Friday, February 16, 2024

George Fred Pelham, Jr.'s 1940 50 Park Avenue


With the pall of the Great Depression slowly lifting, in 1939 developer Louis Cowan began construction of a 17-floor apartment building on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 37th Street.  The thoroughfare south of Grand Central Terminal, which had been lined with elegant mansions only a generation earlier, was increasingly filling with multi-family buildings.

The persisting constraints of the Depression may have influenced Cowan's budget and, subsequently, architect George Fred Pelham Jr.'s materials and design.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in cast stone, Pelham's matter-of-fact plan relied on fluted pilasters beside the doorways, and scattered diamond designs along the base and third floor bandcourse.  Pelham used Chicago style windows to break up the monotony of the stoic facade.  

In April 1940, construction was nearing completion.  To the right, some of the Park Avenue mansions survived.  image from the collection of the New York Public Library

The building would have doctors' offices on the ground floor, eight apartments each on the second through sixteenth, and four apartments on the top floor.

On March 30, 1940, Marie DeLamater, wife of Brigadier General Walter A. DeLamater, died.  Less than three months later, on June 11, The New York Times reported, "A suite in the new apartment building under erection at 50 Park Avenue has been leased to Brig. Gen. Walter A. DeLamater, commander of the 87th Infantry Brigade of the New York State National Guard."  

DeLamater was one of several future residents to sign leases while the building was still under construction.  Others, said the article, were "W. W. Wister, W. R. Roberts, president [of] Guyon Mills, Inc.; Mrs. Alice Hunter Wells of the Deakman Wells Corporation; J. Edward MacDermott, president, Municipal Improvements Company; and Marie Michelle Gabrielle."  Another original tenant was drama critic Roland Field.

A fascinating figure, Walter A. DeLamater was well-known to New Yorkers.  Born on April 18, 1880, he descended from a settler of the Village of Rhinebeck, New York, founded in 1688.  Eighteen years before his birth, DeLamater's family, who owned the DeLamater Iron Works in Manhattan, constructed the iron-clad USS Monitor which would be engaged in the famous Monitor-Merrimac battle of the Civil War.

Walter DeLamater entered the army on March 2, 1900.  He served on the Mexican border in 1916, and fought in France during World War I.  Repeatedly decorated, at the end of the conflict, he held the rank of Brigadier General, and was soon promoted to Major General.  

Brig. General Walter A. DeLamater (original source unknown)

In 1934, Fiorello LaGuardia appointed DeLamater Civil Works Administrator.  He resigned seven months later to become director of the works division of the Public Welfare Department.  Simultaneously, he continued his military duties as commanding officer of the 71st Regiment of the New York National Guard.

Equally interesting were DeLamater's fraternal associations.  He was Master Mason and member of the Knights Templar.  He was elected Right Eminent Grand Commander of the State of New York in 1934.

Shortly after moving into 50 Park Avenue, DeLamater suffered a brain clot.  According to George L. Marshall, Jr., of the Knights Templar History Committee, he was paralyzed for two months and doctors diagnosed his case as hopeless.  Marshall wrote that DeLamater, while still anesthetized following an operation, related,

...that heavenly bodies, angels, admonished him that if he lived he must do some thing to heal the blind as Jesus had done when on earth and about his miraculous recovery from near death. He firmly believed that his recovery must have been for some divine purpose.

The experience did not leave him.  In 1946 at the Grand Conclave of the Knights Templar, DeLamater launched a campaign for Knights Templar Eye Hospitals throughout the United States.  His persistence resulted in founding of the Eye Foundation in 1952.

In the meantime, DeLamater had not remained single for long.  Soon after his miraculous recovery, on March 4, 1942 at the age of 62, he married Rosalind Gladys Huies.  The couple would have three daughters, Joanne, Claudette, and Dolores.

Judge Benjamin Altman and his wife, the former Bernice Berman, lived here by the early 1970s.  In 1974, he was appointed chairman of the Mayor Abraham Beame's  Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.  Altman was concerned with a pressing issue closer to home in the spring of 1974.

Park Avenue was, by now, a major thoroughfare, crowded with taxicabs and other vehicles.  And with traffic came noise.  Altman's frustration boiled over in April, prompting him to fire off a letter to Representative Edward I. Koch, State Senator Roy M. Goodman, Councilwoman Carol Greitzer, and Robert Low, the city's Environmental Protection Administrator.  Marked "personal and confidential," it read:

In the past several months I have asked each of you, jointly and separately, about a sign that says, "Don't Honk--$50 Fine."  Although I have gotten assurances from all of you, the horn-blowing is still very much unabated.  As a constituent and a New York resident, is it possible for me to get some real help?

Representative Koch was annoyed.  The New York Times reported on April 12, "In a 'Dear Ben' reply, Mr. Koch said he thought this note, 'particularly since it came from a public official,' was the kind of curt note that offends public officials."  He went on, "We have lots of problems in this town, and I am sure all of us will try to assist you in ameliorating the noise problem in your neighborhood.  But, let me tell you that it does not have the highest priority when compared to street crime."

Jerome and Julia Rosenberg lived here with their 17-year-old son Daniel in 1988 when they traveled to southern France.  At the same time, the Penson family of Sutton Place was vacationing there.  It was a trip that would change the lives of both families.

Alexandre Penson was 16 and attended the prestigious Horace Mann School with plans to become an attorney.  On July 30, 1988, the Rosenberg's gave Daniel permission to use their rental car.  Along with Alexandre Penson, there were two other teens in the car.  At one point Daniel swerved to avoid pedestrians and crashed into another car.  Penson, who was not wearing a seatbelt, suffered severe brain damage.  Physicians said he "will require someone to take care of him for the rest of his life," reported The New York Times.

The legal entanglement that followed would extend until August 3, 1992.  The French insurance company refused to accept financial liability, saying that Daniel Rosenberg was too young to drive in France, although he had a valid American driver's license.  State Supreme Court Justice Charles Ramos found the Rosenbergs liable for Alexandre Penson's past and future expenses on May 21, 1991.

The New York Times explained, "Following rules of the Hague Convention, Justice Ramos ruled that the law where the accident occurred should prevail.  Under French law, the judge ruled, a driver of a car is liable for the injuries suffered by any occupant, even if the driver is not at fault."

Three months later, State Supreme Court Justice Edward J. Greenfield presided over the award proceedings.  Now, he instructed the jury to follow New York law in deciding the damages, since both parties lived in Manhattan.  The jury's decision was stunning.  The New York Times reported, "the jury awarded [Penson] $1,260,000 million [i.e., $1.2 billion] for medical, rehabilitation and custodial care since the accident of July 30, 1988; $40 million for future care over 53.3 years; $10 million for loss of earnings over 45 years, and $7.5 million for pain and suffering."

A conversion to cooperatives was begun in 1981.  George Fred Pelham Jr.'s dignified and understated structure survives essentially unchanged.

many thanks to reader Lowell Cochran for suggesting this post
photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. I believe the mansion that the building replaced had been the home of the Princeton Club at one point—when alumnus F.S. Fitzgerald might have frequented its bar.

  2. One doesn't get promoted from Major General to Brigadier General. It's the other way around.