Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Myron Oppenheim House - 118 West 71 Street


Heavy Italianate stone railings originally guarded the stoop, and the beefy newels were capped with decorative finials.

In 1883 the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson designed a row of five 19-foot-wide, brownstone-faced rowhouses for George W. Hamilton on the south side of West 71st Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.  Designed as two models in an A-B-A-B-A configuration, the A designs were Renaissance Revival in style, while the B's were a more playful Queen Anne.  

Completed in 1884, 118 West 71st Street (one of the A models) rose four stories above a high English basement.  Its parlor level was decorated with elaborately carved Renaissance style panels.  Here the openings were fully arched, and the windows sat above shell-carved half bowls.  A three-sided bay dominated the second floor.  Thom & Wilson added a delightful detail at this level by giving the side window a faux Juliette balcony.

Stained glass fills the transoms of the parlor windows.

After leasing the houses for three years, Hamilton sold the entire row in August 1887 to operators Frederick Beck and Charles E. Runk for $171,000.  Their advertisement for 118 West 71st Street in February 1888 reflected its high-end details:

Handsome 4-story high-stoop basement and cellar brown-stone private dwelling, with extension, elaborately finished and in perfect order, and adjacent to Central Park entrance at 72d st. and 8th ave.

It may have been the mention of the proximity to the Central Park entrance that caught the eye of Myron Henry Oppenheim and his wife, the former Jennie May Toplitz.  Both were accomplished equestrians.  The couple purchased 118 West 71st Street for $36,000 (about $1.14 million in 2023).  As was common, title to the property was put in Jennie's name.

Myron H. Oppenheim on his gelding Johnny Jones on the bridal path of Central Park.  Show Horse Chronicle, May 2, 1917 (copyright expired)

Born in Albany, New York in 1859, Oppenheim had graduated from Columbia College in 1881.  A partner in the law firm of Oppenheim & Severance, Show Horse Chronical called him "the well-known corporation lawyer and capitalist."  The couple had a one-year-old daughter Dorothy.  Their summer home, Castle Wall, was in Elberon, New Jersey.

A postcard pictured the Oppenheim's country home.  image via historiclongbranch.org.

The couple had barely settled into the West 71st Street house when Oppenheim found himself in court, charged with usury.  Silas J. McGinnis, a real estate operator, charged that in 1885 he borrowed $600 from Oppenheim.  He was to repay $1,000 within six months--making the interest nearly 60 percent of the principle.  Furthermore, as security McGinnis transferred title to a house in Brooklyn valued at $4,250.  When it came time for him to repay the loan, he discovered the Oppenheim had sold the property for $1,000.  

Little Dorothy was a precocious girl, at least by the account of the Albany newspaper The Times-Union on July 5, 1893.  The article said in part:

Miss Dorothy, though but six years of age, is quite a linguist, speaking French, German and English fluently.  She dances prettily and quite enchants those who are fortunate enough to be in her set.

Jennie (who went by Jane) Oppenheim was as skilled in the saddle as was her husband.  On October 15, 1916, The New York Times reported on the "keen competition between the owners of the high steppers" at the Westchester Horse Show.  It reported, "Mrs. Myron H. Oppenheim won the first prize of $50 and a blue ribbon" in the class of a saddle horse "ridden by a lady on a side saddle."

By then, the Oppenheims had been gone from West 71st Street for several years.  Their former home was purchased by Dr. Samuel W. Hassell in November 1902.  (Four years later, the Oppenheims would acquire the sumptuous Shadow Lawn estate in West Long Branch, New Jersey, a 52-room showplace.)

Hassell was an odontologist, a scientist who focused on the study of teeth.  His academic writings regularly appeared in medical journals.  His wife, the former May O'Brien, was the daughter of the well-known artist and "distinguished literateur," as described by the Express Gazette in 1895, Matthew V. O'Brien, who signed his works "Matt O'B."

In April 1908, Dr. Hassell's duties were increased when he was appointed to the Local School Board for a period of five years.  It appears that the well-to-do couple made a significant decision in 1911--to give up their horse-drawn vehicles in favor of an automobile.  On April 26, Hassell's advertisement appeared in The New York Times:  "A fine team of road horses; very gentle and good looking; both used in saddle.  Owner, 118 West 71st st."

In 1941, the muscular stone stoop railings and newel finials survived.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Following World War I, 118 West 71st Street was acquired by the 71 Property Corp., which rented the house.  It sold it to the Wallan Holding Company, Inc. in 1928.  The new owners continued to lease it to well-heeled tenants.  Living here in 1929 was the family of William Conlans.  He and his wife had two sons, Harry and Alfred Baxter.  Alfred was married to Dorothy Helen Brey in June that year.

James H. Cruikshank purchased 118 West 71st Street in April 1937.  In reporting the sale, The New York Sun noted, "It contains sixteen rooms and seven baths."  Living with him and his wife, Florence B., were their three sons, James Jr., John E., and Robert W., their daughter, Carol Alice, and a servant.

Throughout the 1940s, the house was home to broker John J. O'Rourke and his family.  It was not converted to a multiple family residence until 1972, when a renovation resulted in an apartment in the basement plus half of a duplex that extended into the parlor floor.  The upper levels now had one apartment each.  It may have been at this time that the stoop was remodeled and a regrettable coat of white paint applied to the brownstone.  

photographs by the author
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