Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Gilbert A. Schellenger's 1894 327 West 85th Street


As the block of West 85th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue filled with upscale private homes in the last decades of the 19th century, Annie Carney had another idea.  In 1894 she commissioned architect Gilbert A. Schellenger to design a five-story flat building at 327 West 85th Street.

The Engineering Record reported the cost of construction at $22,000--or just under $775,000 in 2023.  The architect's design was a blend of Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival styles.  A stoop with solid wing walls rose to the stately, columned portico.  The basement and first floor levels were faced in stone.  Schellenger chamfered the corners of the upper floors, creating a three-sided façade that provided extra light and ventilation to the front-facing apartments.  

The mid-section of the tripartite structure was clad in beige Roman brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Three-story piers terminated in ornate capitals, and spandrel panels were carved in Renaissance designs.  The top section, separated by an ornately carved bandcourse, featured an arcade of windows outlined in bullnose brick that softened the lines.  Between the openings were engaged brownstone columns with carved capitals.  Clustered columns flanked the central arcade.

An advertisement in 1898 offered, "Single apartment, 8 rooms, bath; all improvements; steam heat; hot water; rent $75."  The amount would translate to approximately $2,730 today.

The building filled with affluent residents.  Among the first were Sylvester H. Taylor, president of the Missisquoi Mineral Springs Company and its principal stock owner.  He had graduated from Yale University in 1886.

Louise Jane Hathaway Van Buskirk and her adult son Amzi Hathaway Van Buskirk lived in the building by 1903 when she was looking for domestic help.  Her ad sought a woman "For general housework, good cook and laundress."

Louise's husband, William Henry Van Buskirk, had died in 1868, the same year that Amzi was born.  He was named after Louise's father, Amzi Hathaway.

Amzi's friends and business associates may have believed he would be a life-long bachelor, but on May 22, 1907, the 39-year-old was married to Eleanor Arminger in the Central Presbyterian Church on West 57th Street.

Louise did not need to worry about being left alone.  The New York Times reported, "After a bridal trip through the South, Mr. and Mrs. Van Buskirk will live at 327 West Eighty-Fifth St."  Six years later, on May 22, 1913, Louise Van Buskirk died at the age of 75.  Her funeral was held in the 85th Street apartment.

At the time of Louise's death, Thomas F. Devine had owned the building for at least three years.  A influential builder and real estate developer, he was the head of Thomas F. Devine & Co.  He lived at 327 West 85th Street with his wife Jennie T. and their five children.

Born in New York City in 1862, Devine had not had an easy road to industrial success and financial comfort.  The New York Herald said he "attended the public schools until he was fourteen, when his father's death forced him to become the breadwinner of the family."  First going into the iron and metal trade, he changed courses by dealing in horses.  Finally, he turned to real estate.

Devine's contracting business earned him his fortune.  In 1904, he built the 148th Street section of the subway, and he erected "a number of public schools in Brooklyn," according to The Sun.  The New-York Tribune added that he built "many garages of the new cement type."

Devine's success may have had much to do with his close political ties.  In 1912 he ran for Senate.  On November 3, the night before Election Day, he stepped out of an automobile in front of 327 West 85th Street and was promptly arrested on a charge of "colonizing."  He had registered for the campaign using the address of 101 West 63rd Street, another of the buildings he owned.  The landlady there, a Mrs. Dooley, told investigators "that Devine had not slept under her roof six times in four years."

Thomas F. Devine reacted with a rant that sounds more like 2023 than 1912.  The Evening World reported,

He said that the charge against him was trumped up, instigated by his political enemies, and that the case would never come to trial.  The whole affair, he said, was merely the result of an effort to injure him at the polls tomorrow.

Devine lost the election.  Five days later his name appeared in the newspapers again, and once again the situation suggested questionable ties.  The New York Press reported on the arrests of "Charles Gondorf, long known as 'King of the Wiretappers'; Frederick Gondorf, the 'King's' brother, and Joseph Krakowsky, whose numberless aliases include 'Sir John Gray', 'Joseph Kay', and 'Paper Collar Joe', on a charge of defrauding two Wilmington, N. C., men out of $25,000."  An alleged victim man complained of losing $20,000 to the trio.  The article reported that Thomas F. Devine had supplied their $10,000 bail.

In 1941 the portico and solid stoop wing walls survived.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

That year another resident was in an unflattering spotlight.  Dr. Elizabeth S. Edmonston moved to 327 West 85th Street in 1911.  Until 1910, she had shared her private house on West End Avenue with a well-to-do spinster, Gertrude W. Van Ness, for ten years.  Gertrude's mother had earlier helped Elizabeth financially through medical school.

Gertrude Van Ness died in the Edmonston house on December 3, 1910.  The New York Press later reported that, according to Elizabeth, "five minutes after Miss Van Ness died, Mrs. Fisher glared at her, the doctor, from the opposite side of the bed and said, 'I haven't finished with you yet.'"

"Mrs. Fisher" was Gertrude Van Ness's sister, Julia I. Fisher, and the executrix of her will.  On May 2, 1912, The New York Press reported that Fisher intended to sue the doctor for $12,000 "alleged to have been lent to the defendant by...Gertrude W. Van Ness." During the trial that began on May 5, 1913, things became messy and public. 

Julia Fisher and her brother William P. Van Ness testified that Elizabeth had "obtained sums of money from her patient."  The New York Times reported that Van Ness testified to asking Elizabeth "if she did not think it but a poor return for all the kindness of my mother in obtaining a professional education for you to take money from my sister."  

And on May 8, 1913, the Newark Star-Eagle reported that Elma C. Leonhardt, "a trained nurse, testified that while Dr. Edmonston...was treating Miss Van Ness, the woman physician would go to the patient's room, 'smoke a cigar and have a social chat with her.'"  The Daily News added that Leonhardt testified, "She hardly ever entered Miss Van Ness' room that she did not have a big black cigar in her mouth.  She would light one cigar after another and smoke for hours.  The cigars had been cured in her own process."

Dr. Elizabeth Edmonston countersued for "an unpaid balance on $17,117, which, she says, she expended in board and medical attention upon Miss van Ness in the last ten years of her life."  

Elizabeth Edmonston lost the case and was ordered to pay Julia I. Fisher $7,208.  Nevertheless, she prevailed.  On January 8, 1914, The News-Herald reported, "Dr. Elizabeth Edmonston received word Wednesday that she had passed the state medical examination."

Other residents at the time were Rollin A. Spalding, Jr., a 1900 graduate of Yale University; and Robert Hall Ewell.  Ewell was an attorney with O'Brien, Boardman & Platt.  He had graduated from Yale in 1903 and from Harvard University in 1906.  He would leave 327 West 85th Street to fight in World War I.

Thomas F. Devine died in his apartment at the age of 55 on October 22, 1917.  At the time, the Devines' unmarried daughter Gene Marcella still lived with her mother.

Somewhat surprisingly, given that the family was in mourning, on February 9, 1918, The New York Times reported that Gene Marcella Devine was engaged to Leslie James Bailey.  The article said, "The wedding is planned for next June."

Sadly, it would not be a wedding, but a funeral that the Devine children would be attending.  Jennie T. Devine died on June 24, 1918.  Her funeral was held in the Church of the Holy Trinity on West 82nd Street two days later.

In the post-World War I years, musical couple Louis and Claire Svencenski lived here.  Claire was a pupil of Josef Hofmann and a friend of cellist Pablo Casals.  She advertised as a "pianist, accompanist, teacher."  Louis was on the faculty of the Institute of Musical Art and a member of the Kneisel Quartet.  An announcement in Musical America on April 9, 1921 said, "arrangements for Violin Instruction during June, July and August may be made by addressing Mr. Svencenski at 327 West 85th St., New York."

A colorful resident in 1939 was William Bailey.  On December 20, The New York Sun began an article saying, "Fires, sailings, openings and World Series bring them out, and last night's opening of 'Gone With the Wind' was no exception.  There was the inevitable 'free lance reporter' crowding in around the arriving stars."

As celebrities like Olivia de Havilland, Barbara O'Neill and Anne Rutherford filed in, police "armed back a youth in a handsome beaver coat who seemed very much offended by it, protesting that he was a reporter."  William Bailey threatened that "if any harm came to him, it would go hard with the cops."  And then he pulled out a "huge gold shield, the like of which would warm the heart of almost any Ambassador or Deputy Sheriff," said the article.

Unfortunately for Bailey, Detectives Francis J. Murphy and Arthur J. Burns had been around.  They recognized the badge as a fake and brought the 27-year-old to police headquarters.  Bailey's record showed that he had been arrested in Hoboken the previous year when it was discovered "he had a pocket filled with French postcards."  ("French postcards" depicted scantily dressed or fully nude female models.)

Bailey's arrest reflected the changing tenor of the West 85th Street block.  In 1946, 327 West 85th Street was converted to a single room occupancy hotel, with seven rooms per floor.  The brownstone portico and the stoop's wing walls were removed at the time.

The last quarter of the century, however, saw a turn-around in the neighborhood.  In 1974 the building was again renovated, and now houses four apartments per floor.

photographs by the author
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