Saturday, January 13, 2024

The 1892 Double-Flat at 507 East 87th Street


Real estate developer George Schreiner was active in the Yorkville district in the 1880s and 1890s, working most often with architect Ed. Wenz.  In 1892 he completed construction of a five-story double-flat (the term referred to the two apartments on each floor) at 507 East 87th Street, between York and East End Avenues.

The brownstone-clad, Renaissance Revival style structure sat above a short, five-step stoop.  At a time when tenement buildings intended for less affluent residents were often embellished with over-the-top decoration, 507 East 87th Street oozed dignity.  Its ornamentation relied almost exclusively on the sophisticated carvings that framed each of the openings.  The swirling leaf detailing around the the entrance, for instance, was further surrounded by a unique frame of overlapping leaves.  The intricately carved window architraves differed by floor--strings of daisy-like flowers, sinuous vines, and trailing oak leaves, for instance.  The bracketed, terminal cornice included an ornate, dentiled frieze.

The residents of 507 East 87th Street were middle-class.  Living here in 1895, for instance, was Patrick R. McCollom, an engineer on the steamer of Engine Company No. 39.  He earned $1,600 per year, or about $57,500 in 2024.  Another resident at the time was J. J. Karpf.  He was affluent enough to afford a bicycle (or "wheel"), a luxury limited only to  the financially comfortable.  In August 1895 he joined scores of other uptowners in petitioning the Board of Aldermen to consider "the necessity for the bicycle path between the upper and lower parts of the city."

In 1903 Jakob Weis purchased the building, taking one of the apartments for his family.  Many German-born New Yorkers populated Yorkville at the time.  It appears that the Weis family had moved north from the Lower East Side where they attended St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th Street.

On June 15, 1904, Jakob's young adult daughter, Florence, traveled downtown to take part in the church's 17th annual summer outing.  Accompanying her was her married sister.  For $350, the members had chartered the 235-foot steam sidewheeler The General Slocum for a day trip up the East River and across the Long Island Sound to a picnic grove on Long Island. 

The S.S. General Slocum, from the collection of The National Archives General Slocum Disaster.

The pleasure trip turned into the most disastrous loss of life in New York City history prior to the attack on the World Trade Center.  Because it was a Wednesday morning and because children rode for free, the boat was filled mostly with women and children.  Over 1,300 passengers boarded the steamer which carried a crew of 35.  The church party was unaware of The General Slocum's recent history of problems--running aground several times and, at least twice, colliding with another ship.  Worse yet, Captain William Van Shaick had not practiced fire drills with his crew, as required by law, in years.  Life preservers and fire hoses had not been inspected since the craft was constructed 13 years earlier.

Around 10:00, as the vessel entered the treacherous Hell Gate section of the East River, fire broke out below deck, quickly reaching a locker filled with gasoline and other flammable liquids.  Panic ensued as the flames broke through the deck.  The life boats were stuck to the side, having been painted in place.  Pandemonium broke out as children jumped or were tossed into the river, some sucked under in the turbulent Hells Gate eddies, others pulled into the side wheels and beaten to death.  Women who leapt overboard in their woolen Edwardian garments were quickly weighed down and drowned. 

Within 15 minutes the General Slocum was burned to the waterline.  Of the 1,300 people on board, only 321 survived.  Among them, almost miraculously, were Florence and her sister.  The New York Evening Post reported, "Among those saved were Miss Florence Weis of No. 507 East Eighty-seventh Street, and her sister, Mrs. Nicholas Schumacher of No. 529 East Eighty-second Street."  Florence told the reporter:

We were on the stern of the boat, and the first we knew of the fire, we saw passengers in the water.  They had jumped from the forward part of the boat.  It seemed only half a minute later that the fire was sweeping over the upper part of the vessel, and we found ourselves in danger of being burned. 
There was a constant stream of passengers jumping from the boat from the time it caught fire until it was beached.  Hundreds of them went over the side and must have been swept away before assistance arrived.  Pretty soon a boat came alongside and my sister and I were thrown into it, I don't know how.  After we had got into the rescue boat some one jumped on top of me and injured my head.

Florence and her sister said the boat burned "like a paper box."  (With every German family in the Lower East Side affected by the tragedy, the community soon migrated north to Yorkville.)

Living in the building at the time of the disaster was the family of William Stephenson.  Mrs. Stephenson died in October 1904, leaving her 52-year-old husband disconsolate.  On December 12, the Daily Eagle titled an article, "Died Of A Broken Heart," and reported that the conclusion of Dr. Brown of the Presbyterian Hospital "coincided with the statement of the dead man's son, that the father had died of a broken heart."  (The newspaper was, perhaps, being a bit dramatic and romantic in its interpretation of Brown's diagnosis of "valvular disease of the heart.")

Artist Walter Farndon moved into 507 East 87th Street around 1905, when his paintings Chelsea Docks and The Tow were exhibited in the Annual American Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.  He shared his apartment with his brother and sister.

Farndon was born in Coventry, England in 1876 and began studying art as a child.  His family moved to New York in 1887.  By the time he moved into the building he was a recognized artist, his paintings regularly being exhibited not only at the Art Institute of Chicago, but at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the National Academy of Design.

Charles Shepard Chapman painted this portrait of Walter Farndon in 1928.  from the collection of the National Academy of Design

In 1910, Farndon's brother, Joseph briefly found himself in serious trouble.  In the pre-World War I years, New York was terrorized by the Black Hand, an Italian-American extortion group also known as La Mano Nera.  Their threats often resulted in murder.

Walter Farndon's subjects often involved piers and boats, like his Destroyed Dock.

On March 17, 1910, The New York Times reported that Hugo Frohmann had received a letter signed "Black Hand" in which he "was ordered, under penalty of death, to hand over $100 in an envelope to a man on the corner of East End Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street on the night of March 16."    Frohmann went there with a dummy envelope, while undercover detectives watched from the shadows.  

Meanwhile, each night after dinner, according to Joseph Farndon, he took a walk along the East River Park (today's Carl Schurz Park).  That Thursday night he had walked about a block when he passed Frohmann.  Presuming he was the extortionist, the detectives pounced.  The New York Times reported, "Before the stranger could take the decoy  the two detectives rush upon and arrested him for attempted extortion," said the article.

Fardon later told a reporter from The Evening Telegram that a detective had asked "if I was looking for Frohmann," and identified himself as a detective."  Fardon said, "I told him that didn't concern me, as I was a law abiding citizen and had committed no crime."  As he started to walk away, three other detectives rush in.  "The four knocked me down.  I am still black and blue from their beating," he said.  When he put his hand in his pocket to get a handkerchief, "the four drew guns and stuck them in my face, threatening to kill me if I moved."

Fardon was jailed and was not allowed to contact friends or family until Saturday morning.  The incident was brought to the attention of Mayor Jay Gaynor by the Rev. James B. Chalmers, vicar of Holy Trinity Church.  Gaynor was publicly shocked.  On March 21, The Evening Telegram reported, "He declared it was incredible that such things could exist in a free country, saying they would hardly be possible in Russia, the country where persecution is believed to be more rampant than anywhere else."

In June 1916, the New York City Health Department officially announced an epidemic of polio.  The disease was poorly understood and there was no vaccine at the time.  The scourge swept the city, affecting thousands of children, eventually killing more than 2,000.   Each day the New-York Tribune published the numbers of new cases and fatalities by borough.  On August 21, 1916, 18 children died in Manhattan, one of whom lived at 507 East 87th Street.

Mrs. Elizabeth Murray lived here with her eight children at the time.  When America entered World War I, her teenage son Martin Murray left to fight.  He served in France with the 130th Infantry Regiment of the 33rd Division and returned home safely following the war.  While he found work as a salesman, he devised other ways to make money.  On October 11, 1919, The New York Times reported that the 19-year-old was one of three men arrested for burglarizing the home of the widow of former Mayor Seth Low.

Three years later, at around 3:00 on the morning of Sunday August 20, 1922, Murray was standing on the corner of 86th Street and Third Avenue talking to friends when two men approached and shot him dead.  A journalist visited Elizabeth Murray in her apartment here.  Dismissing his past actions, she said she was incredulous as to why anyone would target her son.  "He never mixed in gangs or their troubles," she said, "and was just a big, good natured boy.  He had no enemies that we know of and certainly had done nothing to make anyone want to kill him."

Henry T. Holt, his wife, and daughter Antoinette lived here in the Depression years.  Born in 1879, Holt had served in the Spanish-American War.  He had a most interesting profession.  Since 1927 he was Inspector of Electric Signs for the City Clerk's office.

After more than 130 years, there are still just ten apartments in the building.  Its dignified brownstone facade is almost perfectly intact.

photographs by the author
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