Tuesday, March 5, 2024

A Public Enemy #1's Last Stand - 304 West 102nd Street


photo by Anthony Bellov

The block of West 102nd Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue was declared a "private block" in the last decade of the 19th century.  The restriction meant that no commercial building could invade the upscale enclave.  In 1895, developer John F. Kohler hired architect Ralph S. Townsend to design an upscale, brick-and-stone-faced apartment building at 304 West 102 Street amid the rising mansions on the block.

Townsend placed the cost of construction at $30,000--just over $1 million in 2024.  On March 2, 1895, the Record & Guide listed the amenities included in his plans.  Among them were:

...electric wiring, steam-heating plant and apparatus, combination gas and electric fixtures, ranges, dumb-waiter, electric bells, speaking-tubes, cabinet mantles, annunciators, inside blinds, concrete, marble and pine flooring, hardwood interior trim.

Electric bells, speaking tubes and annunciators were all means of communication--both within the apartments (between residents and their servants)--and with the building staff.

Townsend's dignified Renaissance Revival design bespoke affluence.  The arched entrance sat within a portico supported by polished granite Scamozzi columns.  The second floor windows were flanked by carved, paneled pilasters and capped by arched Renaissance style pediments.  Molded intermediate cornices relieved the verticality of the five-story structure.

photo by Anthony Bellov

Construction was completed early in 1896.  An advertisement on March 8 touted the views from above the surrounding residences.

Strictly High-Class
New Single apartments; richly decorated; 25x90; overlooking Riverside Drive; surrounded by private dwellings; eight rooms and bath; containing every comfort and convenience, including polite attendance; open evenings.

The "polite attendance" referred to staff like the uniformed hallboys on hand to run errands and help in general.  The eight-room apartments leased for $500 a year--an affordable $1,500 per month by today's standards. 

One family was looking for a chamber maid in 1898, their advertisement in the New York Herald reading, "Wanted--girl for general housework; must live in neighborhood and sleep home."  (How they expected to find someone who could afford to live in the mansion-filled neighborhood willing to do domestic work is puzzling.)

The tenants of 304 West 102nd Street were, of course, professional.  Among the earliest were newlyweds Robert Leslie and Lillian Moffett, who were married on February 26, 1896.  Born in Mineral Point, Wisconsin in 1866, Moffett had graduated from Columbia in 1891, and then received his law degree from Columbia Law School. 

Living on the fifth floor in 1903 was the family of Louis H. Muller and his wife, the former Anna Kimmerli.  Born in 1856, Muller was a clerk in the Hall of Records downtown.  The couple had four children, Edith, Harry Louis, Albert Edward and Isabella.   

That year the youngest, Isabella (who was 12 years old), won a prize in the New York Herald's Higglety Pigglety Puzzle Contest for children, while her brother, Albert, was looking for a job.  His ad in the New York Herald on October 14 read, "Young man (22) desires position as salesman or outside man; references unquestionable.  A. E. Muller, 304 West 102d St."

Tragedy visited the Muller apartment four years later.  On Christmas Eve 1907, the family visited a relative in the Bronx and stayed over for the holiday.  For some reason, Harry and Albert remained home.  On Christmas night, Albert arose from bed up to get more ventilation into the room.  The New York Press reported, 

He tried to lower the upper section of a window, but failed.  Kneeling on a couch he lifted the lower part; then, reaching out, he clutched the upper part and tried to draw it down.  But his hand slipped and, as he was leaning too far out of the window, he plunged to the street.  The brother, hearing Albert scream, jumped out of bed and sprang to the window.  He saw his brother on the side walk.

Neighbors also heard Albert's scream and a crowd had gathered around his body by the time Harry got outside.  The New York Press reported, "The parents of the victim did not learn of the accident until they came home, and both collapsed when they heard the news."  Albert's funeral was held in the Muller apartment.

It was common for funerals to be held in the families' spacious apartments.  On March 30, 1909, for instance, the funeral of 20-year-old Ernest J. Lohsen was held in his family's apartment.  Following his family's period of morning, his sister reentered society.  On October 2, 1910, the New York Herald reported, "Eta Pi Club will hold its first meeting of the season at the home of Miss Stella Lohsen, No. 304 West 102d street, on Saturday evening."

In 1933 the floor-engulfing apartments were divided.  There were now three apartments per floor.  Three years later a young man and his girlfriend moved into a ground floor apartment, initiating the most sensational chapter in the building's history.

In July 1936, 25-year-old Harry Walter Brunette and 29-year-old Merle Vandenbush escaped from an Ohio state prison and embarked on an armed bank robbing spree from Ohio to New York.  On November 11, 1936, they kidnapped New Jersey state trooper William A. Tumbull.   The FBI listed both as "public enemies."

Looking like college boys, Harry Brunette (left) and Merle Vandenbush (right) were the the targets of a nationwide FBI search.  The Rhinelander Daily News, November 11, 1936

Early in December New York detectives staked out 304 West 102nd Street, then notified the FBI that Brunette was holed up there.  Like a scene from a gangster movie, on December 15, 1936, The New York Times reported that Harry Brunette "stood off twenty-five G-men under the personal command of J. Edgar Hoover, their chief, and 100 patrolmen and detectives surrounding the flat at 304 West 102d Street early this morning."   The army of FBI and police officers tossed tear gas cannisters into the apartment, which inadvertently started a fire.  "Brunette exchanged shots from a hall closet with the Federal men, armed with submachine guns, and the police, while the flames roared from furniture and draperies in the room in which he had been trapped."

The entire block essentially became a battle zone, while neighbors huddled in their homes cringing in fear.  "Bullets tore at the wall surrounding the closet from the stairway above and from the stoops of apartment houses across the street, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had outposts," said the article.  "Smoke poured from the room."

Buffalo Evening News, December 16, 1936

At one point, Arlene LeBeau, Brunette's 25-year-old girlfriend, "staggered into the hallway, her face grimacing in pain," said the article.  An FBI agent "darted into the hall, caught up the girl, and carried her to an upstairs apartment."  Finally, at 2:05 a.m., Brunette ran out of ammunition after having fired more than fifty rounds.  He stepped into the hallway with his hands raised, sneering, "What a brave bunch of guys."

Four days later, on December 19, 1936, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, 

Harry Brunette, Wisconsin bad man, was taken to the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., today to begin a life sentence for kidnaping.  Later, it was said, he will be transferred to bleak Alcatraz Island in San Francisco bay.  There he will join others (among them Al Capone), who, like himself, have had fleeting notoriety as public enemy No. 1 in their day.

The article noted, "He received the life sentence in bored silence just 62 hours and 40 minutes after his arrest by Federal agents in a spectacular raid on his apartment at 304 West 102d street."

photo by Anthony Bellov

With the drama over, 304 West 102nd Street returned to normal.  There are three apartments per floor today, just as when Public Enemy No. 1 fought it out with machine gun wielding FBI agents nearly 90 years ago. 

many thanks to historian Anthony Bellov for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com


  1. Thank you, Tom, for another great article.
    BTW, what's that curved building next door at 306 West 102nd Street?