Tuesday, July 2, 2024

The Cliff Dwelling - 240-243 Riverside Drive


Looking almost like part of Cliff Dwelling, the darker building to the right was erected in 2001.  photo by Flo Beck

Leslie R. Palmer's resumé included attorney, banker, real estate developer, and, importantly, he sat on the board of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company.  The latter interest was evident in his exuberant 1911 store-and-office building at 154 West 14th Street, decorated with vibrantly colorful terra cotta.  The building was designed by Herman Lee Meader.  The two men would work together on three more buildings.  In 1913, the year the 14th Street structure was completed, Palmer hired Meader to design a residential hotel at 240-243 Riverside Drive.

The architect was faced with a challenge.  The narrow, triangular plot was a mere nine-feet-wide at the northern point (the New York Herald would later say the property was "only fit for a billboard").  Meader arranged the apartments to face Riverside Drive and put only a few secondary windows at the rear where he placed the stairway and elevators.

According to The New York Times columnist Christopher Gray on January 6, 2002, Meader "was intensely interested in Mayan and Aztec architecture and made regular expeditions to Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán and other sites."  Meader's fascination with South America melded with Palmer's terra cotta interests to create a unique design.  Completed in 1914, the Cliff Dwelling was 12 stories tall and faced in orange brick.  Meader lavished his Arts & Crafts style structure with Western motifs like cattle skulls, spears, and mountain lions, and Aztec- or Mayan-inspired designs.  The theme carried on inside.  According to Gray, "The lobby was furnished with Navajo rugs; tiles of tan, green, black and blood red; and zigzag designs on the lamps and elevator cages reminiscent of American Indian designs."

Aztec motifs co-exist with Native American and Western designs.  photographs by the author

An advertisement called the Cliff Dwelling a "high-class apartment hotel" with "two and three room suites, $100 and up."  (The least expensive rent would translate to $1,760 per month in 2024.)  Apartment hotels did not have kitchens, but residents enjoyed hotel amenities like maid service.  They could take meals in the in-house restaurant, if desired.

The northern end of the building was just nine-feet wide.  The glass-and-iron marquee can be seen.  image from the collection of the New York Public Library

The residents of the Cliff Dwelling were professionals.  Among them in 1917 were Dr. David Tovey and Samuel C. Grant.  Grant was a "manufacturing chemist" and officer in the Utah Potash Company.  That firm, said The Sun, "is supplying the Government with that product."

Although he was a Christian Scientist, Samuel Grant visited Dr. Tovey around the first of June 1917 concerning "kidney trouble."  About two weeks later, on June 18, Tovey received what The New York Sun called a "hurried call" from Mrs. B. M. Blackmar on West 136th Street.  She operated the Blackmar Sanitarium from her home, "where she takes in Christian Scientists desiring rest or who are ill," according to the newspaper.  When Tovey got there, Samuel C. Grant was dead.

The Evening World reported that Grand had died "suddenly of apoplexy," or what would be called a stroke today.  Dr. Tovey, on the other hand, said, "Death was due to lack of medical attention," according to The New York Sun.

The thin, triangular shape of the building can be gleaned from this photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon around 1990.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The small apartments were workable for couples or single residents, but apparently not for families.  On March 13, 1920, the New York Herald reported, "Mr. and Mrs. J. N. Netter of 240 Riverside Drive announce the birth of a son, Thursday, March 11."  Seven months later, on October 3, an advertisement in the same newspaper read:

240 Riverside Drive (apt. 402), near 96th st., sumptuously furnished, 2 rooms, foyer and bath suite, sunny and airy, overlooking Hudson; maid, valet and restaurant service; will sublet; reasonable rental; exceptional opportunity.  MR. NETTER

Interestingly, when the Hard Realty Corporation purchased the Cliff Dwelling in March 1921, the New-York Tribune noted that the building on the "flatiron shaped site" had "a bungalow atop the house."  Rents were now advertised at "2 rooms, foyer, bath, $1080 up; 3 rooms, foyer, bath, $1680 up [yearly]."  The starting rents would translate to $1,600 and $2,540 per month today.

Retired attorney Horace Secor, Jr. moved into the Cliff Dwelling in 1918.  A year earlier he had retired as secretary of the New York Athletic Club.  Descending from a colonial family, he held memberships in the Sons of the American Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, the Holland-America Society and the Mayflower Society.

In 1904, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described him as "a well known lawyer of Nassau street," he and his wife Anna and their 15-year-old daughter Florence lived on Long Island.  But that year Anna Secor left him for another man.  Now, with his daughter married to Dr. George E. Herr and living in Portland, Maine, he lived here alone.  

Secor invested heavily in the stock market.  The New York Herald reported that, according to his son-in-law, he "had lost several fortunes within the last thirty years and had made some unfortunate investments in Wall Street, but he believed Mr. Secor still had considerable wealth."  Nevertheless, Secor became seriously concerned about recent "business reverses."  His anxiety was severe enough that Dr. Herr came down from Maine in the summer of 1921.  

On June 9, Dr. Herr convinced his father-in-law to go to a sanitarium upstate.  The New York Herald reported, "Mr. Secor promised to go and appeared cheerful when Dr. Herr left him about 7 o'clock Thursday night."  On Saturday morning, the 65-year-old was found on the bathroom floor with a bullet wound in his head.

photo by Beyond My Ken

At the time, Helen Smith, the wife of a paper manufacturer, and Mrs. Louis Auerbach, whose husband was an importer, lived in the building.  What Helen insisted was an honest mistake--opening a letter addressed to Mrs. Auerbach--erupted into a vicious feud.  It ended up with Helen Smith having her neighbor arrested for disorderly conduct.  The two women appeared in court on September 10, 1921 "flanked by an array of counsel, friends and relatives that almost filled the West Side Court," according to the New York Herald.  The article explained,

Mrs. Smith charged Mrs. Auerbach with using 'scandalous, threatening, abusive, shocking and profane' language, which she explained, followed her mistake in opening a letter addressed to Mrs. Auerbach.

Additionally, Helen Smith told the judge, "when her husband was ill somebody notified the health Department that he had typhoid fever, which was untrue."  When Mrs. Auerbach was called to the stand, "Mrs. Smith grew faint and a chair had to be provided for her."

During her testimony, Mrs. Auerbach called the entire matter "extraordinary" and said she had totally forgotten about the letter incident and denied calling the Health Department.  The New York Herald said, "She knew Mrs. Smith's voice only from hearing trade people talk to her, she said, and by meeting her occasionally in the elevator."

Magistrate Silberman listened patiently, then gently berated the women.  "Both of you ladies appear to be of culture and refinement and it looks a little like a misunderstanding.  I must warn you both that in the future not to molest, have anything to do with, or speak to each other in any way."  Helen Smith withdrew her complaint and the case was dismissed.  One wonders how amicable the neighborly relations between the two were when they returned home.

Dr. David Tovey and his wife were still here as late as 1925.  A celebrated neighbor at the time was Boris Thomashesfky, one of the biggest stars in the Yiddish theater.  He lived alone here, having separated from his wife Bessie in 1911.

Boris Thomashefky, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Thomashefsky was born in Ukraine in 1866 and emigrated with his family to America when he was a teenager.  He was a pioneer in the establishment of what would become the Yiddish Theater District in New York.   

Harry Thomashefky was the eldest of Boris's three sons.  He was a star in his own right, having first appeared in the play The Pintele Kid at the age of 13.  His wife Lillian was described by Vaudeville as "a chorister under the name of Lillian Herman."  In February 1924, Harry initiated a divorce suit and simultaneously sued actor Buddy Doyle for $50,000 for alienation of affections.  His divorce action claimed Doyle and Lillian had had an adulterous affair.  Shockingly, Variety reported, "The alleged misconduct is specifically named as having happened at the home of Bores [sic] Thomasefky, 240 Riverside Drive, Dec. 23, 1923."

At the time, Buddy Doyle was appearing in Artists & Models.  Ironically, on January 15, 1926, Billboard reported, "Albert Kavelin, formerly of Artists and Models, and his orchestra are appearing nightly at the exclusive Cliff Grill, 240 Riverside drive...Kavelin and his boys are meeting with great favor with the Cliff Grill patrons and are scheduled to remain there for a long run."

photograph by Beyond My Ken

Art dealer Jonce I. McGurk was a resident by the early 1930s.  Born in 1875, the bachelor was especially known for the Early American art he bought and sold.  In 1929, for instance, he sold the marble bust of George Washington executed by Jean Antoine Houdon to the Rockefeller family for a rumored $250,000.  Another Houdon work he purchased was the 1778 bust of Voltaire, which he also sold to Percy Rockefeller.

In 1933, McGurk sold a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington on consignment from Ellen Newbod Jacobs.  Unfortunately for McGurk, Mrs. Jacobs did some personal private investigating after the sale.  She sued him and on December 10, 1933, the Albany, New York Times-Union reported she had won a $13,244 verdict.  "She charged he told her he received only $7,000, whereas he really sold the portrait for $14,000," said the article.

Mountain lions below an Aztec mask, a bison skull, and Native American spears carry out Meader's American theme.  photo by Behind My Ken

In 1966, writer and editor Uwe Johnson moved into a three-room apartment in the Cliff Dwelling.  Born in 1934, he had left East Germany in the 1950s after being considered a dissident by authorities.  Living here with his wife, Elisabeth Schmidt, and nine-year-old daughter, he worked as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace & World.  The family would remain here for two years.

An uncharacteristic tenant was Terry Blum, described by The New York Times as, "an unemployed salesman."  On February 7, 1972, the 27-year-old walked into the District Attorney's office to surrender on an earlier forgery charge.  Keen-eyed detectives there, however, recognized him as fitting the description of one of the six armed perpetrators of a million-dollar jewel robbery of the Pierre Hotel on January 2.  

Blum's cohorts had all been captured on January 7, at which time $250,000 in jewelry was recovered.  He was charged with armed robbery and illegal possession of a gun.

photo by Deansfa

In 1979 the building was converted to cooperative apartments.  Some owners shoehorned mini-kitchens into the foyers, resulting in guests having to pass through the kitchen to the living room.  At some point the glass-and-iron marquee that had stretched nearly to the curb was removed, leaving a noticeable scar over the entrance.  More importantly, though, Herman Lee Meader's marvelous and unique decorations survive.

photograph by the author
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  1. As Andrew Porter seems a little busy today, let me be the one to observe that L. Ron Hubbard lived here 1939–40, writing — with a radically customized, continuous-feed typewriter beneath a low-glare blue lightbulb — several of his most celebrated stories before moving to Washington, DC. I'm afraid I don't know the apartment number.

    As if the building weren't eclectic enough already!

    — jMS

    1. Thanks for that great additional anecdote! Wonderful.