Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The 1884 David C. Montgomery House - 126 West 71st Street


In 1883, the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson designed a row of five 20-foot-wide, brownstone-faced rowhouses for George W. Hamilton on the south side of West 71st Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway.  Designed as two models in an A-B-A-B-A configuration, the A designs were Renaissance Revival in style, while the B's were a more playful Queen Anne.  

Completed in 1884, 126 West 71st Street (one of the A models) rose four stories above a high English basement.  Its parlor level was decorated with elaborately carved Renaissance style panels.  Here the openings were fully arched, and the windows sat above shell-carved half bowls.  A three-sided bay dominated the second floor.  Thom & Wilson added a delightful detail at this level by designing the side window as a faux Juliette balcony.

The house became home to Samuel Dalsimer and his wife, the former Zettie Wellman.  The couple was highly active in Jewish philanthropies, and Samuel was a member of the Jewish Publication Society, The Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews, and the United Hebrew Charities of the City of New York.  He was, as well, as a patron of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. 

Well-to-do New Yorkers spent the warm months away from the city.  The Dalsimers did not own a summer home, but patronized fashionable resort hotels.  On April 1, 1900, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported that they had checked into the Seaside House in "balmy Atlantic City."

On November 14, 1908, The New York Times titled an article, "David Montgomery Buys a House."  It began, "David Montgomery of Montgomery & Stone, now playing in 'The Red Mill,' has joined the group of theatrical people who maintain permanent residences in this city."  The entertainer had purchased the Dalsimer house and The New York Clipper noted, "The comedian will reside there with his mother and sister."

At the time, it was common for well-heeled families to sell everything in their former homes and start fresh in their new one.  The following week, an announcement of a two-day auction appeared in The New York Times.  The sale, it said, was "By order of Samuel Dalsimer, Esq., who recently sold his residence to David C. Montgomery, the well known comedian."

The auction was held "at the beautifully appointed residence," and included "the rich modern cabinet made furniture throughout, together with the magnificent collection of European art objects, including valuable Limoges enamels, paintings, porcelains, bronzes, statuary, etc."  The announcement said the items reflected "a refined and comfortable home," and suggested that those "in quest of furniture and works of art of the better class" should attend.

David Craig Montgomery, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Born on March 21, 1870, David Craig Montgomery was the partner of Fred Stone in the comic duo Montgomery and Stone.  He had been on stage since the age of 17 when he played a role in the concert beer hall Streakbiner's Garden in St. Joseph, Missouri.  By practicing in his backyard, he taught himself to dance.  When he was adept enough, he presented his song and dance routine at local venues in St. Joseph and Kansas City.

He met Fred Stone in Galveston, Texas in 1895 while playing with J. H. Haverly's minstrel company.  They formed a song and dance act together, first appearing as a duo in New Orleans with the Haverly company.  Montgomery and Stone appeared in vaudeville theaters across the country.  They performed on Broadway in 1901 in The Girl From Up There.  The duo's great break came in 1903 when they were hired to play the Tinman and Scarecrow in Victor Herbert's stage adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wizard of Oz at the Majestic Theatre.  Montgomery brought his trademark humor to the Tinman with the character's rusty movements, and Stone's "boneless" dancing as the Scarecrow drew rave reviews.

Never married, when Montgomery purchased 126 West 71st Street, he and Stone were appearing in another Victor Herbert production, The Red Mill.  They played two down-on-their-luck vaudevillians, Con Kidder and Kid Conner, stranded in a small hostelry in the Netherlands.  Their routines from the play were made into two short films by the Winthrop Moving Picture Company.  

David Montgomery (left) and his partner, Fred Stone.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

David Montgomery's success afforded him a comfortable lifestyle.  On August 8, 1910, as the opening of the theater season neared, The New York Times ran the headline, "Players Back From Europe."  The article ended saying, "Dave Montgomery, who spent the Summer as the guest of Danny Maher, the jockey, in England, will open in 'In the Old Town' in Chicago on Aug. 15."

He and Stone were back in New York City in 1914 to open in Chin-Chin at the Globe Theatre.  Produced by Charles Dillingham, it may have been inspired by the success of Victor Herbert's smash hit Babes in Toyland.  Set in a toy bazaar, a tea shop, and similar venues, its characters were painted dolls and tin soldiers that come to life.  It was the top hit of the 1914-15 Broadway season.

David Montgomery's brother, Harry, was also an entertainer, whose stage name was Scamp Montgomery.  He died on July 9, 1911 and his funeral was held in the West 71st Street house.

On March 18, 1895, The New York Times began an article saying, "Twenty years ago tonight Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery made their first appearance together as a team of comedians in a vaudeville theatre in New Orleans."  Fred Stone explained the duo's successful formula for staying together:

During the twenty years Dave and I have been together, we have shared the same dressing room.  We have been together morning, noon and night for all the playing months of the year, and in all that time we haven't had as many quarrels as the average man and wife have in a week.  We believe in the separation cure.  As soon as our season is over we pack our grips and set out in opposite directions.  When Dave and I meet after our separation we are better friends than ever.

Fred Stone as the Scarecrow and David Montgomery as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1917, Charles Dillingham took Chin Chin on the road with, of course, Montgomery and Stone in the roles they created on Broadway.  In March, the company was in St. Joseph, Missouri--where it had all started for David Montgomery--when he was taken ill.  An understudy took over his role.  Montgomery initially went to Chicago "for an examination," as worded by The New York Times, which then reported, "He entered the Presbyterian Hospital for a major operation on March 20."

The procedure seemed to have gone well, but then, on April 10, 1917, The New York Times reported, "Dave Montgomery, the comedian, who was operated on two weeks ago, is in critical condition, it was reported today.  He has been unconscious for a week."

By then, Chin Chin was playing in Canada.  The New York Times reported, "Fred Stone...left the company at Montreal and went to Chicago to be at the bedside of his comrade."  Stone's wife, actress Eileen Crater, also rushed to Chicago.   

After having been unconscious for 11 days, at 3:00 on the afternoon of April 20 David Montgomery regained consciousness.  Hospital employees recounted his interaction with Stone, who "had reproached himself for not ending his tour so as to remain with his friend," wrote The New York Times.  Montgomery was reported to reply:

Fred, you've sacrificed enough for me in recent years.  I know that you've been the whole show for a long time--that people want to see you, and I've simply been paid as part owner of the old trademark.  I know that you've refused offers from other managers that would have given you for yourself my income as well as your own and that you turned them down to be loyal to your old pal.

An hour after he regained consciousness, David C. Montgomery died.  At his bedside, along with Stone, were Eileen Crater; Dillingham's general manager Bruce Edwards;  and Montgomery's sister, Mrs. R. O. Lawhead.  Fred Stone told a reporter from The New York Times, "I've seen the gamest little fellow I know fight to the finish for life's biggest stake--life."

In reporting his death, The New York Times said, "The team of Montgomery and Stone was one of the last of the famous teams of comedians."  On April 22, the newspaper wrote, "Fred Stone planned today to accompany the body of his dead partner, David Montgomery, the comedian, to New York, where it will be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery beside that of 'Scamp' Montgomery, the dead jester's brother, who was also an actor."

Two days later, The New York Times reported, "Not since the funeral of Charles Frohman have so many men and women of the theatre gathered to honor the memory of one of their number as assembled yesterday for the funeral of David Montgomery."  A Who's Who of the American theater gathered at the chapel of Frank S. Campbell on Broadway at 67th Street.  The article said, "many who could not find room within stood outside."

In 1919, Montgomery's sister filed an accounting of his estate.  The New York Sun noted, "Montgomery also owned a house at 126 West Seventy-first Street" which was valued at $25,000 (just under $425,000 in 2024 terms).   On August 16, the Record & Guide reported that the house had been sold, adding,  "The purchaser will alter the dwelling into small apartments."

The renovations, completed in 1920, resulted in "bachelor apartments."  The stoop was removed and a handsome, if period inappropriate, Greek Revival style entrance created at the basement level.  It was most likely at this time that the out-of-fashion stained glass transoms over the parlor windows were removed.  The Department of Buildings cautioned, "cooking in more than two of the apartments will render this building liable to immediate vacation by the Tenement House Department."

The term "bachelor apartment" was a holdover from the 19th century when apartments were designed without kitchens in buildings erected specifically for unmarried men.  The term no longer meant that only men were welcomed, and among those signing leases in 1921 were several unmarried women.  (The thought of an unattached female living alone would have been shocking a generation earlier.)

Among the tenants in 1926 was concert basso Sigurd Nilssen, who used his apartment as his studio for giving vocal lessons.   Born in Norway in 1895, he would dramatically change courses before long, turning to acting.  He most notably appeared in the 1940 motion picture Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Signurd Nilssen (right) in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.  image via imdb.com

A renovation completed in 1974 resulted in two apartments per floor.  

photographs by the author
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