Thursday, July 25, 2024

Henry J. Hardenbergh's 1889 121 East 89th Street


The socially prominent Rhinelander family traced its American roots to Philip Jacob Rhinelander, who arrived in the New World in 1686.  In 1886, an offal dock sat on Rhinelander land at the northwest corner of 89th Street and Lexington Avenue.  (An offal dock was where the waste from slaughter houses and the carcasses of dead horses and other animals were brought to await removal by the city.)  Two years, later, 
the Estate of William C. Rhinelander replaced the odorous facility by hiring architect Henry Janeway Hardenberg to design six private homes on Lexington Avenue and a four-story flat building around the corner at 121 East 89th Street.

Hardenberg had designed the impressive Dakota apartment building at 1 West 72nd Street eight years earlier.  This flat building would be considerably less ambitious, but nonetheless architecturally striking.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone and terra cotta, Hardenberg drew on Northern Renaissance prototypes for his design, while sprinkling it with Queen Anne elements.  The fourth floor sprouted phoenix-like from a swagged cornice and broken pediment above the two-story mid-section.  Its window was flanked by Doric pilasters and capped by a triangular pediment.  Two terra cotta rondels embellished the vertical parapet that took the place of a terminal cornice.

The 20-foot-wide structure was completed in 1889.  Its four apartments--one per floor--filled with financially comfortable families.  

Among the first were Samuel R. Ives and his wife, the former Frances Louisa Way.  Ives was born in Ohio in 1835 and married Frances in 1861.  Although he was just 54 years old when the couple moved into the new building, Ives was already retired.  Unfortunately, he would not enjoy his new apartment for long.  He and Frances went to Matamoras, Pennsylvania (just across the River from Port Jervis, New York) for the summer in July 1890.  Ives died there on August 1.

Francis Marion Tichenor and his wife, the former Elizabeth R. Cornell, were also original tenants.  Francis was born in 1840 and Elizabeth in 1846.  They were married on October 8, 1879.  Like the Rhinelanders, Francis Tichenor traced his American roots to the 17th century, his original ancestor, Martin Tichenor arriving in the New Haven Colony prior to 1644.  Francis was a respected attorney, having been admitted to the bar in Newark in 1866.

Elizabeth lost an interesting piece of Victorian jewelry in January 1891, most likely on a shopping trip.  Her advertisement in the New York Herald on January 10 was detailed:

Lost--In the vicinity of 14th St., a gold Bracelet, two animal heads, diamond eyes and small diamond in mouth of one animal; liberal reward.  Mrs. F. M. Tichenor, 121 East 89th st.

She advertised again later that year.  This time she was looking for domestic help.  Her ad in the New-York Tribune on September 26 read, "Housework--A young girl to do general housework in small family; one to sleep home preferred.  Tichenor."

While the Tichenors preferred that their maid did not live with the family (almost assuredly their cook did), the Reautchleck family's servant girl did.  The arranagement landed Andrew Reutchleck in jail on March 29, 1892.  The Evening World explained he, "was held in Harlem Court to-day charged with having last night forced an entrance to the bedroom of Mary McGinty, a servant in the same house."

Edward P. Phelps and his family lived here by 1893.  Phelps was the auditor for the Denver Iron and Coal Company at 51 Wall Street.  That summer, he hired Frank Guinevan to paint the apartment.  When Guinevan left on June 11, Phelps quickly noticed that his valise was missing.  Inside were valuable business papers, including four United Coal Company mortgage bonds and three shares of the company's stock--worth a total of $4,300 (about $150,000 in 2024).

Phelps reported the theft and Guinevan was arrested on June 15.  The Sun reported, "When searched at the Police Headquarters all the bonds and stocks were found in his possession."

The Bennetts lived at 121 East 89th Street by 1894.  On September 13 that year, The New York Press somewhat callously reported, "Twas a mosquito gave an estate of $6,500 to Mrs. Agnes R. Bennett of No. 121 East Eighty-ninth street.  Her husband, a traveling man, was bitten by one and died from it on August 13.  The will was probated yesterday."  Bennett's estate would translate to about a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

Timothy J. Bresnan, a retired fire chief, and his wife moved in around 1902.  Bresnan received a yearly pension of about $60,300 by today's terms.  

On June 6, 1909, the couple went on a day trip to Rockaway Beach.  Their excursion would end dramatically.  The next morning The New York Times reported that Bresnan "stood in the roadway with his wife, at Highland Avenue and the 11:45 o'clock last night, waiting for a trolley car to take them home."

Just as the trolley approached, a speeding, chauffeur-driven automobile with four passengers "came whirling toward them."  Bresnan pushed his wife to the curb and jumped in the opposite direction onto the trolley car.  The Times said, "The automobile glided between Mr. Bresnan and his wife, both narrowly escaping being run down."  A short distance up the block, the chauffeur stopped the car.  When he saw the irate Bresnan running toward him, he tried to restart the automobile, but the former fire chief was too quick for him.  He "jumped to the running board, and, with a vigorous swing, hit him in the face."

"That's for trying to run us down," Bresnan said.

Bresnan returned to his wife and boarded the trolley.  As it passed the automobile, the chauffeur, "one of his eyes beginning to swell," jumped aboard.  He and Bresnan "engaged in a lively fight."  The article said, "The passengers, many of them women, were in a panic."  Eventually, the chauffeur said he had had enough excitement for the night and jumped off.  "Ex-Chief Bresnan says he got the number of the automobile," reported The New York Times.

Among the Bresnans' neighbors were the Leopold Birnbaums. Both were born in Hungary in 1844.  They were married in 1861 and immigrated to New York with their five children in 1882.  Leopold Birnbaum was an accomplished engraver when he arrived.  Rather than working for a larger firm, he opened his own practice.  His clients included some of the leading jewelers of the city before his retirement in 1896.

The Birnbaums.  New York Herald, April 28, 1911 (copyright expired)

The Birnbaum apartment was well-filled on the night of April 28, 1911 in celebration of the couple's 50th anniversary.  The New York Herald reported, "A family dinner will be held in the evening, at which their five children and twelve grandchildren will be present.  To-morrow a reception will be held for friends."

The following year resident Harry Stillings suffered public embarrassment.  Early in July, he dropped into Frank Abrahall's saloon at 545 Third Avenue.  He had been preceded by what The New York Times called, "two visits to Abrahall's saloon of a police 'stool pigeon.'"  Suddenly, Police Lieutenant Becker's "Strong Arm" squad burst into the saloon and arrested Abrahall; his bartender, William Sheridan; and Harry Stillings as "common gamblers."    

Happily for Stillings (but not before his reputation had been tarnished), two weeks later, on July 21, The New York Times reported that he had been released "for lack of evidence against him and because he did not fit the description" in the informant's affidavit.

The floor-engulfing apartments continued, for the most part, to be occupied by respectable families.  Joseph Root and his wife lived here in the 1920s.  Mrs. Root was corresponding secretary of the East Side Clinic for Women and Children.  

Before it was painted, the facade's mixture of brick, brownstone and terra cotta created a contrast in color.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In the 1940s, Gordon S. Ierardi and his wife, the former Jean Coburn, lived here.  Ierardi graduated from Harvard in 1939 and initially joined the McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.  In 1940 he moved to John Wiley & Sons, Inc. where he would become "one of the foremost psychology editors in the nation," according to The New York Times.  Eventually, he would rise to the position of assistant vice president of the firm.

The building was renovated in 1984, although the configuration of one apartment to a floor was preserved.  It was possibly at that time that the red brick façade was painted white.  Other than that and replacement windows, Hardenberg's delightful flat building is outwardly little changed.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Charles B. Meyers's 1901 256 East 10th Street


The development firm of Gordon, Levy & Co. was busy erecting tenement buildings in the late 19th century.  On March 6, 1900, architect Charles B. Meyers filed plans for another--a six-story "brick flat" at 256-258 East 10th Street.  Completed the following year, it cost Gordon, Levy & Co. $50,000 to erect--about $1.85 million in 2024 terms.

Meyers clad the neo-Renaissance style structure in red brick above a rusticated brownstone base.  Unusual for the normally symmetrical style, the entrance was placed off center.  Renaissance style carvings decorated the three pilasters that framed the doorway and the flanking window.  An elaborate blind cartouche decorated the entablature.  

The openings of the second and sixth floors sat within molded architrave frames, while those on the floors in between wore prominent cornices.  The pairs of windows on either end of the third and fourth floors wore stepped voussoirs, and those on the fifth floor were joined by arched pediments.  A pressed metal cornice completed the design.

An advertisement in The New York World boasted, "New House--Newly decorated, light and large rooms in suites of 3, 4, 5; all improvements; $14, $20."  Rent for the most expensive apartments would translate to $740 per month in 2024.

Among the first tenants were the Offerman family.  The young couple had a eight-month-old son, Frederick.  On the night of January 25, 1901, Josephine Offerman was preparing dinner.  Because the tenement did not have electricity, she worked by the light of gas fixtures, augmented by a glass oil lamp.  The New York Times reported, "Her son was sitting at a table in a high chair.  The lamp was on the table when it exploded.  The burning oil ignited the child's clothing."

Josephine tried valiantly to smother the flames, burning herself severely "about the breast, face, and hands" in doing so.  Hearing her screams, neighbors summoned an ambulance and Josephine and Frederick were taken to Bellevue Hospital.  The little boy died a few hours later.

House painters Daniel Greenberg and Charles Rosenblum both lived here in 1903.  On July 12 that year were sent to paint a schoolhouse on Union Street in the Brooklyn near the riverfront.  It was a dangerous neighborhood.  Within the span of few hours, according to Brooklyn Times-Union, "An Italian was shot and dangerously wounded early in the morning.  A Young Italian woman shot and wounded a man whom she claims jilted her," and "three Italians set upon an Irishman, killing him."

Greenberg and Rosenblum were witnesses to the third incident.  They were passing Paul Pensabene's grocery at 28 Union Street when he got into "a row," as word by the newspaper, with John Bolden, who was making a delivery on the block.  Bolden had asked Pensabene to move his ice cream stand from the curb to prevent his cart from damaging it.  Pensabene refused.

"Bolden backed his horses up to the curb.  The tail end of his truck came in contact with the stand, pushing it inward."  Pensabene flew into a rage and he and two other men grabbed the reins of Bolden's horses, attempting to turn the team around.  The Times-Union said, "Bolden jumped from his seat and that cost him his life."  He was stabbed in the heart by one of the men.  Expectedly, Greenberg and Rosenblum were requested to make statements.

The Italian community was plagued by a terroristic group called La Mano Nera, or the Black Hand at the time.  The Italian-American group used violence, including assassinations and bombings, to extort money from well-to-do Italians.

Michael Abagnale, a barber, lived at 256 East 10th Street in 1908.  He ran his barbershop in the basement of 210 East 14th Street with Gaetano Bove.  Most likely few, if any, of their patrons realized that the two barbers were members of the Black Hand.

In January 1908, Francesco Spinella, described by The New York Times as "a wealthy Italian," began receiving threatening letters.  Over the course of a few weeks they demanded sums ranging from $500 to $2,000.  Instead of complying, Spinella turned the letters over to detectives.

An especially threatening letter arrived in May.  When Spinella did not respond, a bomb blew out the front of a house he owned on East 11th Street, injuring several people.  Later, a letter arrived that told Spinella that he now had "a taste" of the Black Hand's vengeance.  It told him to leave $500 with "Mike, the barber, at 210 East Fourteenth Street."  

An Italian-born detective named Caponi dressed as a laborer and went to Michael Abagnale's barbershop on June 12 for a shave.  Shortly afterward, Francesco Spinella came in.  He carried an envelope with paper cut to the size of bills.  On either side were $6 in marked bills.

"I've got the money," Spinella told Abagnale.  "I don't want no more bother."

"You won't be bothered no more," Abagnale answered, as he slipped the envelope into the cash drawer.

The New York Times reported, "Then Caponi jumped from the shaving chair and with the help of two other detectives who entered the shop arrested both men."  Michael Abagnale was charged with extortion and Bove with "acting in concert with him."

Resident Hyman Driezan worked as a suitcase maker, as did his brother, Oscar, who lived on Monroe Street.  Oscar was a union member and Hyman was not, but the difference did not cause problems until a strike was called early in the spring of 1910.  After it had dragged on for ten weeks, Hyman received an anonymous letter warning him that unless he joined the strike, he would be killed.  To protect himself, he began carrying a "pocket club" and a revolver to work.

On the morning of July 6, Hyman was intercepted by his brother at Chambers Street and West Broadway.  Oscar tried unsuccessfully to persuade him not to go to work while the strike was on.  The two got into a heated argument.  As it turned out, Oscar, too, was armed with a club and gun.  After hitting his brother several times over the head with his club, Oscar shot him twice.  The New York Times reported, "Had his aim been true, Oscar Driezan...would have killed his brother, Hyman."  Oscar was arrested and charged with felonious assault and carrying concealed weapons.

On May 18, 1917, Congress enacted the Selective Service Act, which enabled the Government to expand the military through conscription.  Although the war had been over for several years, the avoidance of the draft was a problem in 1921.  On May 15, the military authorities at Governor's Island began publishing a weekly "slacker" list in the local newspapers.  On the first list was Joseph Shermann of 256 East 10th Street.

The Communist Party was popular among the working class residents of the Lower East Side and the East Village in the first half of the 20th century.  In 1936, six residents of 256 East 10th Street were on the Government's list of registered Communist Party members.

At some point in the second half of the century, 256 East 10th Street lost its cornice, the brownstone was painted red, and details picked out in white.  Charles B. Meyers's somewhat eccentric neo-Renaissance facade disguises the colorful history that played out inside.

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Strafford - 777 West End Avenue


photo by Deansfa

In the first years of the 20th century, aristocratic West End Avenue morphed from a street of brick and brownstone mansions to one of apartment buildings.  In 1910, the Salisbury Realty Co. demolished the high-stooped residences at the southwest corner of West End Avenue and 98th Street and commissioned the architectural firm of Schwartz & Gross to design a high-end apartment building.

Twelve stories tall, The Strafford was completed in 1911.  Above the spartan, two-story stone base, it was clad in red brick and trimmed in limestone and terra cotta.  Swartz & Gross reserved the decorative drama for the two-story top section where their Renaissance Revival design melded ever so slightly with Beaux Arts (seen in the swagged brackets upholding the intermediate and terminal cornices).  An exuberant frieze of fans, cartouches and other Renaissance motifs created the focal point of the design.

There were two spacious apartments per floor--one of eight rooms and the other of ten--each with three baths.  Rents ranged from $2,500 to $3,000, or about $8,000 per month for the most expensive suites.

Among the initial residents were Emil and Tillie Taussig and their 18-year-old daughter Ruth.  Born in Eisenbrod, Bohemia on June 20, 1857, Emil and his family moved to Manhattan in 1866.  He and Tillie were married on January 18, 1883.  Tillie was the daughter of Hermann Mandelbaum, a tobacco merchant.  When the Taussigs moved into The Strafford, Emil was the president of the West Disinfecting Company.

The family had barely settled in before they sailed to Europe.  One account says Emil was setting up a branch of his company in Vienna, others say it was a pleasure trip.  In either case, in April 1912 the Taussigs prepared to return home, traveling to Southampton, England to board the RMS Titanic as first class passengers.

In his testimony later, on the night of the sinking German steward Alfred Theissinger recalled telling Emil and Tillie, "You better put on your lifebelts and rush out on deck."  Emil asked, "It is as serious as all that?"  "Yes, hurry," was the reply.

In the midst of the chaos on deck, Tillie and Ruth boarded lifeboat number 8.  When the Carpathia docked in New York with the survivors, Tillie and Ruth did not immediately return to their Stafford apartment, but went to the Mandelbaum home at Park Avenue and 96th Street.  A reporter from The New York Times visited, and on April 20, 1912 reported, "Both were ill from exposure and grief caused by the death of Mr. Taussig.  The article said in part,

They said that he and Henry B. Harris who with his wife rushed with them to the deck on hearing the collision with the iceberg, were threatened with revolvers when they attempted to get into a lifeboat, although there was plenty of room for them.  Mrs. Taussig said that the boat into which she stepped with her daughter Ruth and Mrs. Harris pulled away from the Titanic with several seat spaces empty.  She is indignant and horrified to think that her husband and the theatrical man were sacrificed needlessly.

Tillie recalled "that there were three distinct explosions, one following close upon another.  Also there was a medley of pistol shots, breaking out every few minutes, but what the firing meant, the women were unable to learn."

Tillie and Ruth returned to their apartment here, and on November 14, 1915, The Sun announced, "The wedding of Miss Ruth Taussig, daughter of Mrs. Emil Taussig of 777 West End Avenue, to Julius B. Lichtenstein, will take place on December 1 at the Ritz-Carlton."  Following the wedding, the newspaper noted, "Mr. and Mrs. Lichtenstein will live at 777 West End Avenue."

In the meantime, The Strafford had filled with other well-to-do professionals, like William H. Fletcher and his wife.  Born in 1857, Fletcher was a self-made man.  The New-York Tribune said, "After a common school education he became an engineer when only nineteen years old."  In 1913 he was vice-president of the steamboat and steam yacht building firm W. & A. Fletcher Company, president of the Consolidated Iron World, and vice-president of the Webb Academy and Home for Shipbuilders.

Along with vessels in the New England steamship line and others that serviced the Hudson River, Fletcher's company had built impressive yachts for millionaires--like J. P. Morgan's 1899 Corsair, the Intrepid for Lloyd Phoenix, and the Sovereign for industrialist M. C. D. Borden.

Moses H. and Fanet O. Wallach were married in February 1916 and moved into an apartment here.  Wallach was secretary of the J. and J. G. Wallach Company, a chain of laundries.  According to Wallach later, his 19-year-old bride "promised to start housekeeping on a modest scale."  The two had different definitions for the term "modest."

In May 1919, according to Fanet, Moses walked out, telling her "that married life no longer appealed to him, that he would go his way and she could go hers."  He supplied her with $30 a month for food (about $530 today), but "she spent it for pleasure," Moses claimed.  Fanet continued to live in the apartment and Moses paid the rent and other bills for two months.  Then, he waited outside The Strafford one night in June until he saw Fanet take the dog out for a walk.

Moses went to the apartment, told the maid to leave, and had all the locks changed.  The New-York Tribune reported, "When his wife came home, without any hat on, she found she was locked out."  Fanet went to a hotel and Moses had the furniture removed and put into storage.

It ended up in court on July 31, 1920.  Fanet Wallach sued her husband for separation and her father-in-law, Joseph G. Wallach, for $25,000 damages.  (She alleged he persuaded Moses to leave her.)  Moses told the judge, "My wife is twenty-three and an only child, and is a spoiled child.  After the first glamour of marriage wore off she became discontented."  Saying, "This whole affair is regrettable," the judge awarded Fanet $40 a week alimony.

The names of residents of The Strafford almost always appeared in newspapers for purely social reasons.  But that was not the case on July 24, 1918 when The New York Times reported that Harry E. Lazarus, who was the head of the Lazarus Raincoat Company, had been arrested by agents of the Department of Justice.  With World War I raging in Europe, Lazarus had a massive contract with the Government to supply military raincoats.  The article said, "It was officially announced last night that as a result of the inspection of the Quartermaster's Depot...thousands of raincoats intended for soldiers in France were found to be defective."  A Department of Justice spokesperson said "the alleged raincoat frauds...are said to have cost the War Department millions of dollars."

Lazarus appears to have weathered the scandal relatively unscathed.  Eight years later, on July 9, 1926, The American Hebrew reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Harry E. Lazarus, their twin daughters, Ethel and Lucille, and their son, Joseph, have closed their winter home at West Palm Beach, Florida, and are living in their New York apartment at 777 West End Avenue."

Iancu Urn Liber was born in Eastern Romania where he suffered intense antisemitism.  Upon immigrating to America, he changed his name to Jack Lieber.  In the spring of 1920, Jack married Celia Solomon and they moved into The Strafford.  Two years later, on December 28, 1922, they welcomed their first son, Stanley Martin Lieber.  Like his father had done, Stanley would change his name, becoming Stan Lee--the creative leader of Marvel comic books.   

In 1939, towards the end of the Great Depression, the sprawling apartments were divided.  There were now five per floor.

Among the early tenants were Margit and Ludwig Heinrich Edler von Mises.  Mises was born in Austria in 1881.  In 1940, with Austria under Nazi control, he and Margit emigrated to New York.  According to Jörg Guido Hülsmann's 2007 Mises, The Last Knight of Liberalism, "In early October [1941], he and Margit moved into the apartment where they would remain for the rest of their lives...Margit had found the three-bedroom apartment at 777 West End Avenue in Manhattan."

Ludwig von Mises, from the collection of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Mises became a visiting professor at New York University in 1945.  He would hold that position until his retirement in 1969.  He wrote and lectured on sociological and economic issues, becoming well-known for his comparisons of communism and capitalism and their social effects.

Ludwig von Mises's died on October 10, 1973.  In reporting his death, The New York Times called him, "one of the foremost economist of this century."  

Margit Serény had been an actress prior to marrying Ludwig von Mises on July 6, 1938.  Three years after his death, she wrote My Years with Ludwig von Mises.  She survived him by two decades, dying in 1993 at the age of 103.

Attorney Ronald Crean lived here in by the late 1970s.  Among his clients was the Mental Retardation Institute of Valhalla, New York.  Sometime between July and November 1980, he received a check made out to that institution, which he deposited in his own account.  The Deputy New York State Attorney General told Newsday, "After depositing the check [of more than $33,000], he used the money for personal purchases."  Unfortunately for Crean, the defalcation was discovered.  He was disbarred in August 1982 and pleaded guilty to fraud on July 25, 1983.

photo by Deansfa

Although the residents of The Strafford no longer have at least two servants--a cook and a maid--as they did during the post-World War I years, Schwartz & Gross's handsome structure remains a dignified presence on the avenue.

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Monday, July 22, 2024

The Lost St. John the Baptist (Epiphany) Church - 259 Lexington Avenue


from the collection of the new York Public Library

Cornelius Roosevelt Duffie Jr. was born on August 6, 1821.  He descended from old and distinguished New York families, including the Roosevelts, Bleeckers, and Baches.  (His mother, Helena Bleecker, the daughter of James Bleecker, died 11 days later after his birth.)  His father, Cornelius Sr., was the founder and first rector of St. Thomas's Church.

Cornelius Jr. graduated from Columbia College in 1841, and from the General Theological Seminary in 1845.  Three years later, after serving briefly as curate in Trinity Church, he founded the parish of St. John the Baptist in Murray Hill, "then the upper part of the city," according to the New-York Tribune decades late.  

Joseph Alfred Scovill, in his 1865 Old Merchants of New York, explained that Duffie's grandfather, John Duffie, had "owned a large parcel of land in Kip's Bay, now on the east side of Murray Hill, much of which still remains in the family."  Cornelius R. Duffie Jr. and his aunts donated a parcel at the northeast corner of  Lexington Avenue and 35th Street to the newly organized parish.  According to church historian David Clarkson in 1894, a "frame building" was erected for the small congregation.

(In his book, Scoville added, "The rumor in the vicinity goes that the church received its name from family affection and veneration for old John Duffee, who was a steady pillar deacon of the old First Baptist Church on Golden Hill.")

In 1856, the wooden church was demolished and "replaced by a handsome stone edifice designed by Frank Wills," according to David Clarkson.  Born in England in 1822, Wills had arrived in New York City in 1847 and quickly became the official architect for the New York Ecclesiology Society.  He was an early proponent of Gothic Revival and designed St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in the style.  Anchored on the 35th Street corner by a muscular bell tower that was doubled in height by its soaring steeple, the church was faced in brownstone.  Pointed-arched openings, buttresses, and a central rose window carried out the Gothic design.  (St. John the Baptist would be one of Wills's last projects.  He died at the age of 35 in 1857, a year after submitting the designs.)

St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church sat among brownstone mansions.  The American Metropolis, 1897 (copyright expired)

In his 1897 The American Metropolis, Frank Moss described the church as, "a most enchanting little bit of architecture, and it is so placed on the hill as to show its proportions to the very best advantage."  The new edifice sat among the mansions of Murray Hill millionaires and, according to Moss, "its congregation was large, wealthy and influential."  The tranquility of the neighborhood and the congregation would soon be strained as the rumbles of war grew louder.  Frank Moss recounted: the days that tried men's souls, and when a very large proportion of the district's population was in sympathy with rebellion and riot, that church and its membership stood firmly for the abolition of slavery and the perpetuity of the Union, and were a tower of strength for the National cause.  The young men of the congregation and the neighborhood enlisted for the war under its flag.

As was the case with many congregations, the women gathered to make bandages and send supplies to the Union army.  They also hand-stitched the American flag that hung over the church entrance.  "When Fort Sumter was fired on, the ladies made the flag and the men hoisted it upon the building, and there it flew continuously to the end of the war," recounted Moss.

During the draft riots of 1863, a mob descended on St. John the Baptist.  "A demand was made that the flag should be hauled down," wrote Moss.  A trustee, fearing that the church and parsonage would be burned, lowered the flag.  But another trustee, "ran in and raised it again."  At the end of the war, the flag was taken down and sealed in a glass-fronted case encased in a wall inside the church.

The 2,000-pound bronze bell that hung in the tower caused upheaval in the spring of 1882.  Jared M. Bell and his family lived across down the street at 248 Lexington Avenue.  He complained to Rev. Duffie about the loud clanging.  According to Bell, Duffie, "promised to abate the nuisance as far as lay in his power."  By May 13, as far as Bell was concerned, nothing had changed and he filed a complain with the Board of Health.  It said in part,

This hideous noise is utterly unnecessary to the worship of God, and...forms no part of it, and is simply a relic of the times when there were few if any watches or clocks in the community whereby people could learn the hour of repairing to the sanctuary.

Saying the tolling of the bell was "detrimental to public health and ruinous to property," Jared W. Bell sought to have it "abolished and forever prevented."  In the bell's defense, Rev. Duffie told a reporter from The New York Times that whenever a nearby resident was ill, the tolling of the bell was ceased and in one case had been silent for six weeks.  He knew of many residents "who were very fond of hearing the bell ring," he said.  (Because press coverage ended, it is unclear who won the battle of the bell.)

In 1893, St. John the Baptist merged with the congregation of the Church of the Epiphany.  The joined congregations used the Lexington Avenue structure, but took the name of the older congregation, Epiphany. (The Mission Church of the Epiphany was established in January 1833.)  Rev. Dr. Duffie remained as rector emeritus of the combined parishes.  Shortly afterward, he installed a stained glass window in the chancel as a memorial to his father, Rev. Cornelius Roosevelt Duffie, Sr.

After serving his parish for its entire existence, Rev. Dr. Cornelius R. Duffie died at his summer home in Leitchfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1900 at the age of 79.  In addition to his work here, he had been the chaplain of Columbia College for 25 years.  His funeral was held in the Church of the Epiphany on July 11.

The following year, Rev. Edward L. Atkinson was appointed rector of the Church of the Epiphany.  The 36-year-old was described by the New-York Tribune as, "Tall, slight and fair haired, and having an especially cheerful disposition."  In July the following year, he left for a two-month vacation, going first to visit priest friends in Manchester and Plymouth, Massachusetts before traveling to the Catskills.  A week later, on August 2, 1902, the New-York Tribune titled an article, "New-York Minister Drowned."

Atkinson was at a friend's summer cottage on Boot Pond near Plymouth.  The article said, "He went out rowing and fell overboard.  The body has not been recovered."

Apartment buildings had replaced high-stooped mansions by the Depression years.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

By January 1908, when the Church of the Epiphany celebrated its 75th anniversary, the Murray Hill neighborhood had changed.  The Living Church, on February 1, commented, "The present Epiphany Church is located at Lexington Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street, with homes of the well-to-do on one side, and apartments of the not so well-to-do on the other."

The trend continued and on January 24, 1936, The New York Times remarked, "Vast changes have swept over that district in recent years, and the growing demands of trade have usurped much of the land formerly given over to private residences."  As a result, said the article, the Church of the Epiphany "will vacate within a few days its edifice at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street as the first step in its plan to sell the property and build a new church on the upper East Side."  The congregation would temporarily share St. Thomas Chapel at 230 East 60th Street before erecting a new building on York Avenue at 74th Street.

Two views of the interior during demolition.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Frank Wills's 1856 structure survived three more years, demolished in 1939 for an apartment building that remains.

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Saturday, July 20, 2024

H. I. Feldman's 1954 4 East 89th Street


In 1929, the five-story, 94-foot-wide mansion owned by Edward Thaw (the half-brother of millionaire Harry K. Thaw who murdered Stanford White) was demolished.  The plot sat empty for nearly two decades before the architectural firm of Eggers & Higgins filed plans in 1946 for a 13-story-and-penthouse apartment building at 4-10 West 89th Street for the Fifth Avenue & 89th Street Corp.  The project stalled, however, and four years later the plot was sold to the Noarpark Realty Corp., which hired architect H. I. Feldman to tweak the plans.  He reworked them again in 1953 when the vacant property was sold to the Retor Building Corp.  

What were most likely subtle refinements to the Eggers & Higgins design reflected the move from Art Moderne to mid-century Modern taste.  The rounded forms of the former style seen in balcony railings, for instance, were now rigidly geometric.  Felman designed two mirror-image sections faced in beige brick atop a one-story base.  The recessed section  between the two contained concrete balconies flanked by chamfered casement windows.  The setbacks at the topmost floors provided balconies at the sides and to the penthouse level.  Additional balconies faced west and south, looking over Frank Lloyd Wright's masterful Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum towards Central Park.

The balconies at the side and rear can be seen in this photo of the Guggenheim under construction in 1957.  photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. from the collection of the Library of Congress.

The 80 apartments became home to professionals like attorney Meyer Dvorkin and his educator wife Etta Weissberg.  Etta had graduated from Hunter College and the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  She helped organize the High School of Music and Art where she taught foreign languages before becoming its dean.  She retired in 1962.

What no resident could have imagined--an 11-story addition to the Guggenheim Museum--was announced in 1985.  On February 19, The New York Times explained, "The addition, which would cost $12 million, would rise as a slab behind the northern half of the present museum building, with a street entrance on East 89th Street."  Filling the gap between the Wright's unique structure and 4 East 89th Street, the proposed annex would nestle up to the apartment building leaving a gap of one or two inches.

Architectural critic and author Paul Goldberger had praised the plan in The New York Times four days earlier.  He said it would "rise as a backdrop behind the main building" and "hide from sight the awkward side elevation of the apartment house at 4 East 89th Street."  Others lamented that futzing with Frank Lloyd Wright's design was like "improving" a Mondrian within the collection.

Jack Piccolo's terrace overlooked the museum.  On June 25, 1992, Newsday journalist Patricia Volk remarked, "He used to stand out on his terrace and look clear over the museum into the park.  He used to sip a glass of wine, watching the sun sink behind the reservoir.  Now he stares at a wall."

The new structure nestled up to 4 East 89th Street.

Piccolo told Volk he did not think the annex would ever actually be built.  "I always thought there'd be a miracle, that someone would come to their senses and say, 'This is crazy.'"  But it was built and he and 10 other families lost their views.  "Now my terrace butts right up against the new addition," he said.  "I go out there, put my hand out, and touch it."

Joan Walton Sheanshang was a resident when construction of the Guggenheim annex began.  The 46-year-old boarded Pan Am Flight 103 in London on December 21, 1988.  Tragically, she would never make it home.  Around 7:00, shortly after takeoff, the aircraft was destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew. 

Psychiatrist Robert Howard Willis lived in Tenafly, New Jersey and practiced from an office on the ground floor of 4 East 89th Street.  During sessions in 1989, a patient innocently mentioned her husband's banking dealings, including "a possible deal in which Shearson, Loeb Rhodes would invest $1 billion in the BankAmerica if Sanford I. Weill...became head of BankAmerica," according to The New York Times.  Willis acted on the unintentional tip and turned a profit in BankAmerica Corporation stock.

His good luck was short lived however.  On July 26, 1989, he was charged with using inside information to make the deal.  "He was charged with 23 counts of securities fraud and 23 counts of mail fraud," reported The Times.

At some point the windows of 4 East 89th Street were replaced.  The new examples sympathetically followed H. I. Feldman's original tripartite design.  Other than that and the Guggenheim Museum's annex that blocked off the building's western views, little has outwardly changed to the 70-year-old building.

many thanks to reader Lowell Cochrane for requesting this post
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Friday, July 19, 2024

The 1869 John F. Rottmann House - 437 West 47th Street


Although much of the 1869 architectural details have been removed, the original entrance doors survive.

John and Myer Hayes (presumably brothers) erected a row of six Italianate homes along the north side of West 47th Street Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in 1869.  John Hayes designed the houses, as well.  Just over 18-feet-wide and three stories tall above English basements, each featured beefy, cast iron stoop railings and newels, arched entranceways with peaked pediments, and molded, architrave window frames.

The western-most house, 437 West 47th Street, became home to the John F. Rottmann family.  Born in Germany, Rottmann was a member of the New York Schutzen Corps, a German rifle club; and the Amt Hagener Club, a popular German-American social group.

He and his wife, Elizabeth, had three sons--John Jr., Henry D. and Herman H.--and a daughter, Margaret.  When they moved into the 47th Street house, Rottmann was a partner in the Rottmann & Eckhoff Brewery.  In 1873, Rottmann dissolved his partnership with Eckhoff and established a new brewery, John F. Rottmann & Sons.  It was located conveniently nearby at 315 West 47th Street. 

In 1872, one month after her 21st birthday, Margaret C. Rottman died.  Her funeral was held in the parlor on May 13.

On March 1, 1889, 437 West 47th Street was purchased by James Fitzpatrick for $14,000 (about $478,000 in 2024 terms).  It was resold in 1892 to Dr. John Martin for $15,000.

Dr. Martin lived and practiced from the house until 1905.  It was sold to the John J. Kelly family.  Living with him and his wife, Elizabeth, was their adult son, Bernard, who was head of a local ironworkers union.  The Kellys took in one boarder.  In 1906, it was 43-year-old Joseph Bobbnieth.  

On August 7, 1906, the New-York Tribune began an article saying, "The heat wave which began Saturday increased in intensity yesterday until the record for the hottest day of the year was broken...The intense heat and the enervating humidity caused seventeen deaths in the metropolitan district and over fifty prostrations in Manhattan alone."  Among the latter was Joseph Bobbnieth, "found in front of No. 508 West 34th street."  He was taken to Bellevue Hospital to recover.

In 1919, the Kellys sold 437 West 47th Street to the Missionary Canonesses of St. Augustine, known as the Belgian Missionary Sisters, who converted it to their convent.  While officially the St. John Berchman's Convent, it was familiarly known as the Belgian Sisters Convent.

The dedication was performed by a most auspicious figure--Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, who was also the Archbishop of Mechelen in Belgium,  On September 14, 1919, the New York Herald reported he "will visit St. Albert's Church, 431 West Forty-seventh street, call upon the parish clergy and then proceed to the new convent of the Belgian Sisters...which he will dedicate."

The cast iron stoop railings and other details were intact in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Interestingly, the convent drew the support of the highest level of Manhattan society.  On March 9, 1921, the New York Herald reported, "For the Belgian Missionary Sisters of 437 West Forty-seventh street, there will be a concert this afternoon at Mrs. John Sanford's."  Among those in attendance were millionaires like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Thomas Fortune Ryan, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, De Lancey Astor Kane, and Countess de Laugier-Villars.

On October 28, 1973, The New York Times reported, "The Fountain House Foundation, a nonprofit organization involved in psychiatric rehabilitation, has purchased five brownstones at 429-437 West 47th Street from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York."  In 2014, the foundation converted 437 West 47th Street to Fountain House College Re-Entry, "to help students that have discontinued their college plans due to mental health obstacles," according to its website.

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Thursday, July 18, 2024

The 1860 Henry Morehouse Taber House - 42 West 12th Street


Frederick P. James was the head of the banking and brokerage firm of F. P. James & Co.  In 1854, he erected three upscale homes on the south side of West 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Abutting them to the east were six rowhouses built by Alphonse Loubat a decade earlier.  Somewhat surprisingly, in 1860 James demolished the 16-year-old Loubat houses and replaced them with elegant, brownstone-faced residences. 

Each of the identical, 21-foot-wide homes was four stories tall above a rusticated English basement.  Their fully-arched entrances were crowned by striking arched pediments supported on foliate brackets.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows were likely fronted by cast iron balconies.  Molded architrave window frames added to the homes' elegance.

James sold 42 West 12th Street to cotton broker Henry Morehouse Taber.  Born in Saugatuck, Connecticut on February 8, 1825, he married Mary Elizabeth Philips on October 3, 1855.  The couple had a son, William, who was four years old when they moved in.  Mary was pregnant at the time, but, sadly, their son Kenneth would die in infancy that year.  A daughter, Mary, would be born in 1861, and a son, Sydney Richmond, arrived the following year.

Henry Morehouse Taber, from Henry Morehouse Taber A Memoir, 1918 (copyright expired)

Few New Yorkers could claim an American pedigree as impressive as Taber's.  He descended from three Mayflower passengers: Philip Taber, Francis Cooke, and Kenelm Winslow.  Taber's great-grandfather, Levi Taylor, had served in the French and Indian Wars and had fought with the Connecticut regiment during the Revolution.

Taber and his brother, Charles Corey, headed the cotton brokerage firm of C. C. and H. M. Taber.  Shortly after Henry moved his family into the West 12th Street house, war broke out in the South.  It proved to be a boon to the brothers' business.  Sydney Richmond Taber wrote decades later,

During the Civil War the transactions of the firm reached a considerable magnitude, and shortly after the close of that period they established branch houses or agencies at New Orleans, Memphis, Mobile, Providence, Boston and Fall River.

In 1876, Taber went into partnership with his son, William Phillips Taber, forming the cotton brokerage firm of Henry M. Taber & Co.  In the meantime, Henry and Charles continued working together.  They amassed large amounts of Manhattan real estate; and owned and operated steamers like the propeller-driven Vicksburg and the side-wheeler City of Providence.  Additionally, they operated the Utica Cotton Company and its mills, of which Henry was president.

Mary Elizabeth Taber died in 1888.  In addition to his many business responsibilities, Henry threw himself into civic matters.  He had been appointed a trustee of the Common Schools of the 15th Ward in 1875, and in 1892 became an outspoken critic of police corruption.  As foreman of the grand jury hearing evidence of department misconduct, he was quoted by The Evening World on April 5, 1892, saying,

There is at least $7,000,000 collected annually from the keepers of gambling dens, saloons, concert halls and houses of ill-repute and distributed among the members of the Police Department.  I say at least $7,000,000, for calculation shows that the amount is probably nearer $10,000,000.  I direct this accusation against the entire force, from the Superintendent down to the patrolmen.

The article said, "Mr. Taber's sweeping allegations created not a little talk at Police Headquarters and throughout the departments generally this morning."

Taber's high-profile accusations and the grand jury's findings sparked a State investigation, the Lexow Committee.  The sweeping scrutiny put high-level police officials on trial in 1894 and ended the careers of many.

On October 30, 1897, William Phillips Taber died at the age of 40.  The New-York Tribune noted, "He had been in poor health for some time, but his death was directly due to pneumonia."  Two months later, on Christmas Eve, Henry Morehouse Taber died at the age of 72.

Taber's will divided his $1 million estate (in the neighborhood of $38 million in 2024) between Mary and Sydney.  A clause in the will raised the ire of a journalist of the New York Evening Journal.  Taber directed that there be no religious services at his funeral, claiming that "Christianity, so-called, is not the religion of Christ," but that current Christian teachings "encourage ignorance, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, acrimoniousness, intolerance, wrong and mental slavery."

The fact that Taber had been president and treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the First Presbyterian Church prompted the writer to say, "his religion was a sham."  The New York Times chimed in as well, calling him a hypocrite.  The articles sparked a number of letters to the editors of the newspapers in defense of Taber.  One, for example, asserted that a person "may disapprove of this or that theology, and yet highly approve of the good the Church is doing."

Mary Taber inherited the West 12th Street house.  She almost immediately moved to 20 Washington Square and leased her childhood home.  By 1902, it was being operated as a high-end boarding house run.  It was the scene of excitement on the afternoon of March 30, 1904.  The Sun reported, "A husky looking man called yesterday afternoon at the boarding house kept by Mrs. Jane Allen at 42 West Twelfth street and asked for Miss Farrell."  One of the hallboys (servants, usually teenaged boys, kept on staff to run errands) directed the man to the third floor.  The Sun said, "The man didn't go to Miss Farrell's room but dropped into one next to it.  He was ransacking a bureau when a servant came in with some bedclothes."

The thief, Jacob Bososky, knocked the woman over and ran downstairs.  The article said, "Two negro hallboys heard the rumpus and tried to block the intruder when he came downstairs.  He bowled them over and ran through Twelfth street, pursued by the boys."  Two detectives joined in the chase.  After Bososky fled into a Sixth Avenue house, the officers caught him on the third floor.  "He was locked up," concluded The Sun.

Among the boarders in 1908 was William S. Hall, known as Billy in the men's apparel community.  He was described by Men's Wear magazine that year as "a pioneer furnishing goods salesman."  Artists Clara M. Burd and S. H. Eltzner boarded here in 1910.  Burd was both a successful illustrator of children's books and a designer of stained glass window designs.  In the latter capacity, she worked with the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company and J. & W. Lamb Studios.  Both she and Eltzner were represented in the exhibition of the Architectural League of New York in 1910.

Clara M. Burd created this charming illustration for a children's book while living here in 1911.  image from the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

A month after the RMS Titanic sank, a fundraiser for the victims was held in the parlor here.  The New York Times reported on May 5, 1912, "The sum of $100 was raised for the Titanic survivors by means of a concert given last Tuesday evening at the home of Miss Florence de B. Allen, at 42 West Twelfth Street."  Nine musical artists volunteered their services.

On July 5, 1919, the Record & Guide reported that Mary Taber had hired architects Cross & Butler to convert her childhood home to bachelor apartments (meaning they had no kitchens).  Costing her the equivalent of $176,000 today, the plans listed items like "new dumbwaiter, vent shaft, skylights, plumbing door & remove stoop."  The Department of Buildings noted, "Not more than 15 rooms to be used for sleeping purposes."

Mary Taber's renovations resulted in the loss of the stoop and elaborate entranceway.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Interestingly, Florence de B. Allen remained here after the renovations.  The 1929 New York Blue Book of New York Society listed her living here, as well as consulting engineer Joseph Ezekiel Pogue and his wife, the former Grace Needham; artist Alan Gregg Holbrook and his wife; the Helen Cook, and Mrs. Martha Youngs.

The house was sold for $15.1 million in 2009.  The Real Deal said later, "the buyer's identity was masked by an LLC...But press reports have pegged [actor Tom] Cruise as the buyer."  A remarkable renovation brought 42 West 12th Street back to a single family home.  The stoop was refabricated and an incredibly accurate entrance recreated.  

The facade served as the apartment of Joan Holloway, a character in the television series Madmen.  And it seems that was as close to celebrity the address would achieve.  When the Taber house was placed on the market in 2013 for $28 million, the real estate agent insisted, "The owner of 42 West 12th Street is not Tom Cruise nor any entity related to him." 

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