Saturday, August 12, 2023

The 1893 Francis M. Burdick House - 633 West 115th Street


In 1892 Columbia University professors Francis M. Burdick and Munroe Smith began construction on their side-by-side homes at 633 and 635 West 115th Street, respectively.  They had purchased the vacant 25-foot-wide plots a year earlier in anticipation of the university's proposed move from Midtown to Morningside Heights.  (The proposed site of the campus was just one block to the east.)  

Architect Henry Otis Chapman designed the two mirror-image houses in the Colonial Revival style.   Completed in 1893, the four-story homes were faced in yellow brick and trimmed in brown terra cotta.  Chapman gave them striking neo-Federal doorways with leaded, stained glass sidelights and magnificent fanlights.

Edwin Burrage Child painted Burdick's portrait in 1916.  from the collection of Columbia University.

Born in De Ruyter, New York in 1845, Francis Marion Burdick had a varied career.  After receiving his law degree in 1872, he became a member of the Utica, New York law firm Beardsley, Burdick and Beardsley.  He was the mayor of Utica in 1882-1883.  Five years later, upon the opening of Cornell University's law college, Burdick was among its faculty members.  And in 1891, the year he and Smith purchased the 115th Street properties, he was appointed as Columbia University's first Theodore Dwight Professor of Law.

Burdick married Sarah Underhill Kellogg on June 8, 1875.  The couple had a son, Charles, and three daughters, Anna, Katherine, and Flora.

Until 633 West 115th Street lost its stoop in 2019, the houses were perfect mirror images.

Sarah and her next door neighbor, Emma Gertrude Smith, apparently became close friends (the fact that there were no other houses on the block at the time no doubt helped foster the relationship).  On March 24, 1901, for instance, the New York Herald reported, "Mrs. F. M. Burdick, assisted by Mrs. Munroe Smith, has issued invitations for a tea on Saturday, April 6, at her residence, No. 633 West 115th street."

In the meantime, Frank wrote numerous legal works, including The Law of Partnership, The Essentials of Business Law, and Selected Cases on the Law of Partnership.  He was appointed a member of the Committee of Fourteen (founded in 1905 to reform liquor laws), and Commissioner of Uniform Laws for the State of New York in 1907.

In 1911, four years prior to his retirement, Burdick sold 633 West 115th Street to the Phil Omega Building Corporation of Alpha Chi Rho fraternity.  Now the Alpha Chi Rho House, its upper floors were leased to fraternity alumni, and the lower floors used as the clubhouse.

On July 12, 1913, the week-long First International Exposition of the Moving Picture Art and Allied Trades opened in the new Grand Central Palace.  Among the events was a talent search, during which aspiring silent film stars had a chance to display their acting skills.  Among them was George Beak, a resident of the Alpha Chi Rho House.  Moving Picture News said succinctly that he "showed adaptable qualities, under direction."  (Unfortunately for George, film stardom eluded him.)

A year after he graduated, Walter Funcke lived in the Alpha Chi Rho House, and took on the duties of managing the annual Variety Show of the university's Players Club.  It turned out to be a frustrating job.  On December 6, 1917, an article in the Columbia Spectator began, "Delay on the part of the undergraduate body to don its thinking cap and produce manuscripts and songs for the 1918 Variety Show has caused the Players Club to issue another urgent call for prospective playwrights and songsmiths."

Earlier that year, the house had been the scene of a more serious event.  America entered World War I on April 4, 1917, prompting many university men to leave school and enlist.  A month later, on May 8, the Columbia Spectator reported, "Alpha Chi Rho held a farewell party last night at the chapter house, 633 West 115th Street, for its members who may leave for Plattsburgh or other government service in the near future."  The light-hearted gathering included entertainments and "ended with a snake dance through 115th Street."

In 1927 the former Burdick house was sold to the Korean Methodist Church and Institute, established six years earlier.  Like the fraternity, it leased rooms on the upper floors to members.

While the door had been replaced by 1941, the entrance and stoop were otherwise intact.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Living here in 1934 was Frank Lee, described by The New York Sun as "a prominent Chinese [sic] importer."  In March 1934 his brother-in-law, Dr. Chang Sel Kim, asked him to stay at his apartment with him at night.  Kim, who held degrees from the University of Korea and Johns Hopkins, said "he was in fear of threats...made by a man who held some correspondence which the physician considered of great value," reported The New York Sun.  

Frank Lee complied, sleeping over in Kim's bedroom while the doctor slept on the sofa.  On the night of March 14, according to Lee, the two played cards until 2 a.m., then went to bed.  "Several times during the night he came in, and then went back to bed," he told officials.  When Lee got up the next morning, he smelled gas.  He rushed to turn off the stove burners and open the windows, but it was too late.  The mysterious circumstances that drove Dr. Kim to suicide were never uncovered.

Korean immigrants faced decided discrimination.  Among the residents in 1936 was Tu Jung, a member of the New York Korean Society.  He became concerned when Chang Soo Lee, a Korean houseboy, was accused of poisoning relatives of his White Plains employer.  The young man had been arrested and held without bail, despite his insistence that "he was ignorant of poisons and chemistry," according to The New York Sun on October 20.  Tu Jung traveled to Westchester County, telling officials he "wanted to find out if Lee had received a square deal and if there was anything he needed," according to the article.  He was refused permission to see the prisoner.

Three months before America entered World War II, 37-year-old resident Young Ho Kown, a cook, attempted to do his part in the war effort.  On September 4, 1941, he tested his helium-inflated "aircraft dirigible helicopter" at Roosevelt Field.  He had invested six years and $6,000 in the invention.  The Nassau Daily Review-Star said, "there were newspaper and newsreel photographers, newspapermen, airport officials and workers on hand" to witness the launch, "but Young, known as Charlie, would have been much happier if the engine of the odd-appearing plane hadn't balked."  Despite the failed test, Kown was undeterred.  He promised another ground test would be made "to be followed by an air test by a licensed pilot."

Following the country's entrance into the war, on January 25, 1942 The New York Times reported, "American Koreans, as 'the champion Jap-haters of the world,' are taking an active part in United States war work."  The article cited an announcement that the Korean Church and Institute had made the previous day.  A fund-raising drive had resulted in pledges of $9,000 for the Korean Army and more than $2,000 in defense bonds had been purchased.  The article noted, "many of the 10,000 Koreans in the United States have offered their services as trained linguists to ferret out the plans of the Japanese on the air waves."

In 1978 the Korean Methodist Church and Institute shared space in the building with the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.  That year, on November 26, The Journal News reported that artist Richard Mayhew was one of more than 70 artists to be selected "by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for inclusion in its 30th annual Hassam Purchase Fund Exhibition now underway at its headquarters at 633 West 115th Street."

It was around that time that Henry Otis Chapman's striking neo-Federal doorway was brutally altered.  The fluted columns were removed, the leaded sidelights and transoms covered over, and the door and frame painted teal.

photograph by Mx. Granger

In 2019 a renovation was initiated that included restoration and repair of the facade.  Among the alterations made, the stoop was removed and the entrance lowered to grade.  To compensate space-wise, a panel was installed between the doorway and fanlight.  Happily, the exquisite leaded glass was intact and restored.  The absence of the Ionic columns, however, is sorely apparent.

photographs by the author
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