Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Blum & Blum's 1912 780 West End Avenue


In 1888, when brothers George and Edward Blum were 9 and 12 years old, respectively, they arrived in New York from France.  They would both return to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before opening the architectural office, Blum & Blum, in 1909 in New York.  Within the next two decades the Blum brothers would be responsible for at least 120 apartment houses.  Their grasp of French architectural trends that transcended their Beaux-Arts training—like Art Nouveau and Art Deco—would impact apartment designs in New York.  

Among Blum & Blum's earliest substantial commissions came from T. J. McLaughlin Sons in 1912.  It came at a time when aristocratic West End Avenue was changing from a thoroughfare of brick and brownstone mansions to high-end apartments.  On May 12, 1912, the New-York Tribune wrote:

The transformation of West End avenue into a greater apartment house thoroughfare is one of the most important features of the real estate market.  The row of dwelling houses No. 772 to 780 West End avenue...was bought last week by a builder, who will erect on the site a twelve story apartment house.

Blum & Blum embellished the white brick facade of 780 West End Avenue with lush art nouveau decoration in matching terra cotta.  Intricate tiles created window framework and bandcourses, while balconies atop elaborate art nouveau half-bowls were guarded by Vienna Successionist railings.

Most striking was the arched entrance.  Its intricate wrought iron doorway was outlined by swirling terra cotta shields and foliate forms within a story-and-a-half frame of complex tiles.

Potential residents could choose among apartments of 5, 6, or 7 rooms.  Among the first to move in were Edward B. Kinney and his wife Carrie.  The couple was married on April 20, 1899 and had three sons, Edward (who went by his middle name Sanford), Howard and Donald.

Kinney was a man of broad interests.  He was a partner in the mattress firm Wilcox & Kinney, was a professional organist, a vocal coach, and choirmaster.

advertisement from the 1912 Boston Symphony Orchestra Programme.

It was the Kinneys' religious affiliations that set them apart.  Edward was introduced to the Bahá’í Faith in 1895 and Carrie became an adherent shortly afterward.  On April 9, 1913, Star of the West reported that the headquarters of the New York Bahá’í Assembly would be "the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward B. Kinney, 780 West End Avenue."  Their apartment was the scene of meetings, like the one on December 2, 1912 during which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarized "the Bahá’í approach to race, religion, and the progress of humanity most fully," according to historian Robert Stockman.

Walter Rockefeller Comfort was born in 1858 to Daniel Comfort and his wife, the former Mary Ellen Rockefeller.  He was president of seven companies, including the Reed Ice Cream Company and the Fruit and Land Co. of Florida; was a director in two banks and four corporations; treasurer of two firms; and a director of the Drew Theological Seminary.  He and his wife, Almira LaDue Comfort, had three children, Walter, Jr., Irene, and Eleanor.

The Comfort apartment was the scene of a society wedding on June 1, 1915 when Irene was married to Robcliff Vesey Jones.  Despite being a home wedding, Irene had three attendants and there were as many ushers.

It was social affairs like the Comfort-Jones wedding that brought attention to 780 West End Avenue until 1916.  Wealthy stock broker Leonard J. Field and his wife, Katherine Peters lived here at the time.  Katherine was described by the New-York Tribune as "a stage beauty."  When Field's father, stockbroker Jacob Field, retired in 1906, the New-York Tribune estimated his fortune at as much as $3 million (the figure would be closer to $105 million today).

Field had had a brush with ignominy in 1911 when he "figured in the scandal growing out of the alleged larceny...of  copper stock valued at more than $100,000 from F. Augustus Heinze," according to the New-York Tribune.  His indictment was dismissed.

Now his name was again in the newspapers for the wrong reasons.  On April 26, 1916, motion picture producer George A. Gullette sued Field for $100,000 for alienating his wife's affections.  Actress Grace Olive Gullette and the couple's four year old daughter were living in a "luxurious apartment," according to Gullette, directly across the street from Field at 771 West End Avenue.  Leonard Field was paying for that apartment.

The scandal only deepened when Grace Gullette's sister, Dorothy Schnidt, testified that Grace was not entirely to blame.  She said in part,

I was surprised she had changed her residency.  I learned for the first time that Mrs. Gullette was living with Mr. Field, under the name of Mrs. Leonard J. Field.  She had diamonds galore.  The apartment was gorgeously furnished.  Olive became hysterical and seemed irrational.  I learned later that a large amount of morphine had been administered to her.

The Evening World explained that Field kept Gullette under his control "by lavishing expensive gifts upon her and administering harmful drugs."  According to Dorothy Schnidt, he slipped a "white powder" into her tea.

When America entered World War I, socialites threw themselves into relief work, knitting socks or holding benefits, for instance.  Others, like Mathilde Delmetsch, were more proactive.  The recent debutante left the comfort of 780 West End Avenue to drive an ambulance for the Motor Corps of the National League for Woman's Service.

Mathilde's father, Richard Dolmetsch was the treasurer and director of the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company.  Like their neighbors, the family enjoyed an upscale lifestyle, including summers at fashionable resorts like White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. 

While Mathilde was driving an ambulance, Harry C. W. Schultz de Brun of 385 Central Park West was fighting with the American Expeditionary Forces in France and Italy.  The well-educated young man held degrees from New York University, Fordham University and the University at Bordeaux, France.  

Whether the two knew one another from West End Avenue or if they met during the war is unclear, but on October 12, 1919, the New York Herald reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Richard Dolmetsch of 780 West End avenue have announced the engagement of their daughter, Miss Mathilde Dolmetsch to Major Harry c. W. Schultz de Brun."  

The wedding was scheduled for June 12, 1920 in the Collegiate Reformed Church.  In the meantime, Richard Dolmetsch stepped down from his position as treasurer of the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company, one that he had held since 1895.  A month before the wedding, it became clear why.

On May 13, 1920, the New-York Tribune reported that Richard Dolmetsch, "had refused to account to the corporation for about $6,000,000."  An auditing of the books revealed, "During Dolmetch's [sic] tenure as treasurer, it is alleged, about $8,000,000 passed through his hands and he deposited large sums in banks and trust companies to his account as trustee."  The courts directed Dolmetsch to repay Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company the missing funds.  (It was a massive amount, equal to more than $90 million today.)

Mathilde, however, seemed unruffled by the scandal.  On June 7, the New York Herald reported she "will give a luncheon in the Hotel Astor on Thursday for her bridesmaids."  And, indeed, the wedding and the reception in the Plaza Hotel went on as planned.

That same year, a portion of the apartments were changed to cooperatives.  An advertisement on June 6, 1920 in The New York Times priced them at between $10,500 to $24,000--equal to between $160,000 and $365,000 in 2024.  For those not wanting to buy, rents for the smallest suites were the equivalent of $3,800 per month today.

Living here at the time were Fleming Hewitt Revell, Jr. and his wife, the former Marion Conrell.  The couple were married in Boston in 1911 and had a daughter, Muriel, who was born the following year.  A graduate of Yale, in 1907 Revell joined the publishing firm founded by his father, the Fleming H. Revell Company.  He would become president in 1929.

Perhaps the most celebrated residents were playwright Edwin Milton Royle and his actress wife Selena Fetter Royle.  Born in Lexington, Missouri in 1862, Royle's best known play was the 1905 The Squaw Man, which was adapted as Cecil B. DeMille's first Hollywood film in 1914.

Edwin Milton Royle image via mormonwiki.com

Selena Fetter-Royle was born in Kentucky in 1860.  Her first Broadway appearance was as Marquerite Otto in the 1892 production of Friends.  The couple had two daughters, Selena and Josephine.  

Selena Fetter-Royle, image via californiarevealed.org

In 1921, Edwin Milton Royle wrote the Broadway play Lancelot and Elaine with the roles of Guinevere and Elaine specifically created for his daughters, Selena and Josephine respectively.  Selena would go on to become an even more celebrated actress than her mother.

On February 17, 1942, the Daily News reported that Edwin Milton Royle had died in his apartment at the age of 79.  "Funeral services will be held in the Little Church Around the Corner at 2 P.M. tomorrow," said the article.  Selena Fetter-Royle later moved to Hollywood where she died at the age of 95 in 1955.

At least two residents of 780 West End Avenue were part of the anti-establishment movement in the second half of the century.  Morris Alan Older Grosmer lived here by the mid-1960s.  He was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a national student activist organization known for demonstrations like campus sit-ins, organized marches on Washington, and sometimes violent clashes with police.  He landed on the Congressional Committee on Government Operations' list of "militancy, extremism, and violence," in 1969 after he participated in a trip to Communist Cuba the previous August.

Andrea Rosenberg was a Phi Beta Kappa anthropology major at Barnard in 1970.  On May 21, three undercover agents posing as prospective customers arrested her in her apartment.  They seized "six pounds of hashish, seven pounds of marijuana, along with quantities of LSD and amphetamines," according to the Columbia Daily Spectator.  "Police agents at the time of the arrest estimated the value of the drugs at $100,000, said the article."  She pleaded guilty and was placed on five years probation.

Blum & Blum's spectacular building is one of only a handful of significant art nouveau style structures in Manhattan.  Importantly, its exterior has survived astonishingly intact.

photographs by the author
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  1. IMBD has a good bio on Selena Royale. She started the Stage Door canteen.

  2. 780 WEA has long been among my favorite pieces of eye candy in the neighborhood. The Stratford, across WEA at 777, also has some interesting history; and then there's The Sabrina at 240 West 98th Street....


    1. Here's a link to my article on the Sabrina I did for Landmark West! https://www.landmarkwest.org/theboulevard/241-west-97th-street-240-west-98th-street/

  3. I used to live on the top floor next door at the former Robert Burns Hotel at 254 there's a huge pipe connecting the two buildings as presumably the Burns' chimney or boiler flue would have been blowing right into their windows.