Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The 1896 Peter J. Brennan House - 788 West End Avenue

Although the first-floor window has been bricked over, the house is overall remarkably intact.

John G. Prague and Peter J. Brennan were no doubt well-acquainted with one another before 1894.  Both were well-known developers and builders.  (In 1890, in reaction to Prague's building--and designing--of hundreds of Upper West Side residences, the Record & Guide said he had "created a neighborhood.")  Brennan was equally prominent in the building industry and erected many of New York City's school buildings.

In 1894, Brennan hired Prague to design a trio of townhouses at 788 through 792 West End Avenue.  Like the other opulent residences rising along the thoroughfare, they were intended for monied families.  Costing Brennan a total of $45,000 to construct (about $560,000 each in 2024 money), the homes were completed in 1896.

Peter J. Brennan kept 788 West End Avenue for his family.  Prague's American basement design included two entrances (one for the servants and deliveries and such) above short stone stoops.  The window between them was fronted by a carved half-bowl decoration.  The three-story bowed midsection was essentially undecorated, save for blind panels below each set of windows.  Above a prominent cornice, the curious fifth floor facade morphed shoulder-high to the two fully-arched windows into a highly unusual, nearly vertical mansard.

In the 1940s, the ground-floor window survived.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Living with Peter and Sarah Brennan were their son and daughter, James and Sally, as well as Sarah's widowed mother.  The family maintained a summer home in Edgemere, New York.  Proud of his Irish heritage, Peter was a decades-long member of the American-Irish Historical Society.

Brennan nearly lost his life on the day after Christmas in 1900.  The New York Times reported, "Peter J. Brennan, an elderly, wealthy builder of 788 West End Avenue, was run down by a cab at the crossing at Thirty-fourth Street, Broadway, and Sixth Avenue last night."  Brennan was taken to New York Hospital with a broken leg and "contusions of the body."  The cab driver, Edward Hamill, was jailed.

The scope of Brennan's construction operation was evidenced  in an article in The Sun on February 14, 1907.  President Theodore Roosevelt and the Isthmian Commission (in charge of the building of the Panama Canal) were holding hearings with contractors.  The Sun explained the purpose, "was to give the contractors an opportunity to tell of their resources and responsibility."  The article said, "Next Tuesday, Peter J. Brennan...will go to the White House to tell the President and his canal advisers of [his] abilities and resources."

Brennan gave his family another scare in 1910.  On November 23, The Rockaway News reported,

Mr. P. J. Brennan, a summer resident of Edgemere, and well known in this section being the contractor who built St. Mary’s Lyceum, and the O’Kane Building, and at present constructing the Inwood Public School, had a paralytic stroke on Saturday, and is quite ill at his home at 788 West End Avenue, Manhattan.  It Is hoped our esteemed friend will recover, as he is a man held in high esteem by all his friends and neighbors.

At the time of his stroke, the well-to-do family owned at least two motor vehicles.  Sarah drove a Hudson and her son had a Stearns.  In 1919, James purchased a $2,500 Cadillac (the price would translate to $38,000 in 2024).  On the night of December 8, he parked his new car in front of the house, locked it, and went inside.  Thirty minutes later he walked out to find his luxury automobile missing.  

The case received wide-spread press attention when Benny Kauff, the star center fielder for the New York Giants was arrested and charged with running a car theft ring.  The ballplayer, who also ran an autobody shop, took orders for particular models, sent his cronies out with the list, then repainted the stolen autos in his shop.  Kauff, known as the "Ty Cobb of the Feds," was banned from baseball, despite being acquitted of the Brennan theft.  (He testified he had been eating dinner with his wife at the time of the crime.)  Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Landis said the acquittal "smelled to high heaven."

In 1912, the houses to the south of 788 West End Avenue were demolished to make way for an apartment building, and in 1920, the other two houses of Brennan's 1896 row were razed for the same reason.  With their home now vised between soaring, multi-family structures, the Brennans left in 1924.

The Brennan house became home to the De Lancey School for Girls.  An advertisement in The New York Times on September 27, 1925, offered, "Kindergarten, Primary, Intermediate, College Preparatory and General Courses."  While it was primarily an exclusive girls' school, the ad noted, "Classes for Little Boys."

The school remained through 1931, after which the Claremont School moved in.  First, however, architect George A. Bagge was hired to remodel the interiors.  The school now occupied the first through third floors, there was an apartment on the fourth, and the fifth was reserved for storage.  (Interestingly, the Certificate of Occupancy was granted on the condition that the apartment house at 800 West End Avenue was allowed access to the passageway between it and the house.)

Established in 1913, the Claremont School was coeducational.  It accepted students from three to fifteen years of age, whose parents paid tuition as high as $350 in 1935 (about $7,700 today).  Its occupancy of 788 West End Avenue would be relatively short-lived.  

In 1939, the former Brennan house was converted to apartments, two per floor on the second through fourth floors, and one on the fifth.  It was purchased by Cuban-born Hilario Villavicencio in 1979 who embarked on a campaign to make the exterior more interesting.  He splashed the facade with brilliant red and yellow, and added found statuary--a woman's head and two dragon heads--below the second floor windows.

Villavicencio told The New York Times columnist Christopher Gray in September 2010, "I try to make something alive.  But some people they don't like it; they say it looks like a circus.  Hey, you can't please everyone."

The colorful, vintage holdout--dwarfed by its early 20th century neighbors--is a delightful surprise along busy West End Avenue.

photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to LaptrinhX.com

No comments:

Post a Comment