Monday, February 12, 2024

The Lost 1876 The Berkeley - 20 Fifth Avenue


By the end of the Civil War, the blocks of Fifth Avenue below 14th Street were lined with the mansions of some of Manhattan's prominent families--with one notable exception.  The Rhinelander family had held onto three vacant building plots at 18 through 22 Fifth Avenue at the southwest corner of 9th Street for years.  Across the street to the north was the former Brevoort mansion, now the home of the DeRham family.  The Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide commented that the vacant lot was "where many of the scholars of the neighboring educational institutions were in the habit of playing ball during their leisure hours."  But in 1875, said the journal, "the Rhinelander Estate at last thought it worth while to improve."

At a time when most well-to-do families associated the concept of multi-family structures with the crowded tenements of the poor, the Rhinelanders' made a risky move.  "Their decision was to erect a commodious, first-class apartment house on the well-located plot," explained the Record & Guide.  The commission for both the design and construction was given to Havilah M. Smith & Son.

Despite his professional standing and success, Havilah Smith lived in the unpretentious Federal style home of his father, builder Chardavoyne W. Smith at 61 Perry Street.  Smith would become a president of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York, and his firm would be active in the redevelopment of the Tribeca neighborhood in the third quarter of the century.

Havilah M. Smith & Son's contract for designing and erecting the building earned it $310,000 (just over $8.5 million in 2024).  Clad in "Dorchester yellow stone," the Italianate design included tidy rows of quoins that divided the Fifth Avenue elevation into three sections.  Cast iron balconies fronted the second floor windows, and dignified, triangular pediments  sat directly above the Fifth Avenue and 9th Street entrances.  The main entrance sat within a columned portico.

As construction neared completion in January 1876, the Record & Guide praised, "we can only say that never before has there been seen such a clean piece of building in New York."  Havilah M. Smith & Sons held a patent for "fire and water proof flooring," which they refused to share with any other builders.  It was, of course, used throughout The Berkeley.  At six stories tall, the building dwarfed the private homes around it.  Years before steel frame construction would make skyscrapers possible, The Berkeley was made solid by masonry walls "two feet eight inches in thickness on the principal story, and two feet in the second story," related the Record & Guide.

Residents of The Berkeley would enjoy up-to-the minute amenities like indoor plumbing.  Only "seamless drawn brass tubes" were used, rather than lead piping, and no horizonal pipes were laid within the floors, "hence there exists no danger of the pipes ever bursting."

The Berkeley opened on May 1, 1876 under the proprietorship of John Slater.  Five months before it opened, he had managed to lease 35 of the 37 suites.  He explained to a reporter from the Record & Guide that residents "can hire their rooms, or suites, and furnish them, and step down to the dining-room, of considerable dimensions, and order a la carte whatever they desire."  In public areas--the lobby, dining room, sitting areas, and such--hung paintings supplied by the Rhinelander family.  The Villager later described the dining room as having "paneled walls, floor to ceiling mirrors, which were framed so magnificently, with ornate carvings, gilded and inlaid, rich drapes and unsurpassed service of tables adorned with candles and fresh flowers."

The Berkeley filled with well-heeled residents, like attorney and financier Theodore Sutro and his wife Florence Edith Clinton Sutro, here by the 1890s.  Born in Germany, Sutro was brought to America at the age of five.  He graduated from Harvard College in 1871 and from the Columbia Law School in 1873.  The Sutro apartment was filled with an impressive collection of art, including historic marine paintings by Edward Moran.

Florence Sutro, born in England in 1865, was (quite astonishingly for the period) also a lawyer, an artist and accomplished musician.  A prodigy, she had won the $1,000 first prize for her piano playing of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 at the age of 12, and was the first woman to graduate with a doctorate of music from the Grand Conservatory of New York.  Her paintings were regularly exhibited at the National Academy of Design.  Florence Sutro graduated valedictorian of her 1891 class of the City College of New York where she received her law degree.  While living here, she wrote Women in Music and Law.

On April 2, 1895, The New York Times reported, "A subscription concert for Master Arthur Hochmann, the pianist, was given Saturday afternoon at the home of Mrs. Theodore Sutro, 20 Fifth Avenue."  It was just a hint of Florence's busy life.  She was president of the Woman's Department of the Music Teachers National Association at the time, and had founded the National Federation of Women's Music Clubs.  Her biography in a booklet published by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition about women involved in the fair noted her extensive travel, adding she was "one of the few women to have visited the Grand Canyon."

Also living in The Berkeley at the time was John F. Purdy and his wife, the former Virginia Teackle.  One of the founders of the American Jockey Club, he was born in New York on October 14, 1810.  Formerly a member of the wine importing firm of Purdy & Nicholas, he retired in 1882 at the age of 72.

A venerable resident was Mary H. Hunt, the widow of Washington Hunt, a judge, U.S. Congressman, and Governor of New York from 1850 to 1852.  She moved to Manhattan following her husband's death in 1867, and maintained a summer home far upstate in Lockport, New York.  Mary Hunt died in her apartment at the age of 90 on February 13, 1905.

Following the death of their parents, Abram Burtis Baylis, Jr. and Florence Baylis moved into The Berkeley from Brooklyn.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said they were "of the well known Baylis family of the Heights."  (The "Heights set" was  the Brooklyn counterpart to Manhattan's high society and referred to the affluent Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.)  On January 2, 1908, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said that while they moved to Manhattan, the siblings "have nonetheless kept in very close touch with the old Heights set, and have frequently been seen in Brooklyn at the important dances and other Society events of note," adding, "They are allied with the summer sets at Westhampton and Quogue."

As coincidence and cupid would have it, another resident of The Berkeley was James Edgar Morris.  His father, Theodore W. Morris, had been closely associated with Theodore Roosevelt "in business and church affairs," according to one source.  In 1904, James accompanied his family to the Oval Office for a private reception with the President.

Because it was what was known as a residential hotel, there were no kitchens in The Berkeley apartments.  Residents ate in the elegant communal dining room, and necessarily became familiar with one another.  It was possibly here that the young Florence Baylis and James Edgar Morris first caught one another's eye.  On January 2, 1908, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "The newest Brooklyn bride is to be Miss Florence Baylis.  Her wedding is to come at noon on Wednesday, January 29, in the famous Church of the Ascension, Fifth avenue and Tenth street."  The article said, "On that day and at that time she will be married to James Edgar Morris," noting, "Mr. Morris also resides at 20 Fifth avenue, so that this is a romance of a Manhattan apartment."

In 1911, 79-year-old resident George Henry Hughes was described as "several times a millionaire" by The Evening World.  A vice-president with the Standard Oil Cloth Company, he arrived at his office every morning at 10:20.  "It is a tradition in the office of the Standard Oil Cloth company that the employees used to set their watches by Mr. Hughes arrival," said the newspaper.

That tradition was broken in February 1911 when Hughes, who walked with a cane and a crutch, began "to show up at noon, and then at 1 o'clock, and finally got to spending only a few minutes at his desk," according to The Evening World on April 15.  Some of his business partners began a covert investigation, and discovered he was "a daily caller on Miss Douglas at the Bristol."

Miss Douglas was Cathleen Douglas, who was about 40 years old.  She lived in the residential Hotel Bristol on West 49th Street during the winter social season, and summered in Croton Falls, New York.  The Evening World reported, "it was learned this afternoon that the elderly millionaire first met Miss Douglas about two months ago.  He was introduced to her by his housekeeper, Mrs. Richardson."

When Hughes's partners discovered his intentions to marry the much younger woman whom he had only recently met, they sent a telegram to his only relative in the United States, a nephew in Chicago.  "The nephew came on and advised his uncle against getting married," reported The Evening World.  He was told, "Cathleen loves me and I love her.  I'm as hale and hearty as when I was fifty years old."  The newspaper said, "The nephew went back to Chicago."

At 11:00 on the morning of April 15, "from a big, glittering limousine car, driving by a chauffeur in livery, that drew up at the curb on the Park Row side of City Hall Park," alighted Mrs. Richardson and Cathleen Douglas, both "richly dressed," according to The Evening World.  The chauffeur helped George Henry Hughes out of the automobile "with a crutch under his right arm and a cane in his left hand his progress as wavering and apparently painful.  By the time the women reached the City Hall they were fifty feet ahead of him," said the article.  Inside, they acquired a marriage license, with Mrs. Richardson acting as witness and chaperone.  

Attorney Theodore E. Leeds and his wife, the former Mary Eliza Bronson, lived here at the time amidst a stunning collection of artwork. 

Another resident was Susan Elizabeth Blow.  Born in St. Louis in in 1842, her father, Henry Taylor Blow, had been United States Minister to Venezuela.  She was educated in Europe, and upon returning to St. Louis in 1873 started a kindergarten, personally paying for all the expenses.  She later opened a school for kindergarten teachers.  Her work would eventually earn her the nickname the "Mother of the Kindergarten" of the American public schools.  She established a course of study known as "History and Philosophy of Education" at Normal College in 1909, wrote Educational Issues in the Kindergarten, and was chairman of the Committee of Nineteen of the International Kindergarten Union.   Never married, she died in apartment in The Berkeley at the age of 74 on March 28, 1916.

Following the death of her husband, George A. Hearn, in 1913, Laura Frances Hoppock Hearn took an apartment in The Berkley.  Her father, Howell Hoppock was "a prominent merchant," according to the New-York Tribune, and her husband had been the head of the drygoods firm James A. Hearn & Son founded by his father.

The couple had a large and valuable collection of American art, including works by George Inness, Winslow, John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, and Childe Hassam.  Upon George Hearn's death, much of the extensive collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The rest came to Laura's apartment in The Berkeley.  (When the couple's only son, Arthur Hoppock Hearn, had died in 1910, George Hearn gave the Metropolitan Museum a gift of $100,000--about $3 million today--in his memory.)

In 1915, the Rhinelander Estate leased The Berkeley to the Knott Hotel Syndicate, headed by David Knott.  Things went smoothly until 1920, when the Knott organization raised prices.  On October 30, The New York Times reported, "The tenants said they had accepted rent increases of 50 to 100 per cent without protest," but the extra $5 per week for the dining room went too far.  They "balked at the extra dining charge, asserting as a matter of principal, they went on a 'hunger strike' by shunning the Berkeley dining room."  They took their meals in restaurants.

Knott told the residents that the cost of food had risen to the point that the increase was necessary.  However, newspapers "were reporting general reductions all along the line in food prices," said the article, and one resident, William J. Love, the general manager of the Bermuda Steamship Line, "insisted that supplies for steamers' tables were much cheaper."  For weeks only one resident sat in the dignified dining hall, and "she was forced to do so because her health did not permit her to leave the building," explained The New York Times.  

A committee of tenants contacted the Rhinelander Estate in an attempt to take over the lease, but were informed that the Knott organization still had five years on its lease.  And so, the committee hinted at "prospective suits to determine their rights under the profiteering law."  The Knotts capitulated and returned the dining room rate to $25 weekly at the end of October 1920.

Theodore E. Leeds died in 1921, and Mary E. Leeds died in their Berkeley apartment on May 28, 1925.  Among the artworks in the apartment were an etching by Boucher, Darby and Joan, the painting Washington Square by Paul Connoyer, and a bronze statue by Antoine Bofill which Mary's will noted "took a prize in the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris."

Paul Conoyer's Washington Square hung in the Leeds apartment.

In 1937, The Berkeley closed.  "Many guests were saddened as were old employees, some of whom had served for a long term of years.  One, Joseph Reed, the building engineer, worked there for 44 years, reportedly not missing a day," wrote The Villager.  The paintings that the Rhinelander family had hung in the halls were removed.  "Several were said to have been shipped to Princess Miguel de Braganza in Portugal," said the article, "who was the former Anita Stewart, of the Rhinelander Stewarts."

The venerable Berkeley was demolished to make way for 20 Fifth Avenue, designed by Boak & Paris.

photo by the author

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