a history of club men, theatrical women, and a kidnapping, the Acers reconciled, returned to 137 West 71st Street, and had at least two more children.  They were still living here on October 17, 1923 when daughters Charlotte Peck and Adelaide Estelle were married in a double ceremony at the Plaza Hotel.

Three years later architect Carl B. Cali was hired to alter the former sumptuous Acer residence into a rooming house.  The certificate of occupancy noted, "not more than 15 sleeping rooms in the building."

The configuration lasted until 1961 when Jack Mandel and Elias Gold commissioned architect H. Russell Kenyon to completely remodel the house into an apartment building.  The stoop was removed, the front pulled forward to the property line, and a Modern-style white brick façade applied.  There were two apartments per floor.

The attractive but unexceptional building would have drawn no attention were it not for its buyer on February 4, 1965.  The El-Rhon Corporation had been incorporated less than five months earlier by the Baldwin family.  Its CEO was Gloria E. K. Smart, the sister of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin.  The building would serve as much as a family residence as an investment property.

Baldwin took the rear ground floor apartment that opened onto the back yard.  His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, lived directly above him in Apartment 1-B, and his sister Gloria (who acted as Baldwin's secretary) took 4-A.  Sister Paula Whaley also moved into one of the upper floor apartments, while the remaining units had rent-controlled tenants.

Allan Warren took this photograph of James Baldwin in 1969.  (image placed in the public domain by the photographer)

When the family acquired 137 West 71st Street, Baldwin was in London.  Just over two weeks later, on February 12, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom on Broadway.  The writer rushed home to attend the funeral on February 27.

Gloria was indispensable as her brother's secretary since he was away traveling more than he was here.  At least one historian has called 137 West 71st Street his pied-à-terre, although it was his official address until his death.  In 2019, the United States Department of the Interior noted, "The address was used as a permanent locale to which documents of import, books to review, and a myriad of requests could be forwarded and assured to reach him, regardless of whether he was currently residing in the city or not."

On May 12, 1972, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson wrote an article titled "FBI Abounds with Informers," and noted somewhat sarcastically, "For information on black author James Baldwin, the sleuths called on 'Joseph Brusco (apartment) Superintendent, 137 West 71st St., New York City' to learn that 'Baldwin had returned from his trip to Turkey.' This hot little item was stamped 'Secret--No Foreign Dissemination.'"

The FBI concerned itself with Baldwin not because of his brilliant novels, of course, but because of his activism within the civil rights movement.  He took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and in the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.  He was, as well, outspoken on his sexual orientation and spoke publicly on topics like racism within the LGBT community, homosexuality, and homophobia within the media.

When he was in town, his apartment saw a stream of well-known Black civil rights leaders, and musical and literary figures come and go.  Celebrated writer Toni Morrison briefly lived in the building during Baldwin's residency.

Baldwin died of stomach cancer at the age of 63 on December 1, 1987.  His funeral in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine was attended by thousands.  Among those who paid tribute were Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Maya Angelou.

No. 137 West 71st Street is the most important building associated with the final stages of James Baldwin's career as a literary giant, and a Black civil rights and LGBT civil rights activist.  It was  added to the National Register of Historic Places in July 2019, and designated an individual New York City landmark in June 2019.

photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. Mr Baldwin was a loyal and generous supporter of the families of freedom fighters and young gifted and Black boys and girls struggling for a place in the Sun. We appear everywhere in his work! We shall revere him forever. His name rings out.