Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Incredible History of 220 West Houston Street


Charles S. Holt incurred the wrath of his neighbors in 1842.  The enterprising "tallow chandler" manufactured soap in the rear yard of his home at 58 Downing Street.  On October 22, 1842, the Mourning Courier reported that he "was tried for a public nuisance, in boiling stinking and rotten meats on the premises occupied by him, No. 58 Downing street, for the purpose of extracting the grease therefrom."  Holt moved his family into the house and store nearly directly behind, at 53 Hamersley Street and established his soap factory next door at 51 Hamersley Street.

Holt remained here at least through 1847.  By 1851, the house and factory were occupied by the Nichol & Merklee iron foundry, run by George F. Merklee and John Nichol.  The upper floors of 53 Hamersley were rented out.  Among the working class tenants in 1853 was James Riley, a seaman.

In 1854, John Nichol partnered with George B. Billerwell and the business was reorganized as Nichol & Billerwell.  The foundry moved east to 33 Hamersley Street, while the firm's offices remained on the ground floor of 53 Hamersley (renamed and numbered 220 West Houston Street in 1861) at least through 1868.  (Interestingly, for one year, in 1863, John Nichol occupied a room upstairs.)

In the rear yard was a secondary house.  In 1855, it was home to Mary Carniaux, a widow; Dennis Farrell and William Nelson, both tailors; and jockey Patrick Tenney.  Ellen and James Tenney, who lived in the main house, were most likely Patrick's parents.  James was a carman and Ellen was a dressmaker.  Also living in the main house were Catherine, the widow of Thomas G. Smith; and carpenter John A. Jones.

Despite what must have been tight conditions, when a respected policeman died in January 1870, his funeral was held in his rooms.  On January 15, the New-York Tribune reported, "The funeral of Se'rgt. O'Connor took place from his late residence No. 220 West Houston-st., at 10 a.m. yesterday, and was largely attended.  The coffin was borne upon the shoulder of the deceased's immediate friends, members of the force, and a platoon of the Twenty-eighth Precinct followed the remains to St. Patrick's Cathedral."

James M. Clark opened his wheelwright (wagon and carriage repair) shop on the ground floor in 1879.  He remained for a decade, after which it became the headquarters of D. I. Christie & Co.  David I. Christie owned the stables next door, as well as livery stables throughout the city and even in Paterson, New Jersey.

At the turn of the century, the neighborhood around 220 West Houston Street was part of what newspapers called the "Italian colony."  Living here in 1904 was Francesco Bagnasco, a waiter.  Early on the morning of October 12, he was found by police on the sidewalk at Macdougal Street and Minetta Lane "almost unconscious from the loss of blood," according to the New-York Tribune.  A long cut had been slashed on both cheeks with a cross carved under them.  One of the policeman thought they "were the work of some Italian secret society."

Collier's magazine said Bagnasco "refused to say where the assault occurred or who were his assailants."  Detectives followed a blood trail "for more than a mile through downtown streets, to the Italian colony east of Broadway, and finally to the door of a tenement house at No. 159 Elizabeth-st.," reported the Tribune.  "They learned nothing there, however."

D. I. Christie remained here at least through 1915.  In 1930 the ground floor was converted to a restaurant, the second floor to a social club, and the third to an office.  In 1963, the Lodge Restaurant, run by Vincent H. Petti, occupied the ground floor and the Knickerbocker Council of the Nights of Columbus was on the second floor.  It remained through 1969, after which a much different tenant moved in.

 A luncheonette occupied the ground floor in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The space became the 220 Club, run by Sal "Sally" Maggio and Jesse Torres.  In his 2014 The Life & Music of Lou Reed, Jeremy Reed describes the 220 Club as, "one of the most famous of the transgender/gay nightclubs of the early seventies," noting,

The 220 Club...was the principal venue for the transgender crowd, a distinction later shared by its upgrades, the Greenwich Pub, Sally's Hideaway and later Sally's II.  Sally's partner, Jesse Torres, a femme queen also, was a significant glam attraction at the 220 Club, dragging it up as hostess manager.

A regular at the 220 Club was musician and songwriter Lou Reed of the The Velvet Underground.  According to Will Hermes in his Lou Reed - The King of New York, the songs Sally Can't Dance and Ride, Sally Ride were, "likely a wink to Sal 'Sally' Maggio."

A trip to the 220 Club had its risks.  Patrons were routinely mugged or worse.  On December 6, 1977, The Villager reported, "At 3:30 am on November 27, a male resident of Long Island was standing in front of 220 West Houston Street when seven men jumped him, assaulted him, taking $300 in cash, credit cards, and wallet."  Three months later, on January 12, 1978, the newspaper reported, "a Queens resident was reportedly robbed of $3,050 by a couple in the bathroom of the 220 Club, an after hours club at 220 West Houston Street."  The article said, "the victim was apparently confronted by the woman who propositioned him and then was joined by her male accomplice.  Both escaped."  Numerous, similar crimes were reported throughout the 1980s.

The Ganymede Gallery opened here in 1992.  That year in April, it presented "Men by Women," which The New York Times described as "art about men by eight women."  Three months later, an exhibition of photographs by "fifty people living with HIV/Aids," according to New York Magazine, was staged.

In the summer of 1994, Toukie Smith, sister of designer Willi Smith, opened the restaurant Toukie's here.  Jane Freiman of Newsday said, "If her cooking is as tasty as Willi Wear's clothes were timeless, I'll be a fan."  Smith was also known as "a model, an actress and a significant other of the actor Robert De Niro," mentioned Florence Fabricant of The New York Times on September 14.  Smith donated a portion of the profits
to the Smith Family Foundation, which benefited people with AIDS, "and honors her brother Willi Smith, the designer, who died of the disease in 1987," said Fabricant.

Toukie's was replaced by Bar Cichetti in 1998, which made way for Brooklyneer in 2011.  Ironically, by 2013 the second floor-- once infamous for after-hours drug and alcohol use--became home to the Midnight Group, an Alcoholics Anonymous organization.

many thanks to reader Jason Kessler for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Friday, June 14, 2024

Lafayette A. Goldstone's 1930 19 Rector Street (88 Greenwich Street)


photo by ZeligJr

In 1929, months before the Stock Market crash that would usher in the Great Depression, the Gening Realty Corporation broke ground for what was intended to be a 40-story office building at the southwest corner of Rector and Greenwich Streets.  Gening Realty Corporation was described as a "syndicate representing the General Realty & Utilities Company and A. M. Bing & Son."  On March 11, 1930, the New York Sun reported that General Realty & Utilities had financed a $3.35 million building loan for the project--a significant $61 million in 2024.

The article noted, "The forty-story building under construction at 19 Rector street [is] from plans by Lafayette A. Goldstone."  Goldstone had dissolved his partnership with William L. Rouse in 1926.  The highly successful firm of Rouse & Goldstone had designed dozens of substantial Manhattan buildings, most of them apartment houses.

By the time construction was completed later that year, the plans had been scaled back to 35 floors of offices and a penthouse apartment.  (In 1936, the penthouse was converted to offices, as well.)  Goldstone's Art Deco skyscraper was clad in beige brick above a two-story limestone base.  Numerous asymmetrical setbacks at the upper levels provided several terraces.

The two-story base, see here in 1939, is only moderately changed today.  photo from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection of the Library of Congress

Despite the ongoing Depression, the offices filled with tenants.  Louis W. Abrons, the president of General Realty & Utilities Corporation, told the New York Sun in May 1933, "It is interesting to note that the leading applicants for space comprise, in addition to members of the Stock Exchange and Curb Exchange, accountants and firms associated with railroads and steamship lines."  

Typical was the brokerage firm John L. Morgenthau & Co.  It was headed by millionaire John L. Morgenthau, the nephew of former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau.  The firm had its offices in the building as early as 1932.  Among the few tenants not involved with brokerage or shipping were the Reynolds Metals Company and Dobbins-Trinity Coal, Inc.  In 1938 the Waterman Steamship Agency, Ltd. leased the entire 19th floor.  

Engineers with The H. K. Ferguson Company work at drafting tables in 1947 (top), while clerical workers occupy the mid-century equivalent of work cubicles.  The firm, which had branch offices in Cleveland and Houston, was industrial engineers and builders.  photo from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection of the Library of Congress

The tenant list became more diverse after mid-century.  The 1950s continued to see shipping related firms like the American Railway Institute and the Pearl Assurance Company here.  But the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company occupied offices by 1951, and in 1959 Wood & Selick Coconut Co., Inc. and the Camp Fire Club of America were tenants.

By 1960, a major tenant was the New York Telephone Company.  Among its employees was chief telephone investigator Harold A. McElroy.  Among his responsibilities was performing court ordered wiretaps on suspected criminals.  

Late in 1961, McElroy was visited by Police Captain Anthony Obremski, who, according to McElroy, "identified himself as the new commander of the Third Division (Midtown)" and asked for his cooperation.  He told McElroy, "the third Division had a fund to compensate those who gave the police valuable information and that Mr. McElroy would get $100 a month," as reported by The New York Times.

Obremski telephoned McElroy "from time to time," who then supplied him with confidential information obtained through wiretaps.  Once a month a plainclothes officer would meet McElroy in the hallways of 19 Rector Street to slip him his $100.  He told investigators later, as reported by The New York Times, "he had not regarded the payoffs as bribes.  He said he had not reported them on his income tax forms because he looked upon them as gratuities, for helping the police cut corners."

In fact, Obremski was misusing the information being collected for legitimate NYPD investigations.  He was later arrested and charged with using "information about wiretaps to protect bookmakers who were paying graft and to shake down others," said The New York Times on August 11, 1964.  McElroy was suspended from his job but avoided prosecution by testifying.

In 1972 the West Side Highway Project moved into offices on the sixth floor here.  On April 23, The New York Times said, "An unusual amalgam of city, state and private talent is quietly at work here, drawing up plans for a new West Side Highway."  The planners were "quiet," said the article, "because opposition to some earlier proposals has been fierce."

Two years later, on March 26, 1974, The New York Times reported, "Despite protests from community planners, key state and city officials appeared ready yesterday to press for Federal designation of the entire Hudson shore corridor from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge as an interstate expressway route."  The project included replacing the "dilapidated elevated highway," and was the first step in the massive redevelopment of the Hudson riverfront.

In 1997, 19 Rector Street was purchased by Greystone Management.  On the evening of December 23, it "brought its own nonunion workers to the building," reported The New York Times.  "When the regular maintenance crew showed up a few hours later, they found that their jobs had been eliminated."  The 25 workers, some who had worked in the building for more than two decades, found themselves unemployed two days before Christmas.  The article continued, "The displaced workers said Greystone offered them applications for jobs with no sick time, virtually no benefits and lower wages--$8 an hour, compared with $15."

Importantly, the article mentioned, "The 37-story [sic] Art Deco building, built in the 1920's [sic], reportedly will be gutted and turned into condominiums."  Two years later, on November 21, 1999, the newspaper began an article saying, "Just when it seemed there couldn't be another conversion from office to residential in the Financial District, developers announced that a former office tower, an Art Deco skyscraper at 88 Greenwich Street, is being turned into rental apartments."  For some reason, the developers, The World-Wide Group, had decided to change the address.

The article said they, "are gutting the 38-story [sic] building at Rector Street, making 461 apartments."  Costing $100 million, the reconstruction actually resulted in 452 units.

A year after the building's opening, the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.  Residents were faced with health hazards, difficulty in access to the building, and curtailed services.  On October 1, the tenants voted to go on a rent strike, "demanding break [sic] leases and to get reduced rents," reported The New York Times.  A class-action suit was proposed, based not only on the health and services concerns, but "on emotional issues."  A lawyer for tenant David Frazer told the reporter, "I want that mother who called with kids whose window looks out over the disaster site.  I want to put her before the judge."

In 2006 the building was converted to condominiums, called Greenwich Club.  Its residents would face another disaster in October 2012--Hurricane Sandy.  According to The New York Times, the storm's floodwaters, "dislodged an oil tank, which hit a ceiling beam and cracked open, necessitating a major cleanup."  In reporting on the downtown damages on December 5, MetroNews said the building "may not be habitable for months."

At least one resident, Jonathan Stark, went to court, filing a $35 million lawsuit in November.  The New York Times reported he accused "the board and managers of failing to safeguard the building against floods they knew were coming, then blocked residents' attempts to file insurance claims.  Managers have told residents they could not return for four months."  Repairs were eventually completed and the building reopened in January 2013.

In June 2016, the 9/11 Tribute Center moved into the ground floor of 88 Greenwich Street.  It had been located at 120 Liberty Street since 2006.

photograph by Tdorante10

Having survived a three devastating events--a depression, a terrorist attack, and a natural disaster--Lafayette A. Goldstone's Art Deco skyscraper survives nearly unchanged externally.

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Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Robert Edward Livingston House - 271 Fifth Avenue


Less than two decades after the first mansion was built on Fifth Avenue just above Washington Square, development reached above 23rd Street.  In 1851, Deborah Wood operated an exclusive boarding house in the brownstone fronted mansion at 271 Fifth Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets.  

At 26-feet-wide and four stories tall above a high English basement, the house held its own among the stately homes in the neighborhood.  Its arched entrance was crowned with a grand, broken-arched pediment filled with carved vines and an ornate cartouche.

Wood's few, select boarders were well-to-do.  From 1851 to 1854, for instance, they were all politically connected with Tammany Hall.  Abraham M. Valentine (who died here in 1855) was the Grand Marshal at the cornerstone laying for Tammany Hall.  His son, William P. Valentine, also held a city government job.  William Gage's position as the chairman of the Board of Assessors was a Tammany appointed job.

In 1864, Robert Edward Livingston and his wife, the former Susan Maria Clarkson de Peyster, purchased 271 Fifth Avenue.  The couple, who had married a decade earlier on December 19, 1854, had three children when they moved in: Catherine Goodhue, Robert Reginald, and Edward de Peyster.  A fourth child, Goodhue, would arrive in 1867.

Robert Livingston descended from one of the oldest and most distinguished families in New York.  The Livingstons arrived in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.  Both of his parents, Edward Philip and Elizabeth Stevens, were Livingstons.  The New York Times said, "Through his mother, he was a descendant of Robert R. Livingston, who, as Chancellor of the State of New York, swore in George Washington as President of the United States, and who, with Gouverneur Morris and John Jay, drew up the Constitution of the State."  Both Robert's grandfathers--Robert R. Livingston and Philip Livingston--signed the Declaration of Independence.

Susan's pedigree was no less impressive.  Like the Livingstons, the De Peysters arrived in America in the 17th century.  Abraham de Peyster was born in New Amsterdam in 1657.  He would become the mayor of New York City in 1691 and serve as Governor in 1700 and 1701.  Susan's grandfather was a member of George Washington's staff during the Revolution.

The family's country estate, Clermont, was on the Hudson River between Tivoli-on-the-Hudson and Germantown, New York.  The main house was originally a Georgian style mansion, built around 1740.  It was burned nearly to the ground by the British and rebuilt as a near copy of the original by Margaret Beekman Livingston with the war still going on.

Robert Edward Livingston was listed in directories as a "gentleman," meaning that he lived on inherited wealth.  He died in the mansion on January 20, 1889 at the age of 68.  His funeral was not held in the house, as would have been expected, but at Grace ChurchThe Sun reported, "interment will take place on the same day at Tivoli-on-the-Hudson." 

The family was at Clermont for the holidays in 1891 when disaster was averted in the Fifth Avenue house.  On December 29, The Sun reported, "Firemen invaded last night the house of Mrs. Robert E. Livingston at 271 Fifth avenue, and ran a hose up to the fifth floor."  A servant had discovered a fire in a closet in her room.  It was quickly extinguished, causing damages of only about $100 (just under $3,500 in 2024).

Edward de Peyster Livingston graduated from Columbia University in 1882 and Columbia Law School two years later.  His brother Goodhue graduated from Columbia in 1888, and received his Ph.B. in architecture in 1892. 

Catherine involved herself in charitable works and social endeavors.  On March 28, 1892, for instance, the New York Evening Telegram reported, "Whether it is a 'Lenten card party' or simply a card party without any specific reference to the season--will not probably mar the pleasure of the entertainment at the home of Mrs. [sic] C. G. Livingston, of No. 271 Fifth avenue, this evening.  The card club that has been in existence two years and has six meetings each Lent, will hold its fifth meeting of the season at the home of Miss Livingston to-night."

In 1894, Goodhue partnered with Stockton B. Colt and Samuel Breck Parkman Trowbridge to form the architectural firm Trowbridge, Livingston & Colt.  When Colt left in 1897, the firm became Trowbridge & Livingston.  The partners would design some of Manhattan's most recognizable buildings, including the St. Regis Hotel, the B. Altman & Co. building, and the Bankers Trust Company.   

Goodhue married Louisa Robb on April 8, 1896 and the couple established their home elsewhere.  But following Robert's marriage to Mary Tailer, the couple initially moved into 271 Fifth Avenue.

In 1897, Susan and Catherine spent the summer in Seabright, New Jersey rather than Clermont.  On July 7, the New York Journal and Advertiser reported, "Mrs. Robert E. Livingston and her daughter, Miss C. G. Livingston, of No. 271 Fifth avenue, New York, are sojourning here at the Octagon."  It is unclear where Robert and Mary spent that summer, but their return was annoyingly delayed.  On October 24, 1897, The World remarked, "Mr. and Mrs. Robert Livingston have not yet opened their home, No. 271 Fifth avenue, on account of the shocking condition of the street, which is impassable and unsightly."

Robert and Mary soon moved to 9 East 9th Street.  They spent part of the winter season of 1898-99 in Hot Springs, Virginia, and had just returned home when Robert fell ill on April 9.  He died a week later on April 16.

In the meantime, Susan and her unmarried children, Edward and Catherine, lived on in the Fifth Avenue house long after fashion had moved northward.  Society journalists tracked their movements and on December 12, 1901, the New-York Tribune reported, "Mrs. Robert E. Livingston and Miss Catherine Livingston have returned to town from Tivoli, and are at their home, in Fifth-ave."

Lower Fifth Avenue was no longer the quiet residential thoroughfare it had been in 1864 when the Livingstons moved into 271 Fifth Avenue.  In preparation for the widening of the avenue in 1909, Susan was ordered to remove the stoop.  Not surprisingly, she hired her son's firm to do the work.  On May 19, the New-York Tribune reported, 

Trowbridge & Livingston, architects have filed plans for remodelling [sic] the old four story high stoop brownstone dwelling house No. 271 Fifth avenue into an American basement house...The old main entrance will be converted into a French casement window.  Over the entrance will be an ornamental grille railing, forming a small balcony.

In 1941, the magnificent pediment over the former doorway and the window enframements survived, as did Trowbridge & Livingston's "ornamental grille railing" above the entrance.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Nine months after that notice, on February 10, 1910, Susan de Peyster Livingston died in the Fifth Avenue house at the age of 87.  In reporting her death, The New York Times recalled that she had been born in the house that her grandfather, General Matthew Clarkson, had erected at the corner of Whitehall and Pearl Streets, and that her present home "is now one of the last private houses in that part of Fifth Avenue."

Neither Catherine nor Edward would marry.  They stubbornly remained in the house in which they had grown up, while all around them the mansions of their former neighbors were either converted for business or razed for commercial buildings.

In the years preceding World War I, Catherine's mobility was gradually impaired.  By the onset of the Depression, according to The New York Times, she was "restricted to a regiment of increased invalidism, consisting of short drives in a motor and her Summer sojourn at Southampton."  On December 18, 1931, the newspaper reported, "Miss Catherine Goodhue Livingston, member of one of New York State's most distinguished families, died yesterday at her home, 271 Fifth Avenue, where she had lived all her live."  The article noted, "The Livingston property of Clermont, on the Hudson, has been in the possession of the family since the original grant from Queen Anne."

A month later almost to the day, on January 20, 1932, The New York Times reported, "Edward De Peyster Livingston...died last night at the age of 70 in his home at 271 Fifth Avenue."  His funeral was held in the Church of the Transfiguration the next morning. 

Not surprising, the last private mansion in the neighborhood was quickly converted.  A renovation completed in 1934 resulted in a store on the first and second floors, with two apartments per floor above.  Despite the significant changes, it is not difficult to imagine a time when one of the wealthiest and most socially prominent families in New York occupied the venerable structure.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The 1846 Payne House - 273 West 11th Street


Hammond Street was named for Elijah Hammond, whose 55-acre estate sat near Greenwich Village in the 18th century.  By 1840, the once sleepy hamlet had expanded into the Hammond property and prim brick-faced homes were being erected along its newly laid streets.

In 1845, Nathaniel Weed purchased the two vacant plots at 65 and 67 Hammond Street from George H. Swords.  The following year he completed construction of two three-and-a-half-story homes on the sites.  Identical to its neighbor, 65 Hammond (renamed and numbered 273 West 11th Street in 1865) was faced in red brick above a brownstone English basement.  While the entrances of most Greek Revival homes were designed with heavy pilasters and entablatures, the brownstone enframement here was unexpectedly airy.  Below the cornice were squat attic windows that replaced the dormers of the previous Federal style.

By the mid-1850s, 273 West 11th Street was home to the Payne family.  Theodore Payne was an importer, Thomas was in the express business, and Joseph was a clerk.  Young Edwin Payne would enter the straw goods business by 1860.

Despite the relatively large Payne population within the house, the family took in boarders.  In 1856 and '57 James J. Farrell, an accountant, boarded with the family.  The following year, educators Susan Wright and William W. Holder lived here.  Wright was vice principal of the Female Normal School, and Holder taught in the Boys' Department of School No. 3 on the corner of Hudson and Grove Streets.

An advertisement in the New York Herald on January 17, 1859 offered, "Board--Rooms, with full or partial [board], suitable for a small family or gentleman and wife, in a first class modern house, convenient to cars and stages."

One of the boarders who answered that ad suffered public humiliation a year later.  On February 4, 1860, the New-York Dispatch reported:

Charles M. Johnson of No. 65 Hammond street, on the night of the 30th of January, while in company with a girl named Louisa Powell, at a house of ill fame in Wooster street, was robbed of a gold watch worth $125.  The gold guard-chain having been severed by some sharp instrument.  Louisa was committed for examination.

The embarrassing incident reflected the affluence of the Paynes' boarder.  The value of his watch would translate to more than $4,700 in 2024.

Around 1863, attorney William H. Jelliffe and his wife Almira purchased the house.  While her husband carried on his legal practice, Almira ran a boarding house.  Her tenants continued to be white collar.  In 1864 they included James F. Dummer, who ran a paint business; Archer Martine, who was in the feed business; Henry M. Patterson, a flour merchant; Henry Reeve, who operated two coal yards; and Edward H. Stone, who listed himself an "officer" in a firm at 78 West Street.

Surprisingly, in March 1865 the Jelliffes had an unmarried woman, Constance B. Tallon, boarding here.  The risk that single women would bring scandal precluded most respectable boarding house proprietors from accepting them.  Tallon was a well-heeled young woman and apparently came with excellent references.  She brought with her a trunk that contained her valuables, including $12,000 in United States bonds (about a quarter of a million in today's dollars).

According to her testimony later, at 8:00 on the morning of March 25, "my attention was called to the fact, by some one, that my trunk was unlocked, and I then discovered that some of the bonds had been stolen; when I opened it and examined the contents, I found that $500 in bonds and $100 in money had been taken."  Despite a long investigation, the thief was never discovered.

Ten days before that incident, two boarders had received unsettling news.  On March 15, M. Becker and W. H. Teller were inducted into the Union Army when their names were pulled in the draft lottery.

Henry Reeve was still boarding here in 1868, along with George Cole, Henry Marsh (who made "limbs"), and Jonathan S. Bard, a pen merchant.  Cole suffered a horrific accident on August 29 that year.  The New York Times reported, "George Cole, of No. 273 West Eleventh-street, fell from the 12:30 P.M. train on the New Haven Railroad, on the corner of Fifty-ninth-street and Fourth-avenue."  Cole fell beneath the cars and was run over.  He was taken to St. Luke's Hospital.  Miraculously, his legs were not severed, although both were broken.

William Jelliffe died around 1875.  Almira continued operating the boarding house, her boarders still respectable and well-to-do.  

Henry F. Marsh was still here in 1878, by which time he had switched from producing artificial limbs to making "adjustable frames for drying lace curtains."  He ran the administrative portion of his business from his rooms here.

On November 24, 1884, The New York Times reported, "The inmates of the boarding house of Mrs. Almira B. Jelliffe, No. 273 West Eleventh-street, were roused from their comfortable beds and greatly alarmed by a fire which broke out from some unknown cause in the basement of the house at 2 o'clock yesterday morning."  Happily, although Almira and her boarders were forced into the chilly autumn air in their night clothes, firefighters quickly extinguished the rubbish fire in the basement pantry.  The article said the damage "will not exceed $50."

After having operated the boarding house for three decades, Almira B. Jelliffe died here on November 22, 1895.  

It continued on as a respectable boarding house, home to residents like Mrs. James Webb, a member of the Mary Arden Shakespeare Club.  She hosted a meeting of the group on January 29, 1904, the New York Herald saying, "Members of the club are making a critical study of 'Henry VI.'"

Boarder John H. Jackson's name had appeared in The New York Times a year earlier for a less auspicious reason.  The 18-year-old was a student at the College of the City of New York.   On the night of November 12, 1903, he attended the annual dinner of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity as a pledge.  He and another potential member, Robert B. Mount, were taken to the areaway under the stoop of a vacant house at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue.  The New York Times reported, "There, in the cold night air, they were compelled to disrobe and don women's attire.  Thus costumed, they were led out into Twenty-third Street, surrounded by the howling mob of students and forced to lead the procession, to the astonishment and amusement of passers-by."  

Less amused was Captain Gallagher of the East 22nd Street station house.  Jackson and Mount were arrested "on a charge of masquerading in women's clothing."  They were later dismissed "after a mild rebuke at their conduct" by Magistrate Hogan after he heard the details of the case, said the article.

In 1920, 273 West 11th Street was purchased by the Women's Home Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church as the new home of the Immigrant Girls' Home.  It traced its beginnings to 1885, when Helen and James Mathews and their daughter Alma, rented a house in lower Manhattan to house naïve, single women disembarking from ships.  Their actions saved them from the unscrupulous men who preyed on new immigrants.

On February 14, 1921, the Yonkers Statesman reported, "The dedication services of the new Immigrant Girls' Home of the Woman's Home Missionary Society, will take place, Thursday, Feb. 17, at 2:30 o'clock, at the Home, 273 West 11th street, New York. The services will be in charge of the national officers of the Society, and will be followed by a social hour and refreshments."

At the time, Alma Mathews was still active in the cause.  A week after the dedication, a meeting of the Society of Michigan Daughters was held here, the discussion topic being "Emigration," according to the New York Herald.  The article said, "The discussion will be followed by a tea to Miss Mathews, missionary to Ellis Island."

Typical of the women given aid here was Russian actress Madame Pierre Achmathoff, who arrived in New York from Constantinople on the Braga on December 3, 1922.  She came to New York to work with the Moscow Art Theatre Company, and had sent her money ahead to a friend named Edelshty in Brooklyn.  When she arrived with "a number of trunks," according to The New York Times, but no money, she was detained as "likely to become a public charge."

The Methodist Immigrant Home retrieved her from detention, guaranteeing the actress (who arrived with "twenty pieces of baggage and furs," according to the New York Herald) would not become a ward of the city.

Around mid-century, the house was renamed the Alma Mathews House.  In 1953 it housed 22 residents.

In 1957 a portion of the house was converted to classrooms for the Children's Workroom.  An advertisement in The Villager in January 1976 offered "intimate kindergarten" for children three-and-a-half years old through five, and after school programs for students five through ten.  "Our specialty is individualized attention and learning," said the ad.

The Gingerbread School opened here in 1971 and would remain through 1980 when 273 West 11th Street was internally joined with 275.  In 1993 the combined houses were operated by Michael A. Burak, Inc.  Called the Alma Mathews House, it was described as a "hotel operated for clergy and religious officials visiting the U.N. and New York City."

Then, in 2013 real estate broker Dolly Lenz announced that celebrity couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick had purchased the combined homes for $35 million.  The announcement suggested they would renovate them as a 50-foot-wide, 13,900-square-foot residence.  It does not appear that ever happened.

photographs by the author
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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

H. Herbert Lilien's 1948 205 West 95th Street


The high-stooped brownstone house at 250 West 95th Street was, for a period, home to author Damon Runyon.  It and three of its neighbors were demolished in 1947 to be replaced by an up-to-date apartment building.  The 95th Street Construction Co., Inc. hired 49-year-old H. Herbert Lilien to design the structure.  Lilien had already established a reputation with his Art Deco style apartment buildings.

Cover of the 1948 real estate brochure. from the collection of the Avery Library of Columbia University.

Completed in 1948, the six-story building had one foot in the waning Art Moderne movement and the other in the dawning Midcentury Modern.  Faced in red brick, its several light courts afforded natural light and ventilation to interior apartments.  Sculptural Art Moderne fire escapes acted as part of the design.  Lilien's most striking details were the curved midcentury railing at sidewalk level, and the recessed entry within a rusticated, reentrant concrete corner supported by a single column.

 from the collection of the Avery Library of Columbia University.

The nine apartments per floor filled with a wide variety of tenants.  Among the first was a Jewish-Iranian family who crushed into a one-bedroom apartment.  In her 2020 Concealed, Esther Amini writes,

My parents slept in the congested living room while my brothers camped out in the coveted bedroom.  In this pinched space stuffed with Persian futons, borrowed folding tables and chairs, a floral slip-covered couch bursting with orange stargazers, sacks of clothing, colanders, Persian rugs, a dayereh and samovar, [the family] navigated tight aisles, tripping over one another.

Amini recalls that next door was the Jacobson family, "big-hearted Holocaust survivors."  Their son, Herman, was a teenaged musical prodigy "crippled by polio."

The reentrance corner and streamlined railings were the salient features of Lilien's design.

Two actresses were listed here in 1957.  Like most aspiring actresses, Gladys Austen's career had had a rocky start.  In 1953, she had fought the Unemployment Board for benefits.  In its defense, the board said, "between January, 1951, and June 23, 1953, claimant had sixty-six weeks employment as a typist-receptionist and only five days of paid employment as an actress."  Unemployment, argued the attorney, did not apply simply "because an applicant desires to exclusively pursue a career which is more attractive."

Gladys Austen, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Things improved for Gladys and by the time she moved into 205 West 95th Street, she had appeared in small parts in Broadway shows like Lunatics and Lovers, which ran from December 13, 1954 to October 1, 1955.   And on August 18, 1956, The Billboard noted, "Gladys Austen has been doing some of the Tide blurbs thru Benton & Bowles."  She would play the role of Vera Wallace in the 1968 production of The Jumping Frog at the Shubert Theatre.

Grace Wallace Huddle's husband had died in 1938, two years after their daughter was born.  To augment her acting career, Grace taught singing.  While her career on stage never really took off, her daughter's did.  Sue Ane Langdon began her career singing at Radio City Music Hall and landed a role in The Apple Tree on Broadway in 1967.  She became a familiar face on television and film.

A frightening incident took place here on May 31, 1976.  The building superintendent, Raul Ortiz, discovered two burglars in the basement.  In the subsequent confrontation, one pulled a screwdriver and attempted to stab Ortiz.  The 61-year-old superintendent fired a handgun, wounding Harold Norman in the cheek.  Norman and Gregory Smith were arrested for attempted assault and attempted burglary, while Ortiz was charged with illegal possession of a .38-caliber revolver.

Judith Scott lived here in the 1980s and '90s.  Born in 1937, she formed Dance Incorporated Chicago in 1963 with Gus Giordano.  From 1969 through 1975, she taught modern dance at Barnard College.  While teaching there, she formed the Judith Scott Dance Company.  By the time she moved into 205 West 95th Street, she had turned her attention from modern to aerobic dancing and fitness and wrote books and articles on the subject.

An enterprising resident at the time was Jim Sanford.  A classically trained chef, he began a clam bake business on Martha's Vineyard in 1970, and relocated it to Manhattan in 1980.  He told Claudia Rowe of The New York Times in May 2000, "When I started this, you'd think you could get anything in New York if you had the money.  You could get a pink elephant at 4 in the morning, but you couldn't get an authentic clambake."

Sanford's operation (which included three hours of prep) provided a real New England clambake--lobster, steamed corn, onions, potatoes, chicken, smoked sausage and watermelon--for as many as 1,000 guests.  Rowe explained, "Authentic is the operative word.  Mr. Sanford arrives with his goods packed in rockweed, and everything is steamed under canvas, which is the traditional way."  

Outwardly, little has changed to H. Herbert Lilien's transitional building in 76 years.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Lowell Cochrane for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Lost Union Trust Company Bldg - 78-82 Broadway


The Architectural Record, 1898 (copyright expired)

Organized in 1864, the Union Trust Company occupied the building at 73 Broadway before breaking ground for a new headquarters slightly north at 78-82 Broadway in 1888.  Designed by George Browne Post, it would be what some critics deemed his masterpiece.  The beauty of its Romanesque Revival architecture vied for attention with its soaring height.  As it neared completion on November 16, 1889, the Real Estate Record & Guide noted:

Its gradual progress skywards has been watched with interest by the crowds which passed it by day after day, and it is now nearly up to the roof.  It is to be eight stories high, exclusive of a basement, ground floor, banking floor and roof story--in all, practically twelve floors.

A decade later, in 1899, architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler would credit Post with devising the tripartite formula for tall buildings--base, shaft and capital--in his Union Trust Company building.  The structure ran through the block, with a second facade on New Street.  They were identical other than the materials used.  The Record & Guide explained, "The Broadway front of the building is of granite, considerable iron also being used.  The New street front is to be of buff brick and terra cotta."

On Broadway, the three great arches of the base were echoed in the multi-level arches of the midsection.  Above the arcaded tenth floor rose a châteauesque mansard with prominent dormers.

American Architect & Building News, February 1, 1890 (copyright expired)

According to the Record & Guide, the Union Trust Company had paid $1,175,000 for the property and spent another $600,000 in construction.  The total outlay would translate to $60.6 million in 2024.  The journal opined, "When the building is finally completed it will certainly be one of the handsomest ornaments to the lower part of Broadway."

Construction was completed in the fall of 1890.  On October 22, The New York Times wrote:

Splendor and security go hand in hand in the magnificent structure erected by the Union Trust Company of New-York at 80 Broadway.  In its exterior the building is one of the best examples of pure Romanesque architecture extant, while its interior fittings, every feature of which was designed by the architect, George B. Post, are in perfect keeping and harmony with the general plan.

The Architectural Record remarked, "Indeed, we have no business building in New York which is more comely in design than the Union Trust."

The 30-foot-high banking room, which The New York Times said was "admirably lighted," ran from Broadway to New Street.  The article explained, "The flooring is a rich Mosaic, all the woodwork is of mahogany, the counters are of Italian marble, and all the railings and partitions are of heavy lacquered brass."  On the New Street side, looking out onto the Stock Exchange, was the Trustees Room, with "parqueted flooring, mahogany wainscoting, paneled ceiling, and silver-finished walls."

The Record & Guide reported, "The eight floors and the roof story vary in height from 12 to 13-1/2 feet, and will contain single offices and suites."

The Union Trust Company building originally dwarfed its neighbors.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Five years later, the height of Post's structure had been surpassed, but its beauty had not.  Writing in The Brickbuilder in January 1895, John Beverley Robinson said, 

The Union Trust its day was reckoned a very high building, with its ten or twelves stories, but is little to brag as far as height is concerned, alongside of its nineteen or twenty-storied neighbor.  As to other matters than height though, it is much to brag of.  I have heard it counted by those who know, and I am inclined to count it myself, as the best office building that Mr. George B. Post, the architect, ever did, perhaps the best that anybody ever did.

The Record & Guide had noted in 1889, "The construction is of a fire-proof character throughout, and there will be practically nothing in the building to burn, except it be the furniture and possibly the doors and trimmings."  The article noted the steel beam construction of the floors, wrought iron columns encased in "burnt clay coverings," and the wrought and cast iron stairways with marble treads. 

That fire-proof quality of the building would be seriously tested a quarter of a century later.  On September 29, 1914, The New York Times titled an article, "Union Trust Co. Building Ablaze / Fire Starts on an Upper Floor of Costly Structure at 80 Broadway / Soon Spreads To Roof."

A watchman discovered the fire at 3:15 in the morning and ran to the fire call box at Rector Street and Broadway.  The New York Times reported, "Before the firemen arrived the flames, which spread with great rapidity, had extended to the roof and were mushrooming out over Broadway."  The response had been rapid, the article saying, "within three or four minutes after the alarm was turned in Broadway for two or three blocks in either direction from the burning structure was filled with fire engines, hose carts, and water towers."

The firefighters met unexpected hindrances.  While one group was attaching a hose to the fire hydrant at Wall and New Streets, the hydrant "burst and sent a flood of water flowing down Wall Street," said the article.  A few minutes later, another hydrant exploded at Broadway and Wall Street, spraying the front of Trinity Church.  Nevertheless, Post's fire resistant construction worked and the blaze was extinguished without major damage.  The New York Times mentioned that inside the offices and vaults of the Union Trust Company were "millions in securities and cash."

The New Street entrance was a mirror-image of Broadway.  The Architectural Record, 1898 (copyright expired)

The upper floors were occupied by tenants like attorneys and brokers.  Among them in the post-World War I years was Nicholas F. Brady.  In December 1921, a well-dressed man entered the French Jewelry Company at 2202 Broadway and ordered four large diamonds to be made into a lavalliere (a pendant worn on a chain).  He left a deposit of $100, giving his name as Nicholas F. Brady of 80 Broadway.

On December 13, The New York Times reported, "He returned yesterday, but instead of paying for the stones, he drew a pistol and ordered Mr. Johnnides, the proprietor, to throw up his hands."  The crook then scooped up the diamonds from a safe drawer, along with a diamond bracelet and a large, unset diamond, and fled.

Expectedly, detectives paid a visit to Nicholas F. Brady's office in the Union Trust Company Building.  He did not match the description of the perpetrator and was cleared of suspicion.  "Mr. Brady's secretary said he could not account for a hold-up man using the name of his employer," reported The New York Times, "and he knew of no one who had a grudge against Mr. Brady."

At the time of the impersonation, the end of the line was nearing for the building.  Demolition began in 1929, but the venerable structure did not go without a fight.  On June 30, The New York Times reported, "the thickness of walls almost half a century old has slowed up the work of destruction."  Contractor Albert A. Volk told the reporter, "he has encountered no building walls so solidly constructed as these."  The article continued, "The walls, he stated yesterday, were four feet thick at the top, but at the bottom were more than ten feet through with brick and cement so firmly welded together ordinary methods of wrecking have been unavailing."

Eventually, though, the building once described as "perhaps the best anybody ever did" was gone, replaced with the massive, block-engulfing Irving Trust Building.

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to