Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The William G. Collins House - 261 West 85th Street


In the last decade of the 19th century, architect C. P. H. Gilbert was busy designing scores of residences in the developer Upper West Side.  While known for creating sumptuous private mansions, he produced rows of upscale speculative homes, as well.  Such was the case in 1896, when developer John O. Baker completed construction of six fine brick and limestone rowhouses at 253 through 261 West 85th Street.

Gilbert had designed the five-story-and-basement homes in the popular Beaux Arts style.  He bowed the facades of the first four floors of the end houses, including 261 West 85th Street, creating a balustraded balcony to the fifth floor.  The round openings at this level were surrounded by elaborately carved decorations.

No. 261 West 85th Street was sold to the Cooper family, whose residency was short.  By 1901 they were leasing the house to William G. Collins.  

Born in Chardon, Ohio in 1848, Collins founded the upholstery textile firm Collins & Aikman Co. with Charles M. Aikman.  His long family history in America was evidenced in his memberships in the Society of Colonial Wars and the Society of Mayflower Descendants.  A widower, he had two sons, William Major and Kenneth Benedict.  When they moved into the West 85th Street house, William was attending Columbia University and Kenneth was already involved in his father's business.

The all-male household would receive a feminine touch in 1902.  On May 4, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Very quietly on Wednesday evening there were married, from the home of Mr. and Mrs. Haines Woodruff Sullivan...Mrs. Bertha W. Armstrong and William G. Collins of Manhattan."  Bertha  was a widow.  She and her daughter Clara had lived in Philadelphia prior to the wedding and their moving into 261 West 85th Street.

It appears that Clara left a beaux back home.  But distance did not cool their romance.  Two years later, on April 29, The New York Times reported on Clara's engagement to Albert Buck Dissel of Philadelphia.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

After William Major Collins's graduation from Columbia in 1902, he enrolled in the New York Homeopathic Medical College.  He received his medical degree in 1905, and continued living in the 85th Street house with his father and step-mother.

That same year Mary P. and Harriet Cooper offered 261 West 85th Street for sale.  Although obviously pleased with the house, Collins apparently did not wish to purchase it.  The sisters sold 261 West 85th Street to Frederick Pflomm, who quickly resold it to C. A. Mount and his wife.  The new owners continued to lease the house to the Collinses.

William G. Collins died in the residence on June 15, 1915 at the age of 67.  In reporting on his death, The Upholsterer said, "the domestic fabric industry has lost one of its most prominent members."  The funeral was held in the drawing room on June 17.  Described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as "beautiful services," it included music by choir members of the West End Presbyterian Church.

It is unclear how long Bertha Armstrong Collins continued to lease 261 West 85th Street.  The Mounts sold the house in May 1921.  It continued to be leased to well-to-do families until 1936, when architect John Arthur Rofreno was hired to convert it into a multiple family dwelling.  There were now one apartment on the ground floor and furnished rooms above.

That configuration lasted until 1969, when a renovation resulted in one apartment on each floor.  And then, in 1983, the upper four floors were combined as a single residence.  The ground floor apartment remains.

photographs by the author
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