Tuesday, June 25, 2024

An Unlikely Holdout - 770 West End Avenue


In 1890, developer Edward Kilpatrick filled the eastern blockfront of West End Avenue between West 97th and 98th Street with eleven upscale rowhouses.  Designed by Boring & Tilton, they were three stories tall above English basements.

The house at the middle of the row, 770 West End Avenue, became home to George Eugene Poole and his wife, the former Florence Britton Ballou.  Eugene was born in January 1848 and Florence in November 1856.  Both came from colonial Connecticut families.  Eugene was the great-grandson of John Poole, a corporal in the Connecticut militia; and three of Florence's ancestors played prominent roles in the Revolution.

The affluence of the Pooles was evidenced in 1895 when they commissioned George F. Pelham to design a six-story brick stable on West 87th Street.  The cost of the commodious carriage house was $40,000, or about $1.5 million in 2024.

On February 24, 1898, as "the Spanish crisis" intensified, reporters from The World were sent throughout the city to interview women "as to whether or not they regarded war with Spain as probable and if, should hostilities occur, they would or would not be willing to let their male relatives and friends go to the front."  Florence Poole rendered a split decision:

Should war come I would be willing myself to make any sacrifice, to nurse the wounded and work as I could for my country's good, but to yield my husband--No!  He is all I have in the world.

In June 1900, Frank Lugar and his wife Harriet purchased the Poole house for $17,400 (about $641,000 today).  He leased it to Rev. Henry Van Arsdale Parsell, Jr. and his wife, the former Maud Collins.  The couple was married on January 31, 1893. 

In addition to his clerical work, Reverend Parsell was an electrical genius.  In 1899, he partnered with Arthur J. Weed to form Parsell & Weed, which manufactured inventors' and experimenters' models.  The firm designed and built the Franklyn Model Dynamo, which received a diploma at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.  Parsell was, additionally, president of the Baldwin Calculating Machine Co., treasurer of the New Amsterdam Eye and Ear Hospital, and a director in the Taylor House Association and the photolithographic firm Norris-Peters Co.  

Reverend Parsell had grown up in his parent's "old-fashioned brownstone house at 31 East Twenty-first street," as described by The Sun.  His father, Henry Sr., had been adopted as a boy by his uncle, John Van Arsdale, a shipping magnate.  Upon Van Arsdale's death, Henry Sr. received his fortune.  Henry Sr. never worked, instead he "spent most of his lifetime looking after his property holdings," said the newspaper, and giving away money to assist young men in achieving success.  Henry Van Arsdale Parsell Sr. died in 1901.

Henry's mother, Hannah Parsell, raised eyebrows across the city on June 21, 1905, when the 70-year-old married John M. Hardy.  She had met her 35-year-old groom in Plainfield, New Jersey, where her summer home was located.  The Sun reported, "At first the gossips thought Hardy was a relative, but it was not long before they agreed that he was courting the elderly woman."  Reverend Parsell did not comment on his mother's unexpected marriage.

Parsell would be consecrated a bishop in the Anglican University Church on September 19, 1920.  But by then, he and Maud had been gone from West End Avenue for a decade.  In 1910, the Lugars leased 770 West End Avenue to Dr. Henry E. Hale, Jr. and his wife.  He had graduated from the Columbia School of Medicine in 1896.  Like the previous occupants of the house, the couple was listed in Dau's Bluebook of New York Society.

The Lugar estate sold 770 West End Avenue in July 1920.  It was briefly operated as a rooming house.  The tenants, ironically, worked for families like those who had previously lived here.  In 1920 and '21, three occupants sought work as a chauffeur, a butler, and a masseur.

In 1923, Solomon and Elizabeth Riley purchased 770 West End Avenue for $35,000 (about $625,000 today).  Controversy  soon ensued.  The couple hired architect Rudolf Ludwig to renovate the interiors for a club--an idea that did not sit well with their well-to-do neighbors.  On June 12, 1926, The New York Age reported:

Solomon Riley, said to be one of the wealthiest Negroes in New York City, has stirred the white people of the exclusive West End avenue section...by announcing that he plans to form a cultural club for Negro youth, devoted to Negro music and dances for philanthropic and religious purposes, using his three-story and basement brownstone residence at 770 West End avenue as the club house.

Neighbors were tipped off when the Rileys put up a large sign on the front of the house.  They filed "a protest against the proposed club house" with the Board of Estimate.  The New York Age reported that the Board, "has declared that a Zoning law will prevent Riley from turning his private home into a dancing school, club or any other enterprise."

The Rileys were involved in another battle at the time.  The same year they purchased 770 West End Avenue, the couple bought seven acres of land on the east shore of Hart's Island as the site of a resort.  The New York Evening Post reported they, "erected ten buildings and a dance hall.  They acquired three motorboats to give access to the mainland and intended to establish a bungalow colony and summer resort for negroes."

It would never open.  The city seized the land "by condemnation" on April 1, 1926.  The New York Evening Post explained, "the authorities feared that the project might facilitate the escape of prisoners" from the nearby New York City Reformatory.  (The Rileys, no doubt, suspected other, more discriminatory reasons.)  The couple sued and on November 25, 1927, were awarded $144,015 for the lost property.

Five months later, Solomon and Elizabeth Riley sold 770 West End Avenue to Dr. Max Soletsky.  On March 14, 1928, The New York Times reported that he intended to replace the vintage house with "a twelve story building containing bachelor apartments."  He had already hired architects Goldner & Goldner to prepare the plans, "which call for an unusual building owing to the fact that [the] plot is only 18 feet wide," said the article.  "The two lower floors will be used by Dr. Soletsky for his offices."

The doctor soon scaled back his plans.  Instead of a new, 12-story building, he had the architects remodel the existing building.  The stoop and brownstone facade were removed, and another floor added.  

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The renovations resulted in a 1920s take on Italian Renaissance architecture.  Faced in brown-red brick, its details--like the square-headed drip molding above the grouped windows of the second floor--were executed in brick.  A brick parapet rose above a trio of fully arched windows at the fourth floor.

By now, the ten other brownstone houses of the 1890 row had been replaced with tall apartment buildings, the 15-story structure to the south completed in 1925, and the 12-story building on the other side completed in 1912.

There are still two apartments per floor through the fourth, and one on the fifth floor.

photographs by the author
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  1. Doug Floor Plan
    So, in 1926 Solomon Riley was told he could not renovate his house into a cultural club for Negro youth because "Zoning law will prevent Riley from turning his private home into a dancing school, club or any other enterprise." But in 1928 Dr. Max Soletsky was allowed to convert this private home into his medical office, with apartments on the upper floors. So much changed in only two years.

    1. A dance club seems pretty different from a doctor's office, in terms of hours of operation and noise.

    2. Doug Floor Plan
      I agree a cultural club and a doctor's office are very different. I focused on the wording for denying Solomon Riley, "Zoning law will prevent Riley from turning his private home into .... any other enterprise." This tells me he wouldn't have been permitted to open a doctor's office, either.