Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The George W. Fairchild House - 329 West 85th Street


Somewhat surprisingly, the stained glass parlor transoms survive.

In 1890, real estate developer Perez Stewart commissioned Ralph S. Townsend to design a row of first-class houses along the north side of West 85th Street, between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue.  The 46-year-old architect created a striking group of nearly identical three-story-and-basement residences, completed in 1891.  They were designed in the Romanesque Revival style and splashed with a touch of Queen Anne at the delightful attic level with its pyramidal caps.

The parlor levels sat above especially high English basements, both of which were faced in rough-cut stone.  The otherwise identical facades were distinguished by individual carved elements--the keystones above each entrance and incidental medieval style decorations.  The upper two stories were faced in brick and trimmed in undressed stone.  Shallow stone bowls at the second floor, and smaller versions at the third, most likely held decorative cast iron railings.

Five days after the houses were completed, operator P. T. Radiker purchased 329, 331 and 333 West 85th Street.  Known as "the House Merchant" within the real estate community, he initially leased them to affluent families.

The George Winfield Fairchilds first rented 329 West Street.  Fairchild had married Helen Louis Booth in 1889.  Helen's father, Ralph W. Booth, had died in 1884 and following the death of her mother in 1893, at least one of Helen's unmarried sisters (there were two, Lizzie A. and Lucy Dailey Booth), lived with the couple.

Helen's sister was an animal lover.  Once-a-year "Miss Booth" donated a horse blanket to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  

The Fairchilds' fashionable lifestyle was typical of the residents along the row.  On February 11, 1894, for instance, the New York Herald reported, "Mrs. George Fairchild, of No. 329 West Eighty-fifth street, gave a handsome dinner party on Thursday night."  And five months later, The New York Times remarked, "Mr. and Mrs. George Winfield Fairchild...have gone to Avon-by-the-Sea for the Summer."

It would be one of the last summer seasons for the Fairchilds in the 85th Street house.  In February 1896 the 20-foot-wide residence was offered for rent again.  The ad noted that it contained "all improvements; just decorated."  The annual rent was listed at $1,500, an affordable $4,500 per month by 2023 terms.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

No. 359 West 85th Street became home to Emanuel Hayman, known professionally as Harry Mann.  He had already had a colorful career.  When he entered the theatrical field in 1876 at the age of 23 he changed his name.  He started out managing minstrel shows, starting with Primrose and West's Minstrels, and then J. H. Haverly's Minstrels.  He moved on to the legitimate stage when he became manager of the Fourteenth Street Theatre.  When he moved into the 85th Street house, he was the business manager of the Knickerbocker Theatre, of which his brother Albert Hayman was proprietor.  (Another brother, Alfred, worked with theater manager and producer Charles Frohman.)

In April 1901 Mann's health began to fail.  Doctors diagnosed him with "Bright's disease, with complications," according to The New York Times.  After the diagnosis, he spent much of his time in Saratoga.  In July, The New York Times remarked, "although he visited the city several times, he has not been well since Spring."

He was at Saratoga in late June when his condition worsened.  On July 9 the 48-year-old fell into unconsciousness and he died thirty hours later.  His body was brought back to 329 West 85th Street where his funeral was held on July 14.

Two months later, Mary Harrison and Nancy Crozier purchased the house.  Like its former owners, they leased it.  When it was sold again in June 1905, the house finally had a resident owner.  

Louis Bassave was described by the New York Herald as "a wealthy Cuban planter."  (The Rome Daily went further, saying he was a "millionaire Cuban planter.")  Living with him and his wife, Antonia M. Aciego de Bassave, were their daughter and her husband, John Lynch.

On February 25, 1912, the Bassaves were in Cuba.  Only the butler, Eugene Berand, was at home at 5:00 that afternoon when he heard the opening of drawers and the sound of clinking silverware coming from the downstairs.  The New York Herald reported, "he armed himself with a club made from a sawed off billiard cue and descended to the dining room."  At the sideboard was a man wearing a mask, who turned and aimed a revolver at Berand.  The courageous butler "tried to knock down the weapon with his club.  They exchanged half a dozen blows, but at last the burglar struck Berand on the head with the butt of his revolver."

Berand was knocked unconscious.  But seconds later John Lynch came home.  When the burglar heard the door being unlocked, he fled leaving behind a suitcase packed with silverware and other valuable objects.  The New York Herald reported, "When Berand revived, Mr. Lynch, who had entered as the scuffle ended, was leaning over him."

On April 1, 1918, The Sun reported that Antonia M. Aciego de Bassave had leased 329 West 85th Street to Alice Verlet.  Known to opera lovers as Madame Verlet, the coloratura soprano was born in Belgium in 1873, and had appeared on the stages of Europe's most prestigious opera houses.  In 1916 she had begun recording for Edison Records, but on August 1, 1918 The Musical Leader reported that she "will enter the concert and recital field again this fall."  

Madame Alice Verlet as she appeared in the 1912 production of Mozart's Magic Flute.  from the collection of the Biblioteque Nationale de France.

After leasing the house, Alice Verlet began giving vocal lessons.  The article noted:

During the past four months she has been giving much time to a class which is assuming portentous size.  Mme. Verlet has taken an interesting house in New York at 329 West Eighty-fifth street.  Its rooms are large, particularly suitable for musicals, and Mme. Verlet plans to present some of her pupils there in recital.

The Bassaves sold 329 West 85th Street in February 1920.  The new owner, Mathilda Tarafa leased it on October 1, 1921 to another operatic voice coach, Alfredo Martimo.

The New York Courier, February 1922

The house would be sold twice before Patrick J. O'Keeffe purchased it in December 1931.  O'Keeffe was patiently buying up the row.  On December 15, The New York Evening Post noted that he already owned 331 and 335.  His first purchase was 335 West 85th Street in 1920, following by 331 in 1922.  Eight days after buying 329 West 85th Street, he added 337 to his collection.  He would not live to see the complete row under his ownership.  In 1938 his estate took title to 333 West 85th Street.

In the meantime, 329 West 85th Street was being operated as rented rooms.  Living here in the summer of 1937 was 41-year-old James Mackie, a waiter.  On August 18 he walked into Fred Katz's butcher shop at 2551 Broadway and, according to 
The New York Post, "ordered all the beefsteak he could carry."  Katz was "delighted" according to the article, and handed $23.87 worth of steaks over the the "apparently affluent man."  (The bill would translate to around $485 today.) 

The newspaper continued, "Less delighted was Katz when the customer walked out without paying, got into his car and sped away."  Katz gave chase, joined by a policeman, and they caught Mackie two blocks away.  Calling Mackie a man "who knew a steak when he saw one," The New York Post reported that in night court he "denied intent to steal."

On October 5, 1954, the row of homes was sold to Havens Enterprises, Inc.  The firm hired the architectural firm of Wechsler & Schimenti to renovate them into apartments.  The stoops were removed and the doorways replaced with windows.  There were now two apartments per floor within 329 West 85th Street.

Despite the regrettable loss of the stoops and an ill-advised coating of chocolate- and cream-colored paint, Ralph Townsend's overall design still draws attention.

photographs by the author
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