Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Rosario Candela's 1926 280 Riverside Drive

photo by Deansfa

In the fall of 1887, Bavarian-born brewer Peter Doelger began construction of his opulent mansion at the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and 100th Street.  He had come a long way since landing in New York at the age of 18 with no money, now joining the ranks of Riverside Drive homeowners like Cyrus Clark, James A. Dearing, and Samuel G. Bayne.

The Peter Doelger mansion, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Doelger died in December 1912.  Mary lived on in the mansion until her death on January 2, 1925.  That same year, real estate developers Charles and Joseph Paterno would complete construction of a neo-Classical style apartment building at 865 West End Avenue designed by architect Rosario Candela.  Within months of Mary Doelger's death, he would be working for the Paternos again, this time designing an apartment building on the site of her mansion.

Candela, one of the foremost apartment building architects of the period, designed the 15-story structure in a 1920s take on Colonial Revival.  Completed in 1926, its red brick facade was embellished with Georgian and Federal motifs.  Delicate neo-Classical designs in the Adam style filled the terra cotta spandrel panels between the second and third floors.   The entrance, located on West 100th Street (although the building took the address of 280 Riverside Drive) sat below a dentiled and arched pediment atop fluted pilasters.  

photo by Deansfa

Intended for well-heeled residents, the apartments made special provisions for servants.  They entered through the service elevator into a separate area that held the maids' rooms, pantry, kitchen and a "servants' hall" where meals were taken and staff could relax.

A three-bedroom apartment came with two maids' rooms.  New York Evening Post, September 4, 1926

An advertisement boasted that an eight-room apartment came with "4 baths and 14 large closets and more usable space than is obtainable in a five story residence."  The nuisance of messy ice boxes was eliminated with the building's "electrical refrigeration."

Among the initial residents was playwright Bernard Cutner Schoenfeld.  He finished his three-act comedy Speaking of Mammals in 1930 while living here.  Schoenfeld would go on to be a recognized screenwriter, writing the sceenplays for motion pictures like the 1944 Phantom Lady; the 1946 crime film noir The Dark Corner starring Lucille Ball and Clifton Webb; and Warner Brothers' 1950 Caged.

Living here in 1931 was Edna Barrie and her 16-year-old daughter Elaine.  (The daughter of a traveling salesman named Louis Jacobs, Elaine's surname at birth was Jacobs.)   That year Elaine went to the movies and saw John Barrymore starring in Svengali.  According to her, she immediately fell in love with the  married, 53-year-old actor.  Elaine Barrie's crush could not easily be dismissed.

Three years later Elaine, now a sophomore at Hunter College, read that not only were the Barrymores experiencing marital problems, but that the actor was hospitalized in Manhattan.  Pretending to have an assignment to interview a celebrity, she obtained access to the star.  It resulted in an a love affair. 

On September 24, 1935, Barrymore tried to squash the stories of his and Elaine's romance.  "All this stuff that has been printed about Miss Barrie and myself is a lot of hooey," he told a reporter from the Associated Press.  When asked about the eight-carat diamond ring he had given her, he brushed it off.  "I've given away a hell of a lot of diamonds.  It's a wonder she didn't get two.  The diamond might as well have been a topaz for significance."  He characterized his feelings for Elaine as "admiration and respect."

His wife, the former Dolores Costello, for one, was not buying the story.  She had already filed for divorce at the time of the article.

Elaine made her case known through the newspapers, as well.  The very next day, The Minneapolis Star ran the headline, "Elaine Barrie Tells Own Story of Barrymore Love / 'Knew He Was My Man When I Read of Rift With Wife'."   In a prelude to the piece, the newspaper wrote, "This is the first of a series of articles by Elaine Barrie, 19-year-old protégé of John Barrymore, great lover of stage and screen, in which the girl gives the background and details of her romance with the actor."

Edna and Elaine Barrie with John Barrymore.  The St. Louis Star and Times, October 34, 1935.

Elaine continued to write revealing articles about her illicit affair with Barrymore for months.  Journalists could not supply the public with enough juicy gossip and photographs of the two together, sometimes with Edna Barrie, appeared repeatedly in newspapers.

The on-again-off-again relationship seemed to be over on November 16, 1935, when The Miami Herald reported that according to Barrymore's attorney, Frank Aranow, "John Barrymore, the movie star, is under no obligation to Miss Elaine Barrie, his erstwhile protegee-fiancee [sic], and has her signature in black and white to prove it."  Elaine and her mother had signed statements "that Mr. Barrymore is under no obligation to them."  The attorney added, "Miss Barrie did not ask for any money nor was any money paid to her."

Elaine Barrie and John Barrymore in 1940.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

If the public thought the rocky affair was over, they were wrong.  Despite, according to the Ludington Daily News, Barrymore's saying of Elaine, "A man can't get along with a gal like that, " he and Barrie were married in Yuma, Arizona in November 1936.  On November 7, the newspaper said, "they climaxed a stormy courtship by dashing here from Los Angeles Sunday night to be made man and wife by Yuma's famous marrying justice."  Barrymore's fourth marriage did not last.  The couple was divorced in 1940.

photo by Deansfa

Living here by the early 1950s were Ben Heller and his wife, Judith Ann Goldhill.  The New York Times called Heller, "A gifted writer, tough businessman, superb athlete and impressive raconteur."  He and Judith Ann collected modern art, filling their apartment with impressive works that prompted painter Mark Rothko to call it "the Frick of the West Side."

In his 2019 Boom - Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, Michael Shnayerson tells of the Hellers visiting Jackson Pollock's home on Long Island.

Heller was 27 that summer, tall and athletic with a full head of dark hair...What he loved was contemporary art.  Already he had bought his first painting, a Cubist canvas by George Braque, for $8,000.  Some 65 years later, he would laugh when he remembered that.  "What was I doing spending $8,000 on a painting when I had all of $27,000 in the bank?"

The Hellers left Pollack's studio with two paintings.  Heller purchased Pollack's immense 1950 work One: Number 31, spending $8,000 with the agreement he would pay in $2,000 increments over four years.  Shnayerson recounts, "'As part of the deal,' Pollock said, 'I'm giving you a black-and-white enamel painting."  That was his No. 6, 1952.  The Hellers would be back before the weekend was over, buying a third paining, Echo.

Pollack's One: Number 31 was too large for the Hellers' 280 Riverside Drive apartment wall. from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The Hellers would have done well to measure their walls at 280 Riverside Drive before buying One: Number 31, which "measured nearly nine feet high by 18 feet across," according to Shnayerson.  

Heller's living room ceiling was inches too low for the unfurled painting.  Resolutely [Heller and Pollack] stapled the top of the painting directly onto the ceiling, a few inches out from the wall, then stapled again where the canvas met the corner, as if putting up wallpaper.  Pollock had no objections: he stapled the painting to the ceiling himself.

Size was again a problem in 1958 when Heller agreed to loan five paintings to the Museum of Modern Art.  Writing in his 2019 Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry, Peter Riley tells of poet Frank O'Hara, who was working at the museum, dealing with the potentially disastrous situation.

O'Hara circulated a memo stating that of the five loans the museum was preparing to receive from collector and patron Ben Heller, "two must be unstretched to get them out of the apt at 280 Riverside Drive."  "The Still" had "very thick pigment on its surface and Mr. Heller has requested that someone from the Museum be there to supervise the workmen when they are unstretching and rolling it.

Hardware importer Robert H. Newmark lived here in 1972 with his two daughters, Renee and Roberta, who were 12 and 16 years old respectively, and his mother-in-law Hilda Hertzog in 1972.  Newmark's wife had died in 1960.  The 53-year-old operated his business from their 13th-floor apartment.  

On the afternoon of August 11, Renee walked into her father's bedroom to find him dead on the floor with three bullet wounds to the back of his head.  Investigators immediately suspected that the murder was politically motivated.  Newmark was a candidate for the position of assemblyman.  "Because the door of the four-room apartment had not been forced," explained The New York Times, detectives felt Newmark had been shot by someone he let in the apartment.  Hilda Hertzog had been in her bedroom when the murder occurred, but said she heard nothing.

Two years later, Newmark's slayer was arrested.  Irving Ohlstein, the 53-year-old president of the Dura-Tite Screw Company, had owed Newmark more than $200,000 which he could not pay.  And so he paid two hitmen, Lloyd Kurzman and Edward Mack $5,000 "to do the job," according to prosecutor John Jacobs.  Ohlstein was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Prominent civil rights advocate Marvin M. Karpatkin and his wife Rhoda lived in the building at the time.  Although he maintained his private legal practice, Karpatkin was elected general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1969, and was general counsel of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors.  He was, as well, a cooperating attorney for the A.C.L.U., the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Welfare Rights Organization.  During the Vietnamese War he frequently testified before Congressional committees.

Among the residents in 1988 were producing director Paul Libin of the Circle In The Square Theatre; and producer Norman Kean, his actress wife Gwyda DonHowe, and their 15-year-old son, David.  The relationship between Libin and Kean preceded their theatrical connection.  The two met in 1955 while in the army.  Libin had started a theater and he and Kean acted in its first production.  And as well as having apartments in the same building, the families both had homes in Montauk, New York.

By now, Kean was best known for his producing Broadway's Oh! Calcutta!  He and Gwyda were married in 1958.  A graduate of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, she made her Broadway debut in Separate Tables in 1957.  Over the years she played roles in plays like the Tony Award winning The Shadow Box, and Applause starring Lauren Bacall.

The unthinkable occurred on the afternoon of January 15, 1988.  David Kean came home to find his mother's body in the bedroom.  Norman Kean had stabbed her repeatedly in the back around 8 a.m., according to investigators.  He then spent most of the day in the apartment before climbing to the roof and jumping to his death.  His body was found in the courtyard after David's discovery of his mother's body.

photo by Deansfa

Recently given the name Oxford Tower, the nearly century-old building maintains a commanding presence above Riverside Park.

many thanks to reader Lowell Cochran for suggesting this post
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  1. Not Lionel Barrymore...JOHN Barrymore.

  2. It's always interesting to learn who lived and loved in these apartment houses. 280 Riverside Drive has an extraordinary lobby of which the decadent design mirrors that of its sister building at 285 Riverside Drive. They are worth a peek. Thank you for these stories Tom!

  3. Wonderful I laughed