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.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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