Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The 1906 Hyperion Apartments - 318-320 West 84th Street


Morris Rosenburg worked as the night watchman at the construction site of the Hyperion apartment building at 320 West 84th Street in 1905.  Early on Christmas morning the superintendent of construction Adam Kleper checked in.  After walking throughout the nearly completed building and not running into Rosenburg, he searched for him.  The New York Times reported, "he went to the small room in the rear where the man usually stayed."  Rosenburg's shanty was heated by a coke stove.

Kelper forced open the door and found a grisly scene.   The article said, "The watchman was dead, his left arm and leg badly burned, as was his left side.  It is supposed that, overcome by the coke fumes, he toppled over on the stove and, upsetting it, was burned to death."

The rising Hyperion sat on the site of two mansions, one of which had been owned by James and Margaret Sbreel Slattery.  They had sold it to the developers Rosenberg & Feinberg for just over $300,000.  The couple's son, John Richard Slattery, is remembered today as the Catholic priest who worked throughout his religious career for the betterment of the condition of Blacks and for the Catholic Church's acceptance of Black clergy.

In the spring of 1906, a few months after Morris Rosenburg's horrifying death, the first residents of the Hyperion moved in.  It was described in an advertisement that April as "just finished" and being "beautifully decorated."  There were just two apartments per floor, one of eight rooms and the other of seven--each with two bathrooms (one for the servants).  The ad noted amenities like "uniformed attendants" and "telephone in each apartment."  Rents were either $1,300 (for the seven-room suite) or $1,400--approximately $4,000 per month in 2023 for the pricier apartments.

Architect Edward A. Meyers's dignified Beaux Arts design forewent the festoons and dripping swags seen in many other apartment buildings in the style.  Instead, the upper floors were enhanced with Renaissance style pediments above the third floor windows; and Gibbs surrounds and splayed lintels, more expected in neo-Federal style buildings, on the top three floors.  Two balconies, one over the entrance and the other at the fifth floor, relieved the otherwise flat facade.  A prominent stone balustrade sat above the cornice.

from Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1908 (copyright expired)

 A brochure lured potential, well-heeled residents.  It boasted, "The environments are delightful, being in one of the most fashionable neighborhoods of the West Side, and within a few hundred feet of the Columbia Yacht Club station at the foot of 86th street, where many world-known yachts ride at anchor."  The advertisement further noted, "Parlors and libraries are finished in mahogany, dining rooms in antique oak, all other rooms in white enamel.  Parquet flooring in every room."

Among the Hyperion's early residents were attorney Myron Turn Townsend, a 1902 graduate of Columbia University; Dr. Robert G. Moore, an attending orthopedic surgeon at Seton Hospital;  and Richard Phelan, who left his comfortable surroundings here at the outbreak of war in Europe to attend the Plattsburgh, New York military training camp.

A dignified balustrade originally crowned the Hyperion.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1908 (copyright expired

Laurence Schwab would be a long-time resident.  He was living here by 1917 when he was the theatrical manager of the Palace Theatre.  He had graduated from Harvard three years earlier.  As it had done to Richard Phelan, World War I interrupted his life.  On December 7, 1917, the very day America entered the war, Schwab enlisted into the U.S. Navy.  Despite his ship's being destroyed by an explosion, Schwab survived.  He resigned his position as Lieutenant in February 1919 and returned to the Hyperion.  He wrote in 1924, "I have since been back at work producing playlets and musical sketches for vaudeville."

By 1918 the Hirsch family had an apartment here.  Adolph was a broker of fertilizing materials and chemicals.  Also in the apartment were adult sons Ralph T. Hirsch, who was a well-known mining engineer, and Herbert Adolph.  A bachelor and 1905 graduate of Harvard, Herbert did not list an occupation.

On June 16, 1922, resident Anton Weigand seemed like an easy mark for pickpocket Elverite Monjellio.  Weigand, who was a tea and coffee merchant, was on a streetcar when he realized the 27-year-old was stealing his wallet.  Monjellio, as it turned out, had picked the wrong target.

The Evening World reported, "Men and women in a 125th Street crosstown car early this morning were greatly excited when Detectives Sullivan and McCoy...dashed through and arrested Elverite Monjellio."  The detectives had been in the front of the car when they "heard shouts and a struggle on the back platform."  Weigand had overpowered and held the would-be crook "who protested his innocence," said the article.

Other residents at the time were William G. Armstrong, the secretary of the National Liberty Insurance Co. of America; author Herbert Manchester, whose 1926 The Romance of the Match was published while he lived here; and actress and Metropolitan Opera soprano Dicie Howell.  

A cabinet card depicted Dicie Howell around the turn of the century.

On August 13, 1919, The Columbia Daily Spectator reviewed the opening night production of Horatio Parker's Dream of Mary.  The critic noted, "Dicie Howell, soprano, played the role of Mary and captivated the audience by her superb singing."

Charles F. Wiebusch was the president of hardware manufacturing firm Wiebusch & Hilger, Ltd.  He had entered the firm founded by his father as a young man.  At the time of the 70-year-old's death on May 12, 1930, change was on the near horizon for the refined Hyperion apartment house.

By 1935, the sprawling apartments had been subdivided.  Perhaps the first evidence that not all of the residents were respectable came at 6:30 on the morning of October 22 that year.  Hugo Chiarello and Joseph Pegno, who shared a one-room apartment, headed out of the lobby during a period of what the Niagara Falls Gazette called "gang warfare."  They may have been on the way to the funeral of the notorious gangster Dutch Schultz but, if so, they would not make it.

Gangland figures Chiarello and Pegno were gunned down in the Hyperion's lobby.  New York Post, October 28, 1935.

The New York Post reported, "as the mobster was being laid to rest, trigger men mowed down two more men in the lobby of a West Eighty-fourth Street apartment house.  Today's targets were Hugo Chiarello, twenty-five, and Joseph Pegno, thirty-two, both known to police."  Chiarello was hit twice in the body and once in the head.  The Niagara Falls Gazette added, "Pegno got a bullet under his heart."  In their apartment, police found a loaded .45 caliber pistol.

Unsavory publicity continued in 1937 when 18-year-old resident Betty Sorsay was arrested as part of a national narcotics ring run by the Pennachhio family.  That same year on December 15, 34-year-old resident Omer F. Paradise was arrested and held without bail on a charge of burglarizing the Richard Schwab residence.  The Long Island Daily Press reported, "At the time of his arrest, Paradise...had about $300 worth of jewelry belonging to Schwab and his wife in his possession."

The decline of the once elegant Hyperion hit rock bottom in 1941 when it was renovated to a single-room-occupancy hotel.  Where there were originally just two commodious apartments per floor, there were now 16 sparsely furnished rooms.

Happily, exactly three decades later a remodeling brought the building back to respectability when the Hyperion was renovated to apartments, six per floor.

photographs by the author
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