Saturday, November 4, 2023

The 1885 129 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 brownstone-fronted buildings mimicked the private, high-stooped Italianate residences appearing throughout the city.  Triangular, Renaissance inspired pediments sat above the first floor windows, and the upper openings sat within architrave frames under molded lintels.  The emerging neo-Grec style appeared in the incised carvings of the window frames.  An elaborate, shared cornice was crowned by a stone balustrade.

It appears that each of the buildings was given a slightly different entrance.  At 129 West 56th Street, the prominent cornice above the doorway was supported by charming carved putti that perched upon Doric pilasters.

In February 1888, John Bermingham purchased 129 West 56th Street, paying $22,000 (or nearly $700,000 in 2023) for the property.  He moved his family into one of the apartments, as well.

Born in Westmeath, Ireland in 1843, Bermingham was brought to New York City at the age of four and grew up on Crosby Street.  The Evening World later said of him, "He learned and worked at the trade of harness maker and saddler for many years."  But like many Irish immigrants, Bermingham realized that one means to gain financial success was by aligning oneself to Tammany Hall.  The Evening World noted he "has been a staunch Tammany Hall Democrat ever since he became a voter."

In 1876, at the age of 33, the harness maker was made an examiner in the city's Finance Department.  Four years later he was made a court attendant, earning $1,200 a year (about $35,000 today).  In 1883, Bermingham was assigned to the Grand Jury.  The position was not a cushy Tammany handout, however.  The Evening World explained:

The Grand Jury sits twelve months in the year, and its attendant, though performing a much more arduous and important duty than the other court attendants, gets no Summer vacation of two months.

In June 1891, a new position was created, Warden of the Grand Jury.  It was filled by John Bermingham, who, said The Evening World on June 6, "despite the oppressiveness and impressiveness of his title, is a genial, kindly, obliging official without fuss or feathers."  Bermingham's compensation was raised to $2,000 per year.  (One still has to wonder how he afforded the cost of the apartment building.  He may gave been given financial assistance by Tammany Hall, or one of its members.)

Among Bermingham's tenants in 1889 was August Wolf.  The affluent businessman had a serious problem--a gambling addiction.  On May 6 that year, according to The Weekly Press, Wolf "rushed into [John C.] Allen's office greatly excited and asked for a loan of $500."  Allen, a stockbroker, knew Wolf intimately and gave him a check.  Just an hour later, Wolf returned and asked for another loan--this one of $1,000.  Now Allen asked for security, and Wolf promised to return the following day and give him a check.

Two days later, when Wolf had not appeared, Allen came to 129 West 56th Street and confronted him.  Wolf's response enraged Allen:  "I haven't got it now, my boy; you'll have to wait until I get it."

The Weekly Press reported, "The reply exasperated Allen, and he gave Wolf a tongue lashing.  Wolf says Allen then pointed a revolver at him and said: 'Sit down.  Now take pen and ink.  Write out a check for $500 and give me an I. O. U. for the remaining $1,000."

Wolf later said, "I did so.  What won't a man do with a loaded revolver pointed at him.  It was so near my face that I sniffed it."

Unfortunately for Allen, Wolf had no money in the bank and the check was worthless.  He, therefore, had August Wolf arrested for grand larceny.  In court, Wolf gave a simple explanation to the judge. "I'm a gambler and I lost the $1,500 at one sitting."

The elaborate cornice and balustrade survived in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Other residents at the time included the Rev. Alexander Dunlop King, pastor of the West Fifty-First Street Presbyterian Church; and Warren D. Kinny, his wife Helen B., and their 13-year-old son, Arthur B. Kinny, who was known as Archie.  Warren D. Kinny was superintendent of the gas fixture manufacturer, Block & Boyd.  He fell ill early in 1900 and died in the apartment on January 20 at the age of 47.  

Kinny left an estate that kept his widow and son comfortable.  By the time he was 17, Archie had obtained a position as a clerk in the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  Like most affluent teen boys at the time, he was highly interested in horses and was a member of Durland's Riding Academy.  

Each year in December, Durland's put on a "Christmas week ride."  The pageants involved approximately 100 riders in costume.  The 1904 show was scheduled for December 27 and had a circus theme.  That afternoon the participants took part in a dress rehearsal.  The New York Herald noted, "The boxes in the place were filled with society folk," who came to get a preview of the show.  

The newspaper noted, "Young Kinny wore the costume of a clown and was one of the fastest and most expert riders in the ring."  But at the close of the rehearsal, Kinny made a serious mistake, "attempting to turn too abruptly in the exit from the ring," according to The New York Herald.  The Evening Post reported, "The young man was thrown heavily from his horse."

"Many of the women, looking down from the ring, became hysterical," reported the New York Herald.  Archie Kinny had hit his head in the fall and was unconscious.  A carriage was sent for his mother.  "When Mrs. Kinny arrived she was nearly overcome with grief and alarm," said the article.  While an ambulance from Roosevelt Hospital transported the teen, Helen Kinny sent for the family doctor.  Happily, although he did not regain consciousness for an hour and was diagnosed with a concussion, both Dr. Robertson and the hospital staff assured Helen that Archie had sustained no more serious injuries.

William H. Powell and his wife Adelaide were visible residents, living here by 1908.  Born on East 22nd Street in 1866, he was the son of famed historical artist William Henry Powell, whose murals are in the United States Capitol Rotunda, in a Capitol staircase, and in the Ohio State Capitol building.

Powell, too, was an artist and "prominent in art circles," according to the New York Herald.  A member of the Municipal Art Society, he conducted an art gallery on Sixth Avenue and was friends with some of the most famous artists in America, many of those connections having been made during his youth through his father.

Aware that struggling artists needed assistance, Powell devoted a portion of his art gallery as a permanent exhibition space for emerging painters and sculptors.  The New York Herald on May 15, 1916, said he made "his rooms free to such men and had aided many artists who are now prominent."

In 1916, with war sweeping across Europe, the Preparedness Movement emerged in America.  It sought to convince citizens of the importance of America's involvement in the conflict and urgency for military preparedness.  On May 13, 1916, The New York Times reported on the Preparedness Parade scheduled for that morning.  The article said 150,000 persons would march up Fifth Avenue.

Formally dressed businessmen march in the Preparedness Parade on May 13, 1916.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

Among the thousands taking part in the parade that day was William H. Powell, who marched "with the section set aside for artists," as reported by the New York Herald.  A few hours after returning home, he suffered a fatal stroke.  The 50-year-old's funeral was held in the apartment on the evening of May 15.

Living here in 1924 was 33-year-old Mrs. Blanche Hadley, a dressmaker.   On July 1 that year, she was in a Brooklyn police station, facing off with a taxi driver whose story was starkly different than hers.

What the two agreed upon was that the night before Blanche and a man hired the cabbie to take them to Coney Island.  After "the resort had been visited," as reported by the Brooklyn Standard Union, the man told the cabbie Raymond McAvoy, that he had given Blanche money for the return fare.  Blanche instructed him to return to Manhattan by the Queensboro Bridge.

At this point the stories diverged.  The Brooklyn Standard Union reported, "At Manhattan and Engert avenues, the chauffeur claims, Mrs. Hadley began kicking out the windows of his car."  Blanche's version was that "when they reached Manhattan and Engert avenues the chauffeur stopped the machine, got into the car and tried to take liberties with her, and when she repulsed him he struck her."  When neither story could be confirmed, both were arrested to appear in court the following day.

By the late 1930s, the basement and first floor had been converted for business purposes.  A picture frame store occupied the "parlor floor," replaced by the L'Atelier art gallery by 1941.  (The space in the basement was now home to a laundry.)  On January 20, 1945, The Sun reported on a showing of water colors "devoted to scenes of Maine, by Albert Jacquez at L'Atelier, saying "The exhibition, which seems to call for looking into, continues until February 14."

A renovation completed in 1948 resulted in a store in the basement, a dance studio on the first floor, and two apartments each on the upper stories.  

The dance studio was Caird Leslie's Ballet Center Studio.  Born in 1899 in Des Moines, Iowa, Leslie studied ballet in New York, and in Paris under Nicholas Legat of the Russian Imperial Ballet.  In New York he performed for Adolf Bolm in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in Petrouchka.  Following his retirement from the stage in the 1930s, he founded the Ballet Center Studio.

On February 10, 1970, The New York Times reported, "Caird Leslie, a former ballet dancer and teacher, was found dead in his home at 129 West 56th Street on Sunday, apparently after having taken an overdose of sleeping pills."

Leslie had no doubt been well acquainted with another resident, conductor John Crosby.  Born in 1926 in Rancho Mirage, California, Crosby was had begun his musical career as an assistant arranger for Broadway musicals.  A regular attendee of the Metropolitan Opera, in 1951 he witnessed the Alfred Lunt production of Cosi fan tutte in standing room.  It would change the course of his career by planting the seed for his founding of The Santa Fe Opera.

John Crosby, image via

In his 2015 biography of Crosby, A Vision of Voices, Craig A. Smith writes,

From the beginning, Crosby maintained a New York office for the company--an absolute necessity for any organization involved in the performing arts world...From October 1955 to November 1959, he had a studio at 129 West 56th Street, which he used for Santa Fe Opera business when in the city.

The artistic bent of the occupants of 129 West 56th Street continued in the second half of the century.  By 1956 L'Atelier gallery had been replaced by the Petite Galerie, Inc.  It would remain in the space for years.

Elaine Sorel lived in the building in the mid-1960s.  Among the groups she managed was indie-rock band The Roman Numerals.

On April 13, 1979, Thomas Lask, writing in The New York Times, reported, "The Mysterious Bookshop will open its doors at 129 West 56th Street."  Otto Penzler had leased both stores and connected them with a spiral staircase.  Lask wrote, 

It is a cozy and inviting place with mahogany-stained bookcases from floor to ceiling, each of them topped with a handsome molding.  The second floor, especially, has the look of someone's private library--an impression the owner has no intention of destroying.

The second floor was devoted to "hard-cover books; rare, out-of-date and first editions, and autographed volumes;" while the first floor held paper-back books.  Otto Penzler also lived in the building, and acquired additional space for a printing press.  It housed The Mysterious Press which published the quarterly The Armchair Detectives and the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection.

In 2005 the building was sold.  After a quarter of a century at West 56th Street, Penzler was forced to relocate The Mysterious Bookshop to Warren Street where it remains.

When the property was sold again in 2015, there was a Thai restaurant in the former bookshop levels and eight apartments on the upper floors--three one-bedroom and five two-bedroom apartments.  A renovation completed the following year resulted in a restaurant in the basement, and two apartments each on the upper floors.  Through it all, the delightful chubby putti continue to watch visitors and residents come and go after near 140 years.

photographs by the author
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  1. I've forwarded the link to FictionMags, an I.O group about books, magazines, and publishing, and to Otto Penzler.