Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Henry Percival Butler House - 116 West 88th Street


When architect Samuel B. Reed was hired by real estate developer William Taylor in 1886 to design a row of houses on West 88th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, he was given a difficult assignment.  Taylor asked for eight upscale rowhouses on a plot only 125 feet wide.  Completed the following year, the 15-foot-wide homes created a charming and harmonious composition, although no two were identical.  Reed liberally embellished his overall Romanesque Revival style row with elements borrowed from other styles.  Each of the houses cost the equivalent of $267,000 in 2023 to erect.

No. 116 West 88th Street was a bit less playful and less Romanesque than most of its neighbors.  The brownstone-fronted basement and parlor levels were austere, with only undressed stone bands to add interest.  The top two floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  The tympanum of the Palladian style group of windows at the second held delicate foliate carvings.  Reed outlined the upper pane of that window and the vast arched window of the fourth floor with Queen Anne style stained glass squares.  A neo-Classical terra cotta swag decorated the pediment above the cornice.

The house was home to Ida F. and Arthur H. Bryant until June 1890, when they sold it to Henry Percival Butler for $18,200--just under $560,000 in 2023.

Butler was an attorney and Civil War veteran.  Five years before purchasing the house, on November 12, 1885, he had married Elizabeth Van Wyck.  The couple had a three-year old daughter, Katharine Louise.

Living with the family was Henry's unmarried sister, Sara Louise.  And listing 116 West 88th Street as his New York City address was Henry's brother, artist George Bement Butler, whose family spent much of their time at George's studio in Westchester County.  Concetta Salvia Butler was his second wife; his first, Emily Butterworth, having died in 1866.  He and Concetta had three sons and a daughter.

George B. Butler had a promising artistic career from the start, studying with Thomas Hicks in the 1850s, and then with Thomas Couture in Paris.  Like his brother, he joined the Union Army at the outbreak of Civil War.  According to The New York Times, "At Gettysburg he was shot in the right arm, which necessitated its amputation above the elbow."  For most, it would seem that Butler's career as a painter was over.

Undaunted, he returned to New York and was elected a National Academician (a member of the National Academy of Art) in 1873.  The following year he traveled to Italy where he remained until 1885.  The New York Times mentioned, "Despite the loss of his right arm, he was a skillful horseman and a most export swordsman."

George B. Butler painted Capri Lace Maker in 1884.  from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Both Henry and George were members of the Lafayette Post, No. 140 of the Grand Army of the Republic, although Henry was much more active.   Henry was also involved in civic affairs.  Evacuation Day--the celebration of the leaving of the British from New York City--was a holiday in the 19th century.  On Evacuation Day 1893 Henry unveiled a bronze tablet on the southeast corner of Washington and Laight Streets that read:

To commemorate the landing of Gen. George Washington at the foot of Laight street, North River, accompanied by the troop of Philadelphia City Horse, Sunday, July 23, 1775, on his way to take command of the American Army at Cambridge Mass.

Henry Butler's name appeared in newsprint for a much more unsettling reason three years later.  Before leaving for work on December 10, 1896, he complained to Elizabeth that he did not feel well.  He arrived at his office at 10:00, worked for an hour, then went out, "making some ordinary remark to a clerk," according to The Sun.  He never returned to the office nor did he go home.

The Sun, December 14, 1896 (copyright expired)

"When he did not return home for dinner his wife became anxious, and having no word from him at 9 o'clock, she asked a relative who was staying at the house to go in quest of her husband."  Inquiries at hotels, the Lafayette Post, and the Union League Club brought no information.  The following morning the police were notified.  They released a detailed description of the 50-year-old, saying he was:

5 feet 10 or 11 inches tall, weighing 160 pounds.  He is of medium build, has regular features, with a conspicuous aquiline nose and high forehead.  His hair is gray, with a slight brownish tinge.  He has a fair complexion, light brown eyes, and wears a rather heavy curling gray mustache.  When he left home he wore a black cutaway suit, with patent leather shoes, a tall hat with a felt band, and a long fall overcoat.  He wore trousers in which the crease was held by having been sewed down the front.

Noting that Butler "belongs to a well-known family," on December 14 The New York Times reported that he had still "not been found nor heard from up to midnight."  The newspaper had barely been delivered to readers' doorsteps when Henry P. Butler climbed his stoop.  

As the servant opened the door, he exclaimed, "My God!  My wife!  Is she dead?"  In his hand was that morning's newspaper with the account of his disappearance.  The New York Herald said, "It was evident that this was the first intimation he had that anything was wrong."

The family physician, Francis A. Utter was summoned.  He told the press in part, "I find him a very sick man, with typhoid symptoms.  He has evidently wandered about in a dazed mental state, with low delirium, the result of his physical condition."

Butler's clothes were covered in mud, "and his linen was soiled," according to Utter, referring to his underwear.  Butler told the doctor, "I've been walking around all the time, and I haven't had any sleep.  I don't know where I have been."  Dr. Utter said that such symptoms were not rare among typhoid sufferers.  It was determined that Butler had "come to his senses at the Cortlandt Street ferry," and called a cab.  Dr. Utter noted, "Mr. Butler was not robbed while he was away, but suffered severely from exposure.  His condition now is very critical."

Henry Butler recovered and returned to his normal life.  On April 14, 1905, he visited the Nursery and Child's Hospital Kindergarten on Lexington Avenue at 51st Street with a contingent from the Lafayette Post.  The veterans passed out American flags to the little children.  The New-York Tribune said, "Major Henry P. Butler [looked] very soldierly in his blue uniform with a couple of decorations dangling from his breast," when he told them, "If every child in the country could love the flag as dearly as his playthings, what a land this would be!"  Butler received an additional decoration for his uniform when one of the boys, "toddled up to Major Butler and handed him a paper medal strung on a red ribbon."  The newspaper related, '"I shall keep it all my life," said Major Butler, reverently.'"

George Butler died on May 4, 1907.  By then he and his family spent much less time at the West 88th Street house.

The stained glass borders of the upper floor windows were intact in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

On October 17, 1910 Elizabeth Butler underwent a terrifying case of déjà vu when her husband did not return home from his office.  Later that night his derby hat and his cane were found on the Hudson River bank at 79th Street.  Elizabeth received the worst possible news a week later.  On October 25, the New-York Tribune reported, "the mysterious disappearance of Henry P. Butler...was explained yesterday afternoon, when his body was found floating in the North [i.e. Hudson] River near 96th street."

Saying that "for eight days and nights the family and many friends of Henry Prescott [sic] Butler...searched secretly every nook of the park along Riverside Drive," The Citizen reported, "It is supposed Butler was seized with heart failure when sitting on the end of a pier and fell into the river."

The tragedy of Henry's death was doubled a week later.  When his sister-in-law, the widow of George Butler, was informed of Henry's death on October 24, she suffered a heart attack and died on the spot.

Sarah Louise Butler died in the 88th Street house on May 1, 1912 at the age of 69.  The death came as Katherine's wedding plans were being finalized.  There was no doubt much discussion within the family before the decision was made to go ahead with the ceremony.

Katherine was married to John Ambrose Thompson in Grace Church on May 27.  She was given away by her grandfather, Jacob S. Van Wyck.  The New York Herald noted, "Owing to mourning in the family there was no reception."

Elizabeth was now alone in the house, with one or two live-in servants.  While it is unclear how long she remained, she was still here in January 1924 when she and her sister, Margaret Van Wyck, sued their cousin George G. W. Greene who tried to cheat them out of $6,175 left them by their uncle, James Greene.

Pink paint made the house Barbie-ready in the last quarter of the 20th century.  image via landmarkwest.org

A renovation completed in 1985 resulted in two duplex apartments.  It may have been then that the house was given a coat of pink paint, which obscured the architectural details and eliminated the contrast of colors intended by Samuel B. Reed.  Replacement windows eliminated his Queen Anne stained glass squares, as well.  

More recently the facade has been restored, looking now much more as it did when the Butler family moved in.

 photographs by the author
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1 comment:

  1. I lived on the top floor of this building in the early 2000s and it was very charming. Also, I'm remembering it as more white than pink, but who knows. It's great to see it back to it's original brick façade.