Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Remodeled Ernest C. Most House - 433 East 87th Street


None of the 1879 design elements survive.

Active in the Yorkville district in the 1870s and '80s, Emma J. and John S. Johnston began construction of a long row of three-story homes on the north side of East 87th Street between York and First Avenues.  Completed early in 1880, the brownstone-fronted 433 East 87th Street, like its neighbors, was neo-Grec in style.  The architrave frames of the parlor and second-floor windows were capped with incised lintels and a geometric neo-Grec cornice crowned the design.  Beefy cast iron newels flanked the short stoop.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The completed houses sold at a rapid-fire rate--three selling on a single day in February 1880.  Ernest J. Most purchased 433 East 87th Street.  Highly involved in charitable work, he was the president of branch of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul attached to St. Ignatius Church.  In 1886, The Guide to the Charities of New York explained the organization was
"devoted to the relief of the poor, whom they visit at their homes, giving aid where needed, and placing children in asylums to receive elementary and religious education."

In 1886, the Mosts rented space in their home.  Their ad on February 14 offered, "Handsomely furnished front parlor, with large bedroom, all modern improvements; rent reasonable."  The ad was answered by George P. Fischer, who listed his profession as "musician."

The parlor floor continued to rented at least through the turn of the century.  It was unfortunately the scene of two residents' funerals during that period.  Charles B. Zachmann died at the age of 39 on April 28, 1888, and Irish-born Edward Derivan died here on April 5, 1890.  Both funerals were held in the parlor.

Attorney Joseph Donningham lived here in 1900.  He and a friend had a bit too much to drink on the night of December 12 that year.  The New York Morning Telegraph reported, "Two grown men, well dressed and looking as if they were accustomed to decent society, created a disturbance in the lobby of the Herald Square Theatre last night by kissing the photographs of members of the 'Arizona' company in the frames and endeavoring to take a wine glass from a lithograph."  The pair "became finally such a nuisance" that they were arrested.

The drunken Donningham tried to wriggle out of the situation by convincing Sergeant Carson at the West 13th Street police station that they knew one another.  The New York Morning Telegraph said he "continually repeated: 'You know me, Sergeant; I am Joe Donningham, the lawyer, and I live at 433 East Eighty-seventh street.  Your brother and I are intimate friends.'"  Despite Donningham's insistence and his repeated attempts to shake the sergeant's hand, Carson ignored him.  As it turned out, the lawyer's ruse backfired.  He was led to a cell while his friend, "whom the police said had done very little but laugh at the other man's antics, was allowed to go."

In 1901, New York City was hit with a devastating small pox epidemic.  On February 6, Dr. Clifford Colgate Moore placed the number of cases at 20,000.  A headline in the New Orleans' The Times Democrat said that New York had resorted to "compulsory vaccination."

Living at 433 East 87th Street at the time were Dr. Peter Schaeffler, his wife Mary, and son Eugene F.  In February 1902, Schaeffler was appointed a medical inspector for the city, and the following month was given additional duties as a vaccinator.  He was one of scores of physicians assigned to visit tenements and vaccinate often unwilling patients.  The New York Times explained that vaccinators "are required to make weekly statements to the department giving the names and addresses and other particulars in regard to persons whom they have inoculated."  

The inspector position paid $1,200 and the vaccinator job (which was to last throughout the scourge) paid another $100 annually.  Combined, the salaries amounted to about $45,600 in 2024.  

An article in The New York Times on February 1, 1903 noted that during the previous year smallpox "caused the same mortality as in 1901."  A separate article on the same page reported on the firing of four city physicians "for making false reports of their work."  It noted, "Dr. Peter Schaeffler of 433 East Eighty-seventh Street, one of those dismissed, reported that he had made sixty-five inoculations in a certain week, but the department has only been able to find thirty of these people, and of these only ten had been vaccinated."
Not long after Schaeffler's public humiliation, the Splitdorf family moved into 433 East 87th Street.  Henry and his wife, the former Anna Schmidt, had two adult sons, Charles F. and John M.  Henry.

An early inventor of electric products, Henry Splitdorf had established the Splitdorf Laboratories in Philadelphia in 1856.  His first invention was a repeating relay for the telegraph.  Prior to that innovation, telegraph operators had to manually rekey a message every few miles, making the time necessary for a message to get from the East to West coast five hours.  Splitdorf's invention reduced that to five minutes.

Henry Splitdorf moved his company to New York in 1867.  Following his retirement in 1885, Charles had become the firm's president with John its vice-president.  Both of them, like their father, were inventors.  By the time Anna and Henry moved into the East 87th Street house, the Splitdorf Ignition Company had developed and was now manufacturing magnetos (invented by Charles) and spark plugs for automobiles.  In 1903, John Splitdorf had invented a non-inductive electrical condenser that the Hackensack, New Jersey newspaper The Record said was "widely used in automobiles, radios, stationery engines, and X-ray machines."

In 1912, the firm became Splitdorf Electrical Company and in 1924 would consolidate with the Bethlehem Spark Plug Company to become the Splitdorf-Bethlehem Electrical Company (later park of Edison).

Anna Schmidt Splitdorf died in the East 87th Street house in February 1914 at the age of 81.  Henry survived her by two years, dying at the age of 83 on October 17, 1916.  In reporting his death, The New York Times recalled, "He was one of the first makers of telegraph instruments, and made the ones used by Morse, the inventor of telegraphy."

No. 433 East 87th Street was home to the William J. and Emilia J. Kenney by 1922.  Kenney was an executive with the Standard Life Association.  He died here in March 1934.

A renovation in 1977 resulted in two duplex apartments (one in the cellar and parlor floors, the other on the second and third).  It was remodeled again in 1988 to create one triplex apartment, plus two apartments on the third floor.  Then, in 2017, it was returned to a single family home.  During one of those transformations, the 1880 neo-Grec details were removed, an arched doorway installed, and a full-width iron balcony placed at the second floor.

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Friday, March 29, 2024

The 1845 Joseph H. Coates House - 16 West 11th Street


The top floor windows were originally the size of those seen at 14 West 11th Street, to the right.

In 1834 Henry Brevoort Jr. moved into a fine new mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street.  The only residence on the still unpaved avenue, it sat upon a large tract of land formerly known as the Brevoort Farm.  That was all about to change.  A center of social activity, the Brevoort mansion set the tone for Fifth Avenue directly above Washington Square, and within a matter of years equally splendid dwellings were rising along the thoroughfare.

Brevoort and his wife Laura had eight children, five of whom were daughters.  In 1844, he began construction of seven identical brick-faced homes on West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, five of which would be gifts to his daughters.  

Completed in 1845, the residences were designed in the popular Greek Revival style.  Brownstone stoops led to the first floor, where floor-to-ceiling windows provided drama and light to the parlors.  The dignified doorways within the typical Greek Revival frames were flanked by Corinthian pilasters and sidelights.  Above the short attic windows, a continuous dentiled cornice unified the row.

No. 16 West 11th Street became home to the well-to-do Joseph H. Coates family.  A partner with George C. Miller in the Pearl Street firm of Miller & Coates, he listed his profession as "metals."

The family remained here until 1857, when Caroline Inman, known to her friends as Eliza, began operating it as a high-end boarding house.  The widow of John Inman, it appears that she never took more than two boarders in at a time--a reflection of the exclusivity of her home.  In 1857, Dr. Upton H. Belt boarded here, joined by importer Louis L. Dejanon in 1859.

The house returned to a single-family residence in 1864.  Caroline Inman moved to University Place and 16 West 11th Street became home to the David L. Reed family.  Reed and his wife, the former Sarah Louisa Valleau, had two daughters, Florence and Alfaretta.  Reed was a produce broker with offices on Grand Street.  

Despite his professional standing and the respectable tenor of the West 11th Street block, Reed was more than once connected to a prostitute.  On January 11, 1864, for instance, The New York Times reported that police "made a descent upon the disorderly house of Irene McCready, No. 143 Eighth-street, and arrested the proprietress, and arrested fifteen women."   The brothel's madam was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.  The article noted, "David B. [sic] Reed, of No. 16 West Eleventh-street, became bondsman for Irene McCready."  (It was a hefty amount, equal to nearly $20,000 in 2024.)

Five years later, on August 16, 1869, The New York Times reported that David Reilly "met Emma Valentine, aged 25, in the street on Saturday evening."  He accompanied her to a house near 52nd Street.  "Soon after leaving Emma, the foolish fellow discovered that he had been robbed of $300," said the article.  "Officer O'Brien...made a search for Emma, who, it appears, lives at No. 16 West Eleventh-street, and succeeded in arresting her."

Sarah and her daughters experienced a terrifying incident on January 16, 1881.  The James McCreery & Co. dry goods store was two blocks away, on the corner of Broadway and 11th Street.  A boiler exploded at 5:00 that afternoon, the force so powerful that, incredibly, it blew a chunk of a manhole cover all the way to the Reed house.  The New York Times reported that Sarah and her daughters were...

...conversing in the back parlor when the explosion occurred and set the broken man-hole plate of the boiler crashing through the front parlor window.  The jagged piece of iron struck the further wall near the folding-doors, breaking a hole in the plastering and lath-work large enough to put one’s head in, and cracking the plastering from ceiling to floor.  A marble-top table had its legs taken off by the missile, and the carpet and furniture were nearly ruined by the shower of mud and pieces of brick and mortar which broke through the two parlor windows, carrying sashes and all with it.  The glass in the windows on the second and third floors was also shattered.  A member of the family had passed through the front parlor only a moment before the explosion. 

By 1883, Sarah's nephew, Charles Valleau, lived with the family.  In May that year, he applied for a position with the New York City Police Department.  Letters from the department's chief clerk, S. C. Hawley and from John J. Brogan, captain of the 15th Precinct, were sent out asking "as to the character, habits, associates and reputation of Charles Valleau, No. 16 West Eleventh street."  The positive responses were bolstered by a petition signed by ten citizens (including, not surprisingly, Daniel L. Reed) that described him in part as "a man of good moral character, correct and orderly in his deportment, and not in any respect a violator of law or good order--that he is of sober, temperate and industrious habits--not addicted to the habitual use of intoxicating drinks, or to other hurtful excesses."

The Reed family left 16 West 11th Street soon afterward.  When the first issue of the Social Register was published in 1887, it listed "Mr. and Mrs. Algernon Sydney Sullivan" living in the house.  Born in Madison, Indiana in 1826, Sullivan studied law at Miami University, graduating in 1845.  He married Mary Mildred Hammond in 1855, and they had one son, George Hammond.  The family relocated to New York in 1857.  Sullivan held the position of assistant district attorney from 1870 to 1873, and in 1878 formed the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell with William Nelson Cromwell.

Algernon Sydney Sullivan, image via

Sullivan would not enjoy his new home for long.  On November 27, 1887, "he was carried to his home in a carriage...from his office in the Drexel building," according to the Albany, New York Evening Times.  The Evening World explained that he left his office "ill with a chill."

Mary called Dr. Bayard, who had been her husband's trusted physician for 28 years.  His diagnosis was dire.  The Evening World reported Bayard "found him suffering from typhoid fever and congestion of the bronchial tubes."  Sullivan survived a week, dying on December 4, 1887.

Mary Sullivan's profound grief was reflected in her subsequent privacy.  The following day, the Daily Eagle reported, "The remains of Algernon S. Sullivan, the well known lawyer, who died last night, were placed in the front parlor of his late residence, 16 West Eleventh street, New York this morning.  Only a few of the most intimate friends of the family were permitted to look at them.  A large number of telegrams were received by the family, but the names of the senders will not be made public until later in the day."  Furthermore, contrary to the expected custom, the funeral was not held in the parlor, but at the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Fifth Avenue.

(The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award was established by The New York Southern Society in 1926.  It recognized undergraduate seniors at eastern United States colleges and universities based on votes by the faculties of those institutions.)

Following her period of mourning, Mary Sullivan reemerged within high society, while turning much of her attention to philanthropy.  On April 17, 1892, The Press noted that she continued her "delightfully informal afternoon teas on Fridays," saying the "parlors at No. 16 East Eleventh street are crowded with members of the fashionable world."

Mary Sullivan's elevated spot in the social world was evidenced in the Army and Navy Journal's report on the annual New York Charity Ball on January 31, 1899.  Organized in 1857, it was one of the highlights of the winter season.  "The grand march was led by Vice-President Hobart and Mrs. Algernon Sydney Sullivan," said the article.  

Eighteen years later, on February 2, 1917, The New York Times said the Charity Ball "has rightly been called 'The Ball of Our Ancestors,' for it is the sole survival [sic] of the old social traditions and was attended and supported by the great-grandparents of those who are now its patrons."  A sub-headline to the article read, "Mrs. Algernon Sidney Sullivan, Leader of the Grand March for Thirty Years, Again Officiates."

In the meantime, Mary's continued involvement in charities was reflected in her being president of the Nursery and Child's Hospital on Lexington Avenue in 1903.  Established in 1854, it cared for women during and after childbirth, and provided "rudimentary education of destitute children under 8 years of age," according to the 1903 Directory of Charities.  She would hold the position for years.

A native of Winchester, Virginia, Mary was a member of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and was president of the New York auxiliary of the Southern Industrial Educational Society.  On February 16, 1917, with war raging in Europe, the New-York Tribune reported, "The New York Southern Women's Patriotic Committee, the purpose of which will be to enroll all Southern women residing in the city in a volunteer corps for national service in case of war, was organized yesterday at the residence of Mrs. Algernon Sydney Sullivan."

After living in the West 11th Street house for nearly half a century, Mary Mildred Hammond Sullivan died here in 1933.  She left her son George Hammond Sullivan the house and other real estate, and $200,000 (equal to about $4.5 million in 2024).  She remembered her domestic staff, leaving her lady's maid, Mary M. O'Connor $500 (about $11,000 today), and $50 each to "eight other employees," according to The New York Times on July 15.  Mary Sullivan was generous to her favorite charities, giving $50,000 to the New York Nursery and Child's Hospital, and $10,000 to the Mary Mildred Sullivan Scholarship Fund of the George Peabody College for Teachers, along with similar bequests.

In 1957, artists Joe Hazan and Jane Freilicher were married.  That same year they purchased 16 West 11th Street.  Jane had begun showing her works at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, through which she became associated with several poets.  One of them, according to Freilicher's on-line biography, was Frank O'Hara, who wrote a poem in honor of the marriage.  Hazan and Freilicher would have a daughter, Elizabeth.  

Although they did not officially convert 16 West 11th Street to apartments, the couple created three living spaces within the house.  In 1967, motion picture and theater critic Mel Gussow, his wife Ann, and their son Ethan moved into the second floor apartment.  The parlor floor was home to fledgling actor Dustin Hoffman.

The 30-year-old Hoffman had appeared in various off-Broadway plays since 1960.  In 1966, he auditioned for the lead role in the Broadway musical The Apple Tree, but was rejected by director Mike Nichols because he could not sing well enough.  (Alan Alda landed the part instead.)  But Hoffman's acting ability so impressed the director that he cast him as the male lead in the motion picture The Graduate, which opened in theaters in 1967.  The role made Hoffman instantly recognizable nationwide.

Hoffman displays a poster of The Graduate in his apartment in 16 West 11th Street in 1967.  (The poster was banned in New York subways for being in "poor taste."  Bettman/Getty Archive

Despite the film's box office success, after taxes and living expenses, Hoffman netted only $4,000 for The Graduate.  He found himself earning $55 per week in unemployment benefits.  That, too, changed in 1969 when he was offered the edgy role of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Hoffman his second Oscar nomination.

While Hoffman continued to land significant motion picture roles, appearing in the 1969 John and Mary with Mia Farrow, and in Little Big Man (in which his character ages from a teen to a 121-year-old man), he continued to live on the parlor floor of 16 West 11th Street.  The apartment became more populated in May 1969 when he married Anne Byrne, who had a three-year-old daughter Karina.

Living next door at 18 West 11th Street was the James P. Wilkerson family.  In March 1970, while Wilkerson and his wife Audrey were in St. Kitts, their daughter Cathy and four other members of the terrorist Weatherman group began building a bomb in the basement.  Their target was a military dance at Fort Dix, intended to be a pernicious protest against the war in Vietnam.  Cathy and Kathy Boudin were upstairs just before noon on March 6 when the device detonated.  Their three accomplices were instantly killed.  Astoundingly, the young women escaped and soon after disappeared.

The explosion was massive, blowing out the front of the Wilkerson house.  The only occupants of 16 East 11th Street at the time were the Hoffmans' baby sitter Marie-Therese Thieselin and little Karina.  New York Magazine reported, "Marie-Therese was standing in the middle of the Hoffman living room when the fireplace came crashing out at her."

Mel Gussow recalled in an article on March 5, 2000 in The New York Times, "At 11:55...Anne Hoffman was coming home and the cabdriver accidentally drove past her house.  As she got out of the cab, No. 18 exploded.  If the cab had stopped at No. 16, she and the driver might have felt the full brunt of the explosion."  Anne ran inside and gathered up her daughter, the babysitter, and the family's dog.  "Back outside, she was met by a wall of flame," said Gussow.

According to Glenn Frankel in his Shooting Midnight Cowboy, Hoffman was notified of the explosion by telephone.  (It was Marie-Therese Thieselin who had called, doing so from the kitchen even before Anne had made it inside.)  "He rushed home to find fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and howling sirens on the edge of a raging tower of smoke and flame."  

Dustin Hoffman stood among neighbors and debris shortly after the blast.  from Fred W. McDarrah New York Scenes.

The damages from the blast were repaired (including a hole in the western wall where Hoffman had found his desk teetering).  No. 16 West 11th Street remains a three-family home as it was when Joe Hazan and Jane Freilicher owned it.

The 1970 devastation to 18 West 11th Street next door is memorialized in the modern rebuilding.

photographs by the author
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Thursday, March 28, 2024

The 1916 Charles Martin Clark House - 713 Park Avenue


When Raphael Lewisohn, the founder of the importing firm Lewisohn & Co., moved into the Queen Anne style house at 713 Park Avenue around 1886, the thoroughfare was just becoming an acceptable residential street.  But by January 1915, when Charles Martin Clark purchased the house, Park Avenue rivaled Fifth Avenue.  On January 16, the Record & Guide commented that Clark "will tear down the present structure and build a new one from plans by McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin."

The limestone-faced residence was completed in 1916.  The architects' chaste neo-French Classic design featured dramatic, fully-arched French doors that opened onto a bronze-railed balcony at the second floor.  The grouped openings of the third and fourth floors sat within a two-story frame.  Another full-width balcony fronted the fifth floor, and a parapet perched above the cornice.

Born in 1873, Clark came from an old American family and was a member of the Mayflower Descendants.  His father was Charles F. Clark, the president of the Bradstreet Company, which created the first book of credit ratings in 1851.  Charles Martin Clark graduated with an engineering degree from Columbia University in 1897, the same year he married Bessie Milligan.  The couple had two children, Charles Jr., and Katharine.

Despite his engineering background, in 1904 Clark became treasurer of Bradstreet Company.  He became increasingly interested in utility firms, and would sit on the boards of six such companies.  

The Clark house replaced a Queen Anne residence like those to the right.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

For weeks after the announcement of her engagement, society columns reported on Katharine's wedding plans.  Her marriage to John Starr Table of the Royal Air Force was scheduled for March 1, 1919 in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.  On February 9, for instance, The Sun reported on the arrangements so far, naming each of Katharine's ten attendants.

The emotional and logistical upheaval within the Park Avenue house can only be imagined when two days before the ceremony the New-York Tribune reported, "Owing to the illness of Miss Katharine C. Clark...the date of her marriage to Frances Starr Taber has been changed from March 1 to Saturday, March 8."  (The rush to get the word out may have been responsible for the article's getting John Taber's name wrong.)

Happily, the marriage took place on the rescheduled date, covered in detail in the society columns.  A reception was held in the Park Avenue residence.

Like many of his neighbors, Charles Clark was an avid yachtsman.  On July 12, 1922, the New York Herald reported on the activities at Newport, saying in part, "Mr. Charles Martin Clark was among those joining the yachting fleet to-day, arriving on board his steam yacht the Alfreda."

With the outbreak of the Great Depression, Bessie became involved with the New York Diet Kitchen Association.  The organization had been formed in 1873 to provide food to the poor during the previous depression, the Financial Panic of 1873.  She held meetings in the drawing room, and on January 15, 1930 the New York Sun reported, "Mrs. Charles M. Clark of 713 Park avenue gives a luncheon today at her residence for a group of debutantes who are to serve as ushers and program girls at the benefit concert of the New York Diet Kitchen Association at the Hotel Astor on the morning of January 28."

In 1930 Clark replaced the Alfreda with the yacht Northwind.  He invited his nephew, Kenneth Wallace, and his wife aboard in the summer of 1935.  

The Northwind.  image via

On the night of July 24, 1935, Wallace discovered his uncle's body in his stateroom.  Charles Martin Clark had died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 61.  His funeral was held in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church two days later.

In June 1934, a year before her husband's shocking death, Bessie Clark had sold 713 Park Avenue to C. R. Love, Jr.  Love was with the stock exchange firm of Josephthal & Co.  The New York Sun reported that the house, for which he paid cash, "will be occupied by the new owner this fall."

By mid-century, business and apartment buildings had encroached into the formerly exclusive neighborhood.  In 1951, 731 Park Avenue was converted to offices for the Avalon Foundation.  Founded in 1940 by Ailsa Mellon Bruce, the group provided grants to a wide range of recipients including colleges and universities, arts and cultural organizations, and medical schools and hospitals.

Following Ailsa Mellon Bruce's death in 1969, the Avalon Group was merged with the Old Dominion Foundation, established by her brother Paul Mellon.  The joined philanthropies became the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, named for their father.  At the same time, Paul Mellon purchased 713 Park Avenue.

In June 2003, four years after Mellon's death, Santiago Calatrava purchased 713 Park Avenue.  The famed Spanish architect and his wife Robertina already owned the house next door at 711 Park Avenue, described by Observer at the time as "two of only a handful of townhouses on Park Avenue."  Calatrava had recently been called by The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp "the world's greatest living poet of transportation architecture."  A month after he purchased 713 Park Avenue, The Port Authority commissioned Calatrava to design the new transportation hub at Ground Zero.  In September 2003, the Observer said, "Mr. Calatrava will presumably be using his new combined perch at 711 and 713 Park Avenue to mastermind the planning of the new transportation complex."

Outwardly, the Charles M. Clark house survives astoundingly intact.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Doubleday & Beak Building - 49 Murray Street


In 1813, Joseph Stringham lived and worked in the Federal style house at 49 Murray Street that he leased from Trinity Church.  On August 11 that year, he advertised:  "A good, fast-sailing vessel, with excellent accommodations, will shortly be dispatched as a cartel for the Leeward Carribee [i.e., Carribean] Islands.  For passage, apply to Joseph Stringham, No. 49 Murray-street."

The property was acquired from Trinity Church by Hubert Van Wagenen, Jr. in 1844.  He and his family resided here until 1855, a time when the neighborhood was beginning to exhibit noticeable change.  Within a year or two, as loft buildings supplanted residences, Van Wagenen replaced the vintage house with a modern loft and store building.  

The five-story building was faced in stone above a cast iron storefront executed by Daniel Badger's Architectural Iron Works.  The segmentally arched openings of the upper floors sat on bracketed sills and wore molded hoods.  A stone cornice with a carved frieze capped the design.

It appears that Van Wagenen's first tenant was Doubleday & Beak, manufacturers of umbrellas and parasols.  A reorganization around 1866 resulted in the firm's name being changed to Doubleday & Dwight.  It shared the building that year with Joseph Walter's paper box company, which would remain for decades.

Doubleday & Dwight left in 1868.  In addition to Joseph Walter, the building's occupants were the saddlery firm of A. D. Dickinson & Co. (Asa Dickinson also ran a dry goods business at 8 Murray Street); importers James and William Conklin; and Bartlett Brothers & Smith, a glass business run by Homer N. and John B. Bartlett with David R. Smith.

The bookkeeper of A. D. Dickinson & Co. was Asa Dickinson's brother, Dewitt.  The New York Herald described his job as "a very responsible position."  The newspaper added that Dewitt Dickinson, who lived in a boarding house nearby at 1 College Place (today's Park Place), was "an educated and accomplished gentlemen and his relatives are of the highest respectability."

But the young man had a drinking problem.  The New York Herald explained he sometimes "drank to excess, so much so that he neglected his business."  Asa Dickinson tried to reason with his alcoholic brother, and "often expostulated with [him] and endeavored to dissuade him from pursuing such a ruinous course."

Around April 1, 1869, Dewitt Dickinson failed to show up at work and over a week later was still missing.  The New York Herald wrote, "the belief prevailed that shame and humiliation at his course of late had taken such deep hold upon him that he determined never again to see his brother."  At around 1:00 on the afternoon of April 12, Mary McMahon, Dickinson's landlady, heard a pistol shot, but could not discern where it came from.  Three hours later, suspicious that something was wrong, she tried Dickinson's door, which was locked.  Mary's husband found a police officer and they forced the door open.  They found the 26-year-old Dewitt Dickinson dead on the bed.  The New York Herald revealed, "the [pistol] ball had passed clear through the head, struck the partition wall, from which it rebounded, and lodged on the bed."

Asa Dickinson took on a partner, George H. Norton, around 1874, changing the name of the firm to Norton & Dickinson.  Norton appeared in court on September 26, 1874 to testify against Joseph Cowley and Philip Scherer.   The New York Herald reported that he accused Cowley of stealing and Scherer "with receiving five brushes and thirty-one horse blankets, worth $105."  (The amount would be closer to $2,780 in 2024.)  The stolen goods had been found in Scherer's possession.  

The following year another tenant was the victim of a burglar.  Barbey & Sons occupied the second floor where they manufactured fans--a must-have for Victorian ladies in the warm months.  On May 20, 1875, The New York Times reported that Barbey & Sons "was entered by thieves on Tuesday night and robbed of fans valued at $1,700."  It was a major haul, worth about $46,800 today.

Also in the building in the mid- to late-1870s were M. Reiman & Co., manufacturers of "absolutely pure French fruit syrup;" H. Siebold & Co., "importers of lithographic stones, &c."; and the New York office of German lamp and candle shade makers Hohenstein & Lange.

Hohenstein & Lange was described by New York's Leading Industries in 1885 as "one of the largest factories in Europe for the manufacture of every description of lamp and candle shades."  The New York office was run by Hugh Hohenstein.  New York's Leading Industries noted, "At his fine establishment in Murray street, can be seen a full line of these beautiful goods and which are universal favorites throughout the trade."  The firm also manufactured "fancy papers," "laces for paper boxes," and "the most elegant and artistic menu, Christmas and New Year's cards."

The Saddlery Hardware Manufacturing Co. operated from 49 Murray Street by 1890.  (It is unclear whether it was somehow connected with the earlier Norton & Dickinson firm.)  Among its executives in 1892 was a man named Dreher, whose 17-year-old son brought unwanted publicity to the firm that year.

On December 1, The New York Times sad flatly, "Young Dreher, whose father is employed in the office of a saddlery and hardware manufacturing company at 49 Murray Street, has been a disobedient and wayward son for over a year.  The great trouble with the boy, the father says, has been his disinclination to work."  

Three months earlier, the teen had found work at the farmhouse of Mrs. Charles Purdy in Red Bank, New Jersey.  The New York Times said, "He did not stay here long, as he was discharged for laziness."  Dreher came to New York City where he became acquainted with two "crooks," as described by the newspaper, one of whom, Charles Adams, was well-known to police.  Dreher came up with the plan to rob Mrs. Purdy's house.  He would show up, plead that he was starving and had no place to stay, and beg for a meal and a bed for the night.  He was sure Mrs. Purdy would not turn him down, and during the night he would open a window to allow his cohorts to enter and burglarize the house.

When Dreher arrived at the Purdy house, she was not there, but the servants let him in.  As planned, he let the teens in during the night and they made off with $500 worth of silverware and other valuables.  In the morning, Dreher sauntered out, telling the servants he was going to look for a place to live and work.  "Several hours after his departure the robbery was discovered, but no one suspected Dreher," said the article.

To avoid the suspicious appearance of two teenaged boys carrying a bulky bag of silverware on the ferry, they shipped it via an express company to New York.  The clever plan fell through, however, when Adams was arrested on suspicion by a sharped eyed police officer after he picked up the bundle at the express office at 94 Broadway.  "When Dreher was brought to the station house he made a clean breast of the whole affair," reported The New York Times.  Adams confessed to the crime and fingered Dreher and the other accomplice.  

Bernard Meiners, dealers in lithographic supplies, was in the building at the time, and Joseph Walter's paper box factory, now run by Joseph Walter Jr., was still there.   At the turn of the century, the Walter firm employed eight men, 22 women, a one girl under 16.  They worked 54 hours per week.  By then the printing establishment of Joseph Carroll was also in the building.

At around noon on October 29, 1900 the Tribeca neighborhood was rocked by a massive explosion.  The New York Times ran the headline "RUIN, DEATH; MANY INJURIES. / Drug House of Tarrant & Co., And About Twenty Other Buildings Wrecked."   The explosion occurred at the northeast corner of Washington and Warren Streets.  

Henrietta Gorman worked in the paper box factory.  The 18-year-old was taken to Hudson Street Hospital where she was diagnosed with "hysteria."

New-York Tribune, October 30, 1900 (copyright expired)

A bizarre story was that of Edward Bradley, who worked for Joseph Carroll.  According to the New-York Tribune he and his wife, Mary, met for lunch and, "were in front of Tarrant's building when the explosions wrecked the place."  The newspaper continued, "There was a shower of stones and dust.  Mr. Bradley says he heard his wife shriek for help, and looking around found that the spot where she had stood was covered with wreckage.  He could not find her, and reported to the police that he feared she had been killed."

But the following day, The New York Times reported that Bradley's former housekeeper "saw him on the street yesterday morning, and she declared that he had referred to the matter as a joke played on him.  He is not married and has no sisters or relatives by the name given, according to the housekeeper."

The Joseph Walter box company would remain at 49 Murray Street through 1908, and Bernhard Meiners was still here in 1929.  Rand, McNally & Co. moved in by 1912, and the following year E. Steiger & Co., publishers and distributors of school supplies was in the building.  Like Bernhard Meiners, E. Steinger & Co. remained through 1929.

The Publishers' Weekly, July 19, 1924 (copyright expired)

Exactly one century after his family had purchased the property, in 1944 Edward Van Wagenen sold 49 Murray Street to the Selmer Loft company.  Its ownership would prove much shorter.  The building was purchased by the Seaboard Twin & Cordage Company in 1946.

As was the case in 1858 when Hubert Van Wagenen demolished his house, the Tribeca neighborhood again saw drastic change in the last quarter of the 20th century.  A renovation completed in 1998 resulted in four spacious loft dwellings on the upper floors.  

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

J. M. Felson's 1931 40 West 86th Street


Despite the pall of the Great Depression, on October 21, 1931, The New York Sun reported, "The new nineteen-story and penthouse apartment 40 West Eighty-sixth street has been completely rented."  The article noted, "The building contains sixty-one suites of three to six rooms.  Most of the apartments were leased on the plans."  The term "on the plans" meant that the apartments were rented from floorplans while the building was under construction.

Designed by Jacob M. Felson for the 40 West 86th Street Realty Corp., the brick-clad building presented an exuberant array of Art Deco decoration.  The entrance, framed in ribbed cast stone, was flanked by geometric-patterned windows.  Glazed terra cotta spandrel panels above the second and third floors sprouted brilliantly colored Art Deco ferns and plants.  The upper-floor spandrels featured corrugated brickwork.

Felson gave the setback levels streamlined, ocean liner-like Art Deco railings and large panels of splashy stylized fountain designs.

Vast, grouped casements flooded the apartments with northern light.

Journalist Geraldine Prosnitz of The New York Sun visited the building as it neared completion.  She wrote on August 12, 1931, "Even the doorknobs have gone modernistic in the new apartment buildings now being completed along the West Side.  At 40 West Eighty-sixth street...the hardware on the apartment doors is slightly reminiscent of the Empire State Building.  The builders say it was designed especially for them."   She described the five- and six-room units as having "dropped living rooms, dressing rooms attached to master bathrooms and a layout which really isolates bedrooms from living quarters."  Prosnitz noted,

Colored tiling in the bath rooms and colored stoves in the kitchen are added inducements.  But the best trick of all, in the opinion of this observer, ministering with equal impartiality to male and female weakness, is the adjustable mirror on the bathroom cabinet and the special vanity ensemble placed on the inside of the foyer closet door, in each apartment.

Rents for the three-room apartments started at $1,800 per year, the five-room apartments at $2,500, and the six-room units at $2,900.  Considering the height of the Depression, the rents were not cheap.  The beginning price for the six-room apartments would translate to about $4,650 per month in 2024.

Most of the residents were respectable professionals, like Bennett E. Siegelstein, an attorney and president of the Fenimore Country Club, who took "a large penthouse," according to The New York Sun as the building neared completion.  Others were less upstanding--like Irving Bitz.

Born in 1903, Bitz was the owner of a newspaper delivery firm.  But police were well aware he had ties to organized crime dating to the 1920s, including close relationships with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.  In 1931, the year Bitz moved into 40 West 86th Street, he was a prime suspect in the murder of bootlegger Jack "Legs" Diamond.

Charlotte Erlanger also moved into the building that year--or at least that is the name she used when signing her lease.  A former musical comedy actress, her stage name was Charlotte Leslie and her actual surname was Fixel.  She took the surname Erlanger because of her long-standing intimate relationship with theatrical producer Abraham L. Erlanger.

Charlotte had met Erlanger around 1907 when she was a chorus girl.  By the 1920s, she referred to him as her husband, although the formality of a marriage ceremony had never taken place.  Her use of his surname on the lease was no doubt a calculated move.  Abraham Erlanger had died a year earlier, on March 7, 1930.  His estate was "estimated as high as $75,000,000," according to The New York Times--as much as $1.3 billion today.  He left the bulk of his estate to his brother and two sisters.  Charlotte Fixel went to court "to establish herself as the theatrical producer's common law widow," explained The New York Times on October 22, 1931.  

Charlotte Fixel in court in 1932. photo by Acme Newspictures, Inc.

The case dragged out for months, with a procession of witnesses supporting Charlotte's claims and providing details of their relationship that must have been either shocking or thrilling to readers.  On October 22, 1931, for instance, The New York Times began an article saying, "Miss Charlotte Fixel, former actress...was on intimate terms with the late Abraham L. Erlanger as far back as 1907 or 1908, according to testimony heard yesterday."  Finally, on July 27, 1932, the Daily News reported the "court has recognized Charlotte Fixel, former show girl, as common law wife of the late A. L. Erlanger, theatre operator, and entitled to one-third of his estate."

Three months later, on October 4, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced from Atlantic City, "Mrs. Charlotte Fixel, former to be married here Friday to Benjamin D. Abrahams, cloak and suit manufacturer of New York."  With her windfall (equal to about $480 million today) and a new husband, Charlotte gave up her apartment at 40 West 86th Street.

In the meantime, Irving Bitz's name appeared in newspapers  again in 1932.  The country was rapt with the on-going investigation of the kidnapping of the Charles Lindbergh baby.  Micky Rosner, who was rumored to know mobsters, proposed that Salvatore "Salvy" Spitale and Irving Bitz act as intermediaries between the mob and Lindbergh.  The aviator and his wife Anne quickly approved the plan (which brought no clues).

Irving Bitz was on the lam a year later.  Arrested in January 1933 on a gun-carrying charge, he jumped bail while awaiting trial.  Harold Cronin, president of the Concord Casualty and Surety Company, which had provided the $25,000 bail, hired private detectives to track him down.  Bitz surrendered in December 1933.

Irving Bitz (to the rear) arrives in court with a detective.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

In court on March 12, 1934, Harold Cronin received a startling surprise.  The Rochester Times-Union reported that Assistant District Attorney Irving Mendelson asked him where he lived when Bitz jumped bail.  "At 40 West 86th Street," he replied.

Mendelson told him, "All the time you were looking for Bitz, he and his wife were living in the same apartment house."

(Bitz's attorney contended that his client "had no intention of fleeing justice, but was too ill to appear for trial on the day set.")

Sharing an apartment in the building at the time were Virgil Prentice Ettinger; his wife, the former Barbara Martin Butler; and Virgil's sister, Muriel.  The Ettingers were married on February 11, 1930.  Virgil had become a vice-president in his brother's publishing firm, Prentice-Hall after graduating from New York University in 1921.  He left two years later, however, to establish his own accounting firm.

On June 1, 1932, Virgil took Muriel and 25-year-old Dorothy Molloy, an artist's model, for a ride in his automobile.  The car was involved in a collision with a moving van owned by the Leo E. Flynn, Inc. storage warehouse.  Dorothy Molloy not only sued the warehouse, but both Virgil and Muriel Ettiger for $50,000--about $1 million today--for "facial disfigurement."  Happily for the Ettingers, the jury did not find them at fault.  It awarded Molloy $5,326.30 from the Flynn company.

It may have been the stress of the Depression that proved too much for David Perlew.  The 55-year-old, who worked at Goddess Dance Frocks, Inc., lived here in 1935.  On December 13 that year, he left for work as usual, but he would not return.  The New York Post reported that he "hanged himself early today by a rope from a steam pipe in the showroom" of the firm.

Henry Benjamin and his wife, the former Ethel Fox, lived here in the 1940s.  Born in 1892, Benjamin started out as a clerk with with Davega-City Radio, Inc. in 1915.  By the time the couple moved into 40 West 86th Street, he had risen to vice president and merchandise manager.

A former president of the Fenway Country Club, Benjamin was highly active in philanthropies and was the industry chairman for the Federation for Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies, the United Jewish Appeal and the Red Cross.  

In 1943, the Northwest Realty Corporation, headed by Samuel Rudin, purchased 40 West 86th Street.  The Rudin organization continues to own and manage the property.

A disturbing incident occurred here on August 26, 1986.  Workmen who were removing scaffolding from the building had propped open the two metal sidewalk doors leading to the basement.  Danger signs were placed around the opening, but Marcel Friedmann, who lived at 241 Central Park West, could not see the signs.  Legally blind, he used a metal cane to navigate the streets and sidewalks.  Tragically, the 85-year-old fell into the opening and was killed.

Jacob M. Felson's striking structure survives intact--including its all-important many-paned casement windows.  It is an unusual and notable example of Art Deco architecture in Manhattan.

photographs by the author
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