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 house...at 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 showgirl...is 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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  1. I always enjoy your daily doses of architecture. I wonder if you've mined the New Yorker for information. I remember seeing apartment "reviews" in the 1920's issues, full of comments on the new apartments and their features, just as if they were new movies.

    1. I sometimes find New Yorker critiques of apartment buildings I'm researching. It is a rich resource.

  2. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been hoping for years that you’d write about this building… it always stands out to me when I’m walking on 86th!