Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The 1907 Rhineland Court - 244 Riverside Drive

photograph by Deansfa

The last quarter of the 19th century saw magnificent mansions rise along Riverside Drive.  Mary Alicia Vanderbilt La Bau lived at 244 Riverside Drive at the southeast corner of 97th Street.  Born in 1834, she was one of five daughters of Cornelius Vanderbilt I.  She died in her mansion on August 16, 1902.

In 1906, Robert T. Lyons purchased the plot.  The well-established architect now added real estate developer to his resume.  On January 19 he announced he would erect a "six-story, high-class apartment house" on the site.

The Rhineland Court cost Lyons $200,000 to construct, or about $6.69 million in 2024.  The six-story, Renaissance Revival style structure was faced in yellow brick above a rusticated stone base.  The entrance was recessed far back within the deep court that divided the two wings and provided light and ventilation to interior rooms.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis said:

Apartments are laid out three on a floor, in suites of five, seven and nine rooms.  The nine-room apartments have two baths, the five and seven-room suites one bath and extra servants' toilet.  They are equipped with all the latest conveniences.  Laundry and drying room in basement, garbage closets in kitchens, long distance telephone in each apartment.

Rents ranged from $1,000 to $2,300 per year--about $6,500 a month for the most expensive by 2024 conversion.

Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1907 (copyright expired)

Among the initial residents was its architect and builder, Robert T. Lyons, and his bride, Annabel Koepfel.  Annabel had worked in Lyons's office and the couple's marriage did not sit well with Lyons's wealthy mother.  The New York Press explained that the architect married Annabel, "in December 1906, without his mother's consent.  Simultaneously he quitted his mother's home."  Immediately, the son and mother began a years-long series of court battles over property.  Lyons claimed ownership of fifty percent of the real estate his father had left in 1897, and Mary Lyons claimed her son had misappropriated the funds she had entrusted to him to maintain those buildings.  The New York Press, on April 26, 1910, attributed the ugly dispute to "his marriage to a poor girl against his mother's wishes."

In the meantime, Rhineland Court was home to Lew Dockstader and his wife, the former Lucin Brown.  A vaudeville star especially well-known for his minstrel troupe, Dockstader was born George Alfred Clapp in 1856.  He legally changed his name in 1887.

Lew Dockstader, from the collection of the New York Public Library

The vaudevillian received a scare on  June 23, 1910.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Lew Dockstader, the minstrel, who lives at No. 244 Riverside Drive, was knocked down by a delivery wagon on Broadway, near 46th street, about 7 o'clock last evening."  A policeman helped Dockstader to his feet.  He was not seriously injured and refused to make a complaint against the wagon driver.

More typical of the residents were Charles W. H. Kirchhoff and his wife Virginia.  Born in San Francisco in 1853, Kirchhoff had graduated from the Royal School of Mines in Clausthal, Germany with a degree in mining engineering and metallurgy.  In addition to editing professional journals like The Iron Age and The Engineering and Mining Journal, he was general manager of the David Williams Co., and was a special agent for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1883 to 1906.  

Charles W. H. Kirchhoff, Engineering News, July 27, 1916 (copyright expired)

The Kirchhoffs' summer home was in Asbury Park, New Jersey.  In 1911, the couple were among the 12 families living in Rhineland Court who were listed in Dau's New York Social Bluebook.  Virginia Kirchhoff died in the couple's apartment  that year on December 21, at the age of 83.  Charles Kirchhoff survived her by nearly five years, dying at the Asbury Park residence on July 23, 1916.

Resident Maurice E. Shearer returned to 244 Riverside Drive following his service with the United States Marine Corps in World War I.  He received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1919 for "extraordinary heroism in action in the Bois de Belieau, France, June 25, 1918."  The Congressional paperwork recalled, 

He displayed conspicuous courage, going forward at the head of his command during the attack.  Personally going along the front line after the objective had been reached, he encouraged his men and directed the repulse of a counterattack by the enemy.  During the encounter his battalion took over 200 prisoners and 19 machine guns.

Moving into the building around the time of Shearer's award were Joseph Charles Rowan and his wife Cora Cook.  An attorney, Rowan graduated from Columbia Law School in 1891.  He was also a director and trustee in banks and other businesses, including the West Side Savings Bank.  Shortly after moving into Rhineland Court, Rowan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from March 4, 1919 to March 4, 1921.  Following his term in office he returned to his private law practice.

Congressman Joseph Rowan and his wife retained their apartment here during his term in Washington DC.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

A tragic incident touched the lives of Robert and Annabel Lyons in 1921.  Their chauffeur's wife, Emma Torshio, underwent an operation to remove a cancerous tumor that year but, unfortunately, her doctors said "she had not long to live," according to the Dobbs Ferry New York Register.  Emma was admitted to the private sanitarium of Dr. Alice Bugbee in White Plains.  There, on September 6, she committed suicide by jumping from her window.  The Register mentioned that her husband, "S. Torshio [is the] Japanese chauffeur for a family named Lyons, of 244 Riverside drive, New York."

The following month, two other residents, John Bayard Pruyn and his wife Edith, were touched by tragedy.  Pruyn was a classmate, close friend and law partner of Charles White Whittlesey.  In 1917, Whittlesey took a leave from their law practice to join the U.S. Army.  He was promoted to major in September 1917 and put in command of the 77th Division (composed largely of soldiers from New York City).  The division was involved in the massive American attack on the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region on October 2, 1918.  Whittlesey and his men were cut off from their supply lines and pinned down for days.  War correspondents tagged the unit the "Lost Battalion."

In the end, of Whittlesey's 554 troops, 107 were killed, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded.  Only 194 could climb out of the ravine on their own.  Although Whittlesey was highly decorated, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and returned to New York a hero, the weight of the experience was too much.  

On November 24, 1921, Whittlesey boarded to S. S. Toloa headed for Cuba.  Two nights later, after writing several letters, he walked to the railing of the ship and plunged overboard to his death.  One of the letters was to John Bayard Pruyn.  It said in part:

Dear Bayard,
    Just a note to say goodby.  I'm a misfit by nature and by training and there's an end of it...I won't try to say anything personal, Bayard, because you and I understand each other.  Give my love to Edith.
                                As ever, Charles Whittlesey

Whittlesey made Pruyn his executor and the letter detailed practical matters like his bank balances, outstanding bills, life insurance policies and where to find them, and such.  It was left to Pruyn to notify Whittlesey's parents and other relatives of his death.

The original floorplans reveal sprawling apartments.  Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, 1907 (copyright expired)

A colorful resident was Harriet Gill Rowley, who lived in the apartment of her daughter, Lillian B. Crowell, and son-in-law.  On September 1, 1919, The New York Times called her, "probably the oldest woman voter in New York City."  Born in 1832, Harriet's first foray into politics, according to the article, was in 1840 when she helped decorate a float on which she rode in a parade for the Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison.  She was eight years old at the time.    

Because her father was active in politics, she listened in on discussions in their parlor among men like Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bayard Taylor.  Later, she became close friends with pioneer suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In the aftermath of World War I, she recalled that even though President Andrew Johnson, "was not equal to the responsibility," things returned to normal.  "It will not be so now, unless President Wilson handles his problems better than he has been doing," she told The New York Times reporter.

Three years after the article, on November 24, 1922, Harriet Gill Rowley died at the age of 91.   In her obituary, The New York Times recalled her admonitions to women voters, one of which was, "vote on election day, no matter what you must neglect in order to do it."

Resident Joseph L. Lyons was one of the leading real estate operators in Manhattan.  On March 6, 1930, The New York Sun reported that he and mezzo-soprano Carmela Ponselle had announced their engagement.  Born Carmela Anna Ponzillo on June 7, 1887, Lyons's future bride had started her career with her sister, Rosa Ponselle, as The Ponzillo Sisters.  Both would later join the Metropolitan Opera, Carmela debuting in Aida in 1925.

James Johnson's residency here ended on October 30, 1935 when he was sent to Sing Sing prison.  The 24-year-old "had winning ways with women and profited by them," according to The New York Sun.  He was found guilty of marrying Fae Fennamore in Brooklyn on September 30, 1928, and then marrying Rae Green in Manhattan on June 20, 1935.  The article said, "the first wife heard about the second marriage and had Johnson arrested."

photograph by the author

No longer called Rhineland Court, in 1951 244 Riverside Drive was renovated.  There were now between seven and eleven apartments per floor, a configuration that remains.

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