Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Dr. Oliver White House - 52 West 12th Street


Financier Frederick P. James was the senior member of the banking and brokerage firm F. P. James & Co.  He erected a row of nine speculative rowhouses on the south side of West 12th street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in two phases, starting with 48 through 52 West 12th Street in 1854.  The Anglo-Italian homes were 21-feet-wide and four stories tall.  A three-step stoop led to each of the highly unusual entranceways within the rusticated first floor.  Here segmental arches supported by Corinthian columns were tucked within the stone doorframes.  At the second floor, handsome cast iron balconies fronted a pair of French windows.  All of the segmentally arched openings of the upper stories sat within molded architrave frames.

The entrance to 52 West 12th Street was originally identical to No. 50, seen here.

The western-most house, 52 West 12th Street, became home to Ann P. Clark, the widow of Thomas L. Clark.  She remained here until 1859, when Dr. Oliver White purchased the house.  That same year, on November 15, White was elected president of the New-York County Medical Society. 

Born in Somers, New York on April 9, 1810, White came from an old New England family.  He traced his American roots to Judge Thomas White of Weymouth, Massachusetts who was a member of the Colonial Court in 1636.  

White started his medical education in the office of his father, Dr. Ebenezer White, Jr., before earning his medical degree at the age of 21 from Yale College.  He was a founder of the Academy of Medicine and of the Society for the Relief of the Widows and Orphans of Medical Men.  In addition to his private practice, he was a consulting physician of the Presbyterian Hospital and of the North-Eastern Dispensary.

Moving into the West 12th Street house with White was Mary Ritter, the widow of Gilbert Ritter, and her daughter Catherine.  Mary most likely served as his housekeeper and would remain here for years.

Taking in boarders was not unusual even for affluent homeowners, and on January 14, 1862, White advertised, "Furnished rooms for gentlemen.--Very superior accommodations for those who wish a desirable home, with meals at option; house first class."

In 1868, the boarders were George W. Delavergne and George G. Porter (who were both druggists), and Scottish-born Adam Kerr, his wife Rebecca, and their adult daughter Jane.  Dr. White assuredly had known Delavergne and Porter prior to their taking rooms in the house.  The former ran a drugstore at 208 Sixth Avenue, and Porter had two pharmacies, one on Broadway at 42nd Street and the other at 138 Sixth Avenue.

Despite being surrounded by medical men in the house, Jane C. Kerr's consumption was fatal.  She died "at the residence of Dr. O. White," as reported by the New York Herald, on July 10, 1868 at the age of 24.

Among White's good friends and patients was his neighbor,  the highly influential newspaper publisher and politician Thurlow Weed, who lived at 12 West 12th Street.  When leaving a West 14th Street bakery on January 8, 1878, the 81-year-old tripped on a rug and fell to the pavement.  Alderman Morris was in the bakery and took Weed in his carriage to his home.  Expectedly, Dr. White was called in.  The New York Times reported that he, "found the patient suffering from slight concussion of the brain...Dr. White said last night that he did not anticipate any serious result from the injuries."

It was not long after that incident that White was diagnosed with "valvular disease of the heart," according to The New York Times.  He "withdrew himself from the harder and more exacting duties of medical practice, although still continuing his relations with a few of his oldest patients."  White died in the West 12th Street house on November 7, 1879.  The New York Times remarked, "There was little hope of his recovery at the advanced age of 69."  The article added that his death, "removed from the ranks of the medical profession in this City one of its oldest and most valued members."

Interestingly, the funeral was not held in the house, as would have been expected, but at the First Presbyterian Church down the block at Fifth Avenue.  The New York Times reported on November 11, "Many members of the medical profession, including representatives of the Academy of Medicine and the Medical Society of the County of New-York, were present."  Notably, also attending the service was Thurlow Weed.

A surprise of sorts came with the reading of Dr. Oliver White's will, which had been executed in 1874.  Upon his death, The New York Times had mentioned, "Dr. White leaves a considerable fortune, but no direct heirs."  But six months before his death, White had added a codicil that gave Catherine O. Ritter, the daughter of his former housekeeper, an annuity of $3,000 (about $94,500 in 2024).  The Sun reported on December 23, 1879, "The testator says in the codicil that since the will was executed Catherine O. Ritter became his wife."

Mrs. Olive S. Grote next occupied 52 West 12th Street.  Among her domestic staff in 1883 was Christopher Herbert, a server.  (A position directly under the butler, he would serve in the dining room or as needed throughout the day.)  Mrs. Grote discharged him early in April and shortly afterward he became the principal suspect in the burglary of a neighboring house.  The New York Dispatch said, "Hence the detectives had their eyes upon him."

Around April 15, police received a tip that Herbert was planning to burglarize the Grote house with the help of another servant.  Three undercover detectives were deployed to the office of Dr. Gay at 49 West 12th Street, directly across the street, to maintain surveillance.  The Sun reported, "They watched the progress of his arrangements and saw that the way was smoothed for him to enter the house between the hours of eleven and one o'clock in the middle of the day, when Mrs. Grote and her servants were away or occupied up stairs."

On April 20, 1883, Herbert set his plan in action.  The Sun reported that he arrived at noon "and found the door open, as previously arranged with a supposed confederate."  Herbert went directly to Olive Grote's bedroom and filled a bag with "silk dresses, jewelry, and a sealskin sacque worth $800."  When he walked out the front door, the detectives were waiting for him.  His would-be haul would amount to more than $25,000 today.

Within five years, the residence was being operated as a high-end boarding house.  Living here in 1887 was the colorful Yates Ferguson.  Born in Westchester County in June 1823, he was one of the original '49'ers who went West during the California Gold Rush.  He returned to New York in 1853 and went into business exporting California wines and fruits.  The widower died of a heart attack in the West 12th Street house on March 2, 1887.  The New York Times noted, "His funeral will take place at his mother's residence, at Purdy's Station."

An advertisement in The Sun on September 30, 1888 offered, "Two large, handsomely furnished front rooms to let, with or without board."  The boarders were, overall, respectable, like Mrs. Mary B. Smith, who donated $1 to the College Settlement on Rivington Street in 1892; and M. Rivero, the director of the Grand Conservatory of Music, who lived here in 1899.  

John S. Cornwell's name, however, appeared in the newspapers on March 25, 1898, for a less admirable reason.  He had been arrested the previous day "on a charge of having passed a worthless check for $25 on Martin Mahon, proprietor of the Hotel New Amsterdam."

By 1913, it appears 52 West 12th Street had changed from a boarding house to a rooming house.  A cleverly-worded advertisement in The New York Times on July 1, 1913 read, "Are you looking for cool rooms, well-managed house?  Summer rates."

Two residents went off to fight in World War I.  On October 1, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported that Lucien J. Rode had been promoted to Second Lieutenant.  Two months later, on December 7, The Official U. S. Bulletin provided less happy news.  Mary C. Vanamee received word that her son, Lt. Parker Vanamee, had died "of disease" overseas.

In 1941, the rustication of the ground floor and the window enframements survived.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Captain Floyd Keeler purchased 52 West 12th Street in 1919.  He hired architects Rich & Mathesius to make $10,000 in renovations to the house.  

Keeler had served in the war and was now in charge of the New York City headquarters of Federal Government's "paid-advertising campaign to obtain recruits for the United States army," according to the Editor & Publisher on June 26, 1919.  He told the publication, "I don't believe there is any doubt but that the campaign will prove a whopping success."

Born on January 21, 1885 in North Salem, New York, Keeler was educated at Trinity School and graduated in 1906 from Columbia University.  In 1920, with the war ended, he became vice-president and a director of Frank Seaman, Incorporated, one of the largest advertisement agencies in the U.S.  A widower, his two daughters lived with him.  An anti-Prohibitionist, he wrote the article "Prohibition Does Not Prohibit" for The Atlantic.

When Jacob Perlow purchased 52 West 12th Street in May 1949, The New York Times commented, "The building formerly in a choice, private-home section, was converted into eight apartments."  It would be renovated two more times, the last, completed in 1985, resulting in a doctor's office in the basement, and a total of five apartments on the upper floors.  Sadly, during one of the renovations, the rustication of the ground floor was smoothed over, the striking entranceway was removed, and the window details shaved off.

photographs by the author
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