Friday, August 4, 2023

Charles T. Mott's 1890 298 Manhattan Avenue


In 1890 Smith Newell Penfield advertised the new house at 298 Manhattan Avenue for rent, emphasizing the convenient location:

At 298 Manhattan Av., facing Morningside Park, near Central Park--Four story twenty foot Dwelling, decorated; location unsurpassed; elevator to 116th elevated station; price low; little cash; terms easy.

The house was one of five erected by Edward Roemer and designed by Charles T. Mott.  Upon their completion in 1890, Penfield had purchased them all.  He and his wife moved into the corner house at 329 West 112th Street and rented the others.

Each of the 20-foot-wide homes had cost $13,000 to construct, or about $386,000 by 2023 conversions.  Mott designed the four houses facing Manhattan Avenue as two mirror-image pairs.  The bowed bays and dormers of the red-brick residences were typical of his style.  Like its neighbors, 298 Manhattan Avenue featured an arched, double-doored entrance above a dog-leg stoop, stained glass transoms in the parlor windows, and a fish-scale tiled mansard with a single dormer.

298 Manhattan Avenue is at the far left.

The house was first leased to Henry Mendelson, who had received his bachelor of science degree from Cooper Union's five-year Scientific Course in 1881.

When Penfield listed the now-vacant house for rent again in 1893, he noted that there were 12 rooms.  The advertised rent was $1,200 per year, or about $3,100 a month today.

No. 298 Manhattan Avenue next became home to the Louis Straus family.  A banker and importer-exporter with offices at 52 Broad Street, Straus had branch offices in Philadelphia and Boston.  Additionally, according to The New York Times, he had "made a fortune by the sale of the Butte and Boston Cooper Mine" in 1887.

Straus's wife, Rosa Welt, was a fascinating figure.  Born in 1856 in Austria, she was the first female in that country to receive a high school graduation.  In 1878 she became the first woman in Austria to receive a medical degree, and was among the first female ophthalmologists in Europe.

Rosa Welt-Straus now worked as an eye surgeon in the New York Eye Hospital and the Women's Hospital.  The year before they moved into 298 Manhattan Avenue the couple's daughter, Nellie, was born.  (Another child, a boy, apparently died in infancy.)

Dr. Rosa Welt-Straus with her daughter, Nellie.  (original source unknown)

Starting around 1895, Louis's sister and brother-in-law, Hattie and Edward Weidenbach, shared the house.  Edward was a director in the E. Klein Supply Company, dealers in bakers' supplies.

Those in banking and importing circles were most likely shocked to read in The New York Times on September 14, 1900, "Louis Straus, residing at 298 Manhattan Avenue, has filed a petition in bankruptcy."  It was a staggering blow to the former millionaire.  He never recovered from the humiliation and shock, and committed suicide in 1907.

Rosa Welt-Straus would continue to make her mark on the world.  She helped organize the Woman Suffrage Alliance with Carrie Chapman-Catt, and in 1904 was a member of the American delegation to the first congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.   She would continue to be a force in the suffrage movement for years.

In 1919, at the age of 63, Rosa relocated to Palestine, where, within two months of her arrival, she was elected head of the Union of Hebrew Women.

The Weidenbach family, along with Louis and Hattie's widowed mother, Elizabeth (known as Betty) Straus, remained at 298 Manhattan Avenue through 1911.  The following year Penfield leased the house to George Hunter who rented rooms.  Among his tenants in 1912 was Gladys Parks, who came from De Leon, Texas to study at Columbia University.  

In 1914 a "highly educated European lady" boarded here.  The multi-talented woman was looking for private students.  Her advertisement in The New York Times in February that year described her as "conversant in English, French, and German, also full-fledged reciter and pianiste," and said she "desires a limited number of scholars; children preferable."

In 1917 Penfield rented the house to an old friend, clergyman William Brewster Humphrey and his wife, the former Marie E. Ives.  Reverend Humphrey was the founder and president of the American Indian League, and Penfield and his wife Sarah were members of the New York City Indian Association.  An eminent musician, Penfield had collaborated with Humphrey for the latter's 1911 compilation, North American Indian Folklore Music, published by The American Indian League.

Humphrey's interest in Native Americans, their music and culture would be his life-long passion.  His purpose in forming the American Indian League was "to assist in preserving native industries; establishing if need be, industrial schools and missions where the young Indians might be taught to keep up the old arts."  He hoped to "arouse interest in the North American customs and to preserve and foster their native music and industries in every possible way."

Like Rosa-Welt Straus, Marie E. Ives Humphrey was as interesting as her husband.  Descending from what the 1917-1918 Who's Who in America called "Pilgrim and Puritan stock, three arriving on the Mayflower," her father Charles Ives had been the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives and an author and poet.  Like he, she was a writer.  Who's Who in America called her a "Writer for papers and magazines of sketches, stories, poems and articles for children."

Marie was best known for her work with with her husband, however.  She was president of the New Haven Indian Association, first view-president of the Connecticut Indian Association, chair of the Young People's Department of the National Indian Association, and editor and business manager of The Indian's Friend.  Marie lectured in schools, clubs and churches on Native American issues, and marketed the sale of indigenous crafts, like baskets, "to encourage the art." 

After the Humphreys left 298 Manhattan Avenue in 1919, it was operated as a rooming house.  Smith Newell Penfield died in the corner house on January 7, 1920 at the age of 83.  The following year his estate again leased No. 298.  An advertisement on May 15, 1921 read, "Rooming house, 10 rooms, two baths; long lease furniture."

It became a favorite among Chinese students, most of them attending Columbia University.  Among the first was T. Y. Chin, a member of The Chinese Students' Christian Association in North America.  Also living here in 1921 were students M. K. Mo and Edward S. K. Yen.

On November 17, 1942, The New York Sun reported that the house had been leased "for residence club use."  It is possible that it was a chapter house for a Columbia University fraternity.  It is unclear how long the "residence club" remained here.

A renovation completed in 2012 resulted in one apartment each in the basement and parlor levels, and a triplex apartment above.  It was most likely at this time that a large dormer replaced the original.

photos by the author
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