Clarence Fagan True worked in the architectural office of Richard Mitchell Upjohn (son of eminent architect Richard Upjohn) from 1881 through 1887. In 1892, three years after opening his own office, the 32-year-old True was commissioned by developer Charles G. Judson to design a row of six homes along the southern side of West 85th Street, between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. Years later, True would insist that he initiated the American basement plan, which did away with high stone stoops in favor of low porches or none at all. These would be his first American basement designs. (In fact, True was not the first to break the decades-old English basement trend, but he was definitely an early and strong promoter.)
Patently True, who worked in often playful variants of historic styles, the completed three-story dwelling were picturesque. A blend of Italian Renaissance Revival and Romanesque, their rusticated red sandstone parlor floors were accessed by three-step porches flanked by heavy stone wing walls with muscular, nubby-topped newels. A carved Romanesque stone course supported by beefy brackets introduced upper floors, faced in orange Roman brick.
Each house in the A-B-A-A-B-A row had a projecting bay at the second floor, and arched openings on the third. Most eye-catching, perhaps, were the hoods True placed over the second floor bays of the "A" houses, like 322 West 85th Street. Their S-shaped tiles, or pantiles, evoked a Mediterranean feel and echoed the deeply overhanging roofs.
The architect was apparently pleased with his work. The houses were completed in 1892 and True leased 322 West 85th Street from Judson. After the developer sold three of the houses--316, 322 and 326--to real estate operator Francis S. Smith in 1893, Clarence F. True continued to rent No. 322 until the fall of 1895. In November that year, Smith sold the house to John Rutherford Buchan and his wife, the former Nellie Woodward.
Living in the house with John and Nellie were John's widowed mother, Rachel, and his unmarried sister, Sarah. Born in 1862, Buchan, who was in the insurance business, had two great passions--sailing and French Bulldogs. When he purchased 322 West 85th Street, he owned a schooner yacht the Christine, which boasted a stateroom, water closet, and six berths.
Buchan's expertise in sailing was equaled by his knowledge of bulldogs. The secretary of the French Bulldog Club of America, on February 21, 1897, he sent an exhaustive letter to the editors of Turf, Field, and Farm, which explained in excruciating detail the difference between the ears of the English and the French Bulldog.
Three years after the family moved in, John was called away. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898, he was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy. Six months later he was promoted to executive officer of the United States Ship Kanawha. The Seventh Regiment Gazette recalled in 1917, "Owing to his professional attainments he was entrusted with watch duties not often accorded to so young an officer."
He had barely returned home when the 85th Street house was the scene of sorrow. Rachel Buchan died at the age of 82 on November 6, 1899. Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.
Buchan's maritime knowledge quickly drew him away again. He was appointed "expert in charge of marine exhibitions" of the United States Commission to the 1900 Paris Exhibition.
Sarah Buchan died on November 10, 1915. There would be another Buchan funeral in the house two years later, following John's death at the age of 54 on April 7, 1917. The Seventh Regiment Gazette reported, "Mr. Buchan's funeral was attended by many prominent officers and citizens."
Now alone, Nellie sold 322 West 85th Street to widow Rosalia A. Becker in April 1919. Sharing the house were her unmarried daughters Elsa G., Grace Heidt, and Loretta F. Becker.
Grace Heidt Becker graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Barnard College in 1922. Her sister Elsa had graduated from the same school in 1914 and quickly became known as a pioneer in the school counseling movement. On November 21, 1924, for instance The Eagle reported that the previous day Elsa had visited the Santa Barbara State Teachers College "to interview Dean Pyle." The article noted, "Miss Becker stopped in the city yesterday on her way North, where she goes to gives lectures in Education at various northern colleges and universities."
The house in 1941 when the Becker sisters were living here. image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
In 1936 Elsa published an article, "Guidance in Progress in a Large City High School," in The Journal of Educational Sociology. She was by now the chairman of the Guidance Department of the Samuel J. Tilden High School in Manhattan. The same year she published Guidance at Work.
The Becker women remained at 322 West 85th Street for decades. Elsa died on December 27, 1967. It is unclear how long Loretta or Grace remained; however, the house remained a single-family dwelling until 1988. That year a renovation turned the basement into a separate apartment.
photographs by the author
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