Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The 1885 127 West 56th Street


In 1885 Wm. Kennelley & Bro. completed construction of three five-story-and-basement flats at 125 through 129 West 56th Street.  The high-stooped Italianate structures melded with the architecture of the private homes along the block.  Faced in brownstone, their first-floor windows wore classic triangular pediments.  Incised floral carvings in the window frames and above the doorway drew from the emerging neo-Grec style.  An elaborate, shared cornice was crowned by a stone balustrade.

Wm. Kennelly & Bro. sold 127 West 56th Street to James F. O'Shaughnessy in November 1886.  It was purchased in June the following year by Lillian Hartje.

There was one apartment per floor in the building, each consisting of six rooms and a bath.  They boasted the latest amenities, like "steam heat, hot and cold water," according to advertisements.  Tenants paid $50 per month for the apartments, or around $1,800 in 2023 terms.

Lillian Hartje owned several properties in Manhattan, and was affluent enough to have two floors of 127 West 56th Street renovated to a single duplex apartment for herself.  Among her tenants in 1890 were the family of D. L. A. Cugnard, who headed the charitable operations of St. Vincent de Paul Church on West 23rd Street.  

Lillian Hartje narrowly escaped tragedy on the afternoon of October 14, 1897.  At around 4:30 she was rummaging through a closet on the third floor when, as reported by The Sun, she "upset a bottle of furniture polish, which rolled from the shelf to the floor."  Not knowing what had fallen, Lillian lighted a match to see better in the dark closet.  "She put the match near the furniture polish and an explosion followed," said the article.

The fire spread rapidly, and Lillian "ran screaming" into the front room and grabbed the cage of her pet parrot.  She leaned out the window, cage in hand, hollering, "Fire! Fire!"  Hearing her shouts, a policeman, Daniel O'Grady, headed up the stairs to her assistance.  "All the other occupants of the house had made a hasty exit to the street in the meantime, and Mrs. Hartje and the parrot were left along on the third floor, " reported The Sun.

When O'Grady reached the third floor, a hysterical Lillian had run back into the burning room, but was repulsed by the flames.  The policeman got her into the hall, when she remembered her parrot.  She implored O'Grady to save her bird, but could not remember where she had placed the cage.  He went back into the smoke-filled apartment and finally located the parrot by tracing its shrieks of "Poor Polly! Poor Polly!"  Once reunited with her pet, Lillian "went willingly downstairs."  

The World was unnecessarily sarcastic in reporting on the fire.  The following day it began an article saying, "When Mrs. Lillian Hartze [sic] writes a book on 'Hints to Housewives,' she will advise readers to keep furniture polish from lighted matches."  The fire caused damages of just under $73,000 in today's money.

A complex cornice and balustrade still crowned the buildings in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

A ladies tailor named Weinert and his wife, Annie, lived here in 1898, and rented an unused bedroom to actress Alexandria Viarda.  The arrangement did not go well, and by the beginning of 1899 Annie Weinert claimed Viarda owe back rent and locked her costumes up as security.  The upheaval that ensued was reported nationwide.

On January 17, 1899 The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Viarda valued her costumes at $1,000 and had sued in the Supreme Court "to compel Mrs. Weinert to return the hamper and costumes."  The Sun explained,

The actress declared that she was unable to perform without the articles, which include two pairs of tights, a gold-embroidered suit, with trousers, coat and jacket, a white silk silver costume for Mary Stuart, a black and red costume for Medea, a blue woollen mantle for Sappho, a dark blue mantle for Deborah, and several other costumes which are not identified with the parts to be played in them.

The Chicago Tribune reported, "Alexandria Viarda vows she does not owe one penny, at least for board."  The Justice ordered that Annie Weinert release the costumes to the actress.  One assumes that Viarda found another room to rent.

The apartments were filled with artistic types at the turn of the century.  Alexandria Viarda could have used the services of costume designer Maud Dixon Salvini, who operated her studio from the address in 1901.  Contralto Helen Neibuhr gave vocal instructions from her studio-apartment, and concert pianist Mabel Phipps lived here by 1907.

On December 7, 1907, The New York Dramatic Mirror reported on a reception Mabel Phipps held at her studio.  "A number of persons were especially invited to meet Signor Fanco Fano, proprietor and editor of Il Mondo Artistico, of Milan, Italy, who is paying a brief visit to this country," said the article, adding, "Arnold Földsey, the remarkable Hungarian 'cellist who recently arrived in this country, played a number of interesting selections."

Lillian Hartje sold 127 West 56th Street in 1909.  Among the residents by 1912 were consulting engineer Walter M. Kidder and his family.  Kidder was a pioneer in "industrial and commercial efficiencies."  His advertisements promised firms increased profits through efficiency development.  The Kidders would remain at least through 1923.

The architectural details are a pleasing mix of Italianate and neo-Grec styles.

In January 1912, well-to-do stockbroker Harry Lattimer Bloodgood moved into the apartment of his widowed mother, Mrs. John Bloodgood, after leaving his wife Helen Hamler Bloodgood and filing for divorce.  The separation and looming divorce had unexpected psychological effects on Helen.  On March 10, 1912 The Sun reported that since the separation, "Mrs. Bloodgood has been in Broadway restaurants nearly every night and until early in the morning."  

"It was also learned that a piano player was kept on duty for twenty-four hours," said the article.  Helen admitted that within a three week period she had spent "$3,000 in entertaining her friends."  (The amount would equal about $93,400 today.)  Additionally, The Sun said that according to Harry Bloodgood, "some time since his wife left him certain of her associated had robbed her of jewelry and clothing."

When doctors were called to Helen's apartment on March 3, they "found the apartment wrecked."  Helen was taken to the psychopathic ward of Bellevue Hospital and three days later Harry Bloodgood was summoned to an examination of her mental faculties.  He dropped his suit for divorce when Helen was deemed insane and committed to the Rivercrest Sanitarium.

The neighborhood had greatly changed by the Depression years, as the Midtown business district expanded east and west.  The basement and first floors of 127 West 56th Street were converted to commercial spaces.  In September 1935 William Chaltis signed a ten-year lease on the basement as the site of his luncheonette.  By 1939 the second floor held the offices of the Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers.

Designers and decorators John Kelly and Robert Vaugh operated their showroom from 127 West 56th Street in the early 1950s.  In the meantime, apartments in the building continued to attract creative types.  Living here by the late 1960s were Palmer Hayden and his wife Miriam.  Hayden was described by The New York Times as "a painter of Afro-American life and culture."  Today, his works hang today in prestigious museums like the Smithsonian Institution.  The couple was still living here when Hayden died at the age of 83 on February 19, 1973.

By 1991 the building was owned by architect Edward F. Knowles, who ran his office from the address.  Knowles had worked for the esteemed architects Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Abraham Geller, and Edward Larrabee Barnes before opening his own practice in 1961.  He renovated the upper floors to four 1,300-square-foot apartments.  The basement level has been home to Topaz Restaurant since 1993.

non-credited photographs by the author
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