Monday, April 23, 2018

The Lost Wm. A. Spencer Mansion - 85 Fifth Avenue


Commercial structures had invaded lower Fifth Avenue when this photograph was taken.  from Old New York Houses, 1900, (copyright expired)

In 1836 Fifth Avenue was extended through land owned by the estate of John Cowman.  The new block front on the east side of the avenue, between 16th and 17th Streets, was portioned into building lots.  The 26-foot wide lot at the corner of 16th Street was sold that year for the princely sum of $8,600 to Gardiner G. Howland.  He paid $500 less for each of the two lots next door.

In the meantime, Captain William Augustus Spencer had distinguished himself in the U.S. Navy.  He was born in 1792 to Ambrose Spencer (a United States congressman, New York State senator, and State Attorney General among other achievements) and Laura Canfield.

Spencer had married Eleonora Eliza Lorillard, daughter of Peter A. Lorillard, in 1823.  The couple had one child, Lorillard, born in 1827.  Not long after Eleonora's death on August 15, 1843 at the age of 42, William married her sister, Catherine.

William Spencer, now retired from military service, set out to provide his bride a substantial new home.  He purchased the two lots at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street from Gardiner G. Howland for $21,500--more than $710,000 today.  According to New York historian William S. Pelletreau in his 1900 Early New York Houses, "Upon the lot thus purchased, Captain Spencer erected a mansion which for size and elegance surpassed anything on Fifth avenue at that time."

The double-wide residence was 49-feet wide and stretched back 149 feet on 16th Street.  To the rear was a single-story conservatory, so important in upscale, early 19th century homes.  Pelletreau described it as "in itself a thing of beauty."    Three stories high, the Italianate-style mansion featured expected elements--architrave framed openings with substantial cornices, floor-to-ceiling parlor windows that opened onto a cast iron balcony, and a handsome cornice with paired brackets.  The 16th Street elevation, however, was somewhat unusual.  A slightly projecting central section rose to a triangular pediment above the roof line.  The stately treatment would be seen in civic buildings--schools and police stations, for instance--in later decades.

William Pelletreau said "the entire mansion was finished and furnished in a style commensurate with the wealth and social position of its occupants, and in the days when the avenue was a street of palaces where trade had never set its foot, the 'Spencer mansion' was foremost among its equals."

No. 85 Fifth Avenue was, of course, filled with expensive artwork and furnishings.  Two of its sculptures, by American Henry Kirke Brown, had been purchased earlier, in 1845, for $800.  Brown had been in New York at the time from his studio in Rome trying to decide whether or not to return to America.  According to art historian Sippa Salenius in Sculptors, Painters, and Italy, Spencer gave the artist disappointing advice.  He "strongly advised him to remain in Italy indefinitely, reasoning that America was not a suitable place for an artist."

The Spencers next-door neighbors provide an interesting side note, given the early Victorian period.  Edwin Penfold and Thomas H. Faile purchased the empty lot on September 18, 1852 for $10,000.  They erected No. 87 Fifth Avenue and, according to Pelletreau, "They were both bachelors and both wealthy, and here they made their homes during the remainder of their lives, living in a style of most elegant leisure, and evidently studying their own enjoyment more than anything else."

Captain Spencer would not enjoy his luxurious home for long.  He died on March 3, 1854, passing title to the the mansion to Lorillard.   Catherine, of course, remained in the house and moved among society and involved herself in charitable causes.

On February 14, 1874 The New York Herald informed its readers that the Home of the Destitute Children of Seamen on Staten Island was over-taxed.  "The many recent disasters at sea and the hard times have brought many applicants for the care of the institution," it explained.  The article said that any donations of clothing or food would be accepted "at Mrs. Spencer's, No. 85 Fifth avenue, corner Sixteenth street."  And on July 2, 1879 The New York Herald reported that she had opened her cottage in Newport.

Catherine died in the house in March 1882.  Lorillard and his family continued on at No. 85.  He and his wife, the former Sarah Johnson Griswold, were prominent in the highest levels of society.  When, for example, Caroline (known familiarly as Carrie) Astor, the daughter of William B. and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, married Orme Wilson on November 18, 1882, the Spencers were on the exclusive guest list.

The weddings of the Spencers' own eight children drew much attention, as well.  Eleanor was the envy of other young heiresses when she married Prince Virginio de Vicovaro Cenci in 1870, earning her the title of Princess de Vicovaro.  And when Lorillard Spencer, Jr. married Caroline Suydam Berryman in St. Thomas's Church on October 3, 1882, The New York Times called it "the first fashionable wedding of the season."

Although he and Sarah spent much of their time in Paris, Lorillard stubbornly refused to abandon lower Fifth Avenue.  As society migrated up the avenue, he and a handful of wealthy neighbors fought to maintain their exclusive enclave.  Following his death in Paris on January 20, 1888 at the age of 62, title to the house passed to three sons, Charles, Lorillard and William Augustus.

Sarah now spent almost all of her time abroad and the mansion was almost immediately leased to Levi Parsons Morton who became United States Vice President in March the following year.   In 1888 Gilbert L. Harney hinted at the encroachment of business buildings around the house in his The Lives of Benjamin Harrison and Levi P. Morton. "If it were standing alone, it would be considered magnificent in its outward appearance.  but crowded among so many--and some of them much larger--monuments of architectural skill, it assumes modest proportions."

Harney described, "There is a wide hall running from the street doors to the dining-room at the rear.  On the right wall hangs a large portrait of President Garfield.  On the left is a large painting, by Constant, of an Eastern dwelling.  The door on the right leads into the parlors; the door on the left into the library.  The stairway, also, leads up from the hall.  The dining-room, at the end of the halls, is almost as wide as the house."

On November 14, 1890 The Evening World said of Morton, "He is immensely rich, and has a $100,000 home in Washington, a 950 acre farm at Rhinecliff-on-the-Hudson, which he calls 'Eilersiie Stock Farm,' and a magnificent brown-stone house at 85 Fifth avenue, corner of Sixteenth street."

Although the Mortons spent most of their time in Washington, they continued to lease the Fifth Avenue house through 1894.  There was a bit of trouble the month after the Vice President's term of office came to an end in 1893.

On April 16 the Mortons were out of town.  The mansion was in charge of a caretaker and his wife.  The couple took advantage of having the commodious house at their disposal, so the caretaker's father, her mother and her brother took up temporary residence as well.  And they helped themselves to the Morton wine cellar, as well.

The New York Times reported "Pedestrians in Fifth Avenue, near Sixteenth Street, about 10'o'clock last night, were startled by cries of 'Murder! Help! He is killing me!' issuing from the conservatory of the residence of ex-Vice-President Levi P. Morton, at 85 Fifth Avenue."

A concerned crowd gathered on the street, "wondering who was being murdered in the ex-Vice-President's house."  A policeman, Edward Dilon, rang the bell, which was opened the brother, described by the newspaper as a "short, red-faced man."  He attempted to diffuse the problem by explaining that the caretaker and his wife had simply gotten into a quarrel.

Then his sister appeared.  "The caretaker's wife, who seemed to be almost delirious from drink, asked the officer to arrest her husband, saying that he had beaten her."  Officer Dilon saw no evidence of physical violence.  He declined to make the arrest and left.

Now, swearing "vigorously," the red-faced brother ordered the crowd to leave.  When one "big brawny" man did not move fast enough from in front of the stoop, the irate brother rushed down and struck him.  It was a bad idea.

"The big man seized the little man and pounded him," reported the article.  But when the smaller man pulled out a large knife, "the big man deeming discretion the better part of valor, took to his heels and started toward Union Square."  The vengeful red-faced man was in close pursuit until he tripped and fell, slashing himself across the check with his weapon.  "By the time the little man had picked himself up his big foe had disappeared," concluded the report.

Morton was elected Governor of New York in the fall of that year, ending his occupancy of No. 85.  In the meantime, Sarah Spencer had purchased a villa in Switzerland in 1892 and continued to maintain her Paris residence.   With the Mortons gone, Charles used the Fifth Avenue mansion on and off before the end of the century; however the neighborhood was no longer fashionable and business buildings were crowding in around it.

The mansion was demolished in 1898, replaced by developer Leo Wise's 13-floor commercial building designed by Louis Korn, which survives.




Saturday, April 21, 2018

The 1898 Cushman Building - 1 Maiden Lane


A blank space and now-pointless brackets are all that remain of the stone balconies above the 8th floor on the Broadway side.  Those on Maiden Lane have been reduced to a flat slab.
As the 19th century waned Maiden Lane had become the epicenter of Manhattan's Jewelry District.  Among the tenants at No. 174 Broadway, at the northeast corner of Maiden Lane, was Frederick William Barthman, who went by his middle name.

Barthman's was a fascinating story.  Born in Hamburg in 1840, his father fled with him to Brazil during the 1848 German revolution.  Three years later, at the age of 11, William found himself orphaned and made his way to New York working as a cabin boy in a sailing ship.  Once here the boy found work as a jeweler's apprentice.

When civil war broke out he volunteered, attaining the rank of lieutenant under Ulysses S. Grant.  He married Eleanor M. Straat in 1864 and in 1873 formed the jewelry firm of Barthman & Straat, with his in-laws.  When he struck out on his own in 1883, he moved into No. 174 Broadway.

Now, in February 1896, it appeared he would have to find a new place of business.  The building was owned by the Cushman family, which had been in the real estate field for many decades.  The Cushman Estate offered the property at auction on February 21.  But bidding was tepid at best and the family withdrew the parcel when the bids stalled at $265,000--just under $8 million today.

William Barthman could not relax yet, though.  The Cushmans hired architect C. P. H. Gilbert to replace the old building.  His plans, filed in July the following year, called for a "brick and stone office building," which now took the side street address, No. 1 Maiden Lane.

On July 21 The Jewelers' Circular announced that "The tearing down of the old seven story brick building at the N.E. corner of Maiden Lane and Broadway, New York, will commence next week.  This building will be replaced by a magnificent 13 story structure, to be known as the Cushman building...It will be built of marble, brick and terra-cotta in the style of French Renaissance."


The Jewelers Review, April 12, 1899 (copyright expired)
Gilbert faced the building in mouse-gray brick trimmed in stone.  Expansive show windows faced Broadway.  The arched entrance on Maiden Lane, with its Beaux Arts carvings of vines and scrolls surrounding a realistic portrait face smacked more of a hotel than a business building (as, it could be argued, did the overall design).  Stone balconies clung to the ninth floor.  The top floor took the form of a copper clad hip roof with hefty dormers.

Apparently the Cushman Estate and its long-term tenant came to an amicable agreement, for when No. 1 Maiden Lane was completed in the spring of 1898, William Barthman was again a visible presence.  The ground floor jewelry store drew especial attention with the clock Barthman installed in the sidewalk.

Working with employee Frank Homm, it took Barthman two years to design the $700 timepiece.  It was installed in the pavement in the fall of 1899.  Several years later, in September 1906, The Technical World Magazine remarked "Perhaps the most novel device in time-recording instruments, its the sidewalk clock displayed in front of the store of William Barthman."  The article noted that "The works are under the pavement, and, instead of the time being indicated by a dial and hands, as in the ordinary clock, the hour and minute numbers revolve as in a panorama before an opening in the sidewalk."  The writer added "Thousands pass this clock every day, step on it, walk over it, many in their busy rush unconscious that they are tramping on time."

The Technical World Magazine, September 1905 (copyright expired)
Advertisements for the new building carried the headline "JEWELERS" and called it the "finest location in New York."  And, indeed, jewelry firms quickly signed leases.  Among the first to were J. P. Bowden & Co., F. W. Lewis & Co., and Emil P. Angot.

.J. B. Bowden & Co. was founded in 1843 by Joseph Bowden,  His son, Joseph B. Bowden, joined the firm in 1874 and son M. L. Bowden was admitted in 1878.  Following their father's death in 1890, the younger Bowdens continued the firm, with Joseph being the senior member.  Interestingly, the firm focused on just one main item--finger rings.

The Jewelers' Circular, November 1, 1893 (copyright expired)

F. W. Lewis & Co., headed by Fred W. Lewis, cut and sold "diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds," according to the Jewelers Review.  The magazine described the company's offices on April 12, 1899.  "This firm occupies offices on the third floor of the Cushman Building, 1 Maiden lane.  In appointments and fittings these offices are equal to any in New York, being of quartered oak, finished in fret work and antique Japanese iron work, allowing the free entrance of light as well as being very ornamental."

The offices of F. W. Lewis & Co. were described as "large and commodious."  The Jewelers Review, April 12, 1899 (copyright expired)

The article explained that the reception room was furnished with settees and the salesroom was "fitted with elegant counters and chairs."  Fred Lewis's own office was "decorated very tastefully with ancient statuary and works of art."
After The New York Times issued an editorial on November 1, 1899 entitled "Policemen at Crossings" which lambasted the traffic cop at the Cushman Building corner, Joseph B. Bowden came to his immediate defense.  In a letter to the editor that very day he said in part "It seems to me particularly unjust that a man who tried as hard as this one to do his full duty should be accused of negligence.  He is particularly active and renders excellent service at this point.  Such criticism is calculated to discourage the best men on the force."

Diamond dealer Emil P. Angot was a partner with Hubert Lontjens.  When Angot left the office on Friday night, April 26, 1901 he headed to the notorious Tenderloin District to relax.  It was a decision he would later regret.

According to Angot the following day, he went to Casan's bowling alley in the basement of 57 West 26th Street.  The term "bowling alley" was, perhaps, a stretch--newspapers preferred to call it a "saloon."  He met James M. Elliott there, the men had a few drinks together, then Elliott left.  But he later returned.  According to Angot, "In an hour and a half he came back and asked me to do a favor for him.  We went outside where he wanted me to buy him ten grains of morphine."

And for some reason, Angot agreed.  He went to a nearby druggist, but was told they would not sell less than a dram.  He told Elliott, who replied, "It's not for me, buy the whole dram."   So Angot returned, spending the 45 cents for the dram of morphine which he handed over to Elliott.

Angot told police ""After that we went into several saloons, drinking more.  I was trying to get his address all the time, as my sole object was to get him home.  Finally, we went into the Cairo Cafe on 29th Street, where we drank with some women.  One of them accompanied us to Martin Dowling's 29th Street and Sixth Avenue, where we had a drink."

While Angot was "busy talking to the woman," Elliott poured the morphine into his glass and drank it.  Angot knew what had happened by the white residue in the glass.  Things quickly went downhill for the jeweler's night out.

He and Elliott left the saloon and Elliott told him, "I feel queer."  Angot took him to Stein's drugstore on Sixth avenue and 27th Street, where Elliott lost consciousness.  According to Angot, he nervously waited for the ambulance, then went back to the saloon after Elliott was taken away.    The following morning he read of Elliott's death.

Respectable businessmen did not need their names publicized in connection with Tenderloin District saloons, loose women, drugs and suspicious deaths.  But Emil Angot immediately went to his lawyer.  Hours after Elliott's death Angot and attorney Bartow S. Weeks walked into Police Headquarters and reported the details.  He was arraigned for having purchased the "poison" which killed Elliott, and Edgar J. Howarth, the drugstore clerk, was arrested for selling it.

In an amazing turn of events, both men were released.  When the two men appeared before Magistrate Crane, Howarth insisted that the drugstore was not open that night.  Angot insisted it was.  Each, said The New York Times on April 29, 1901, was "equally emphatic."  The judge solved the standoff by discharging them both.

The Jewelers' Circular, November 22, 1899 (copyright expired)
P. L. Munford, a wholesale gem dealer, had space in the building by 1912.   Max Edwards walked into the shop in January that year, identifying himself as "a jewelry dealer and a member of a prominent Southern family," according to The New York Times later.  He walked out with $2,750 worth of gems on account and then promptly disappeared.

When he realized he had been duped, Munford put detectives on the case and an exhausting chase began.  On August 20 The Times reported "A general alarm was sent out for him, and detectives trailed him to Vancouver, B. C.; from there to Florida, and then to his home town, Edentown [N.C.]."  It was discovered that Edwards had "swindled many merchants out of large sums" in New York before skipping town.  He was extradited to Manhattan where he faced grand larceny and forgery charges.

On January 17, 1914 William Barthman died in his Brooklyn home.  His sons, Frederick William, Jr. and Henry, continued the business with William as senior partner.

Two months later the Barthmans and the other tenants in the Cushman Building nearly lost everything.  A fire broke out in the boiler room early on the morning of March 30.  Policeman Harris noticed flames shooting up the elevator shaft next to Barthman's ground floor store.  Newspaper reports the following day said Harris broke in the door and "found that the fire had cracked the panels of glass in the doorway of the elevator shaft up as far as five stories."  The Times added that the fire had "threatened...to destroy the entire building, which is occupied for the most part by jewelers and is filled with valuable gems."

In the fall of 1920 the D. A. Cushman Realty Co. sold the Cushman Building.  The transaction prompted the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide to note "The sale has an historic phase, as the direct ancestors of the present owners bought the parcel for 1,000 pounds sterling in the latter part of the 17th century."  The article added, "The present building was erected of particularly heavy construction for the jewelry trade."

The purchaser was long-time tenant William Barthman.  The firm placed bronze letters spelling out its name above the entrance, resulting in many New Yorkers today referring to the building as "the Barthman Building."


Jewelers continued to lease space in the Cushman Building.  At the time of the sale Jung & Klitz had its office here.  The firm proudly recalled that among its illustrious patrons had been "Diamond Jim" Brady, who routinely acquired his namesake gems from its store.  By now the firm was headed by Charles R. Jung.

Somewhat unexpectedly it was not the store of Jung & Klitz that was the target of burglers on April 23, 1921, but Jung's apartment.  While the family was at their country place in Lake Mahopac, New York, burglars entered the West 86th Street apartment and made off with "furs, silverware, and jewelry, valued at $9,000," according to police reports.   The heist would be equivalent to about $110,000 in today's dollars.

On November 22, 1930 three separate armed robberies resulted in the loss of $35,500 in gems and $2,500 in cash.  Two of the hold-ups took place in uptown jewelry stores and the third at No. 1 Maiden Lane.  But if the bandits had originally intended to hit a Cushman Building jeweler, they changed their minds to the more unlikely target of Ben Green's clothing store, instead.

Just before 6:00 three gunmen wearing handkerchiefs over their faces stormed in and held up the manager, three salesmen and four customers.  One of the thugs went to the tailoring room upstairs and brought down the eight tailors, adding them to the line-up.

One crook aimed his gun at the cashier, Lillian Larson and ordered her to open the cash register.  The Times reported that she "fainted after she had handed the money over to the men."  There was $2,500 in bills in the drawer.

The manager, Louis Liebow, made a brave move by bolting away and down the stairs.  The gunmen rushed after him, but when they heard him crying for police, they turned and ran in the opposite direction.

On September 17, 1935 F. William Barthman died in his Forest Hills, New York residence at the age of 70.  Six years later his brother, Henry (who, incidentally, had achieved the rank of Brigadier General and served in the Spanish-American War), died of a stroke in Miami, Florida.  He was 73.

On April 5, 1944 The New York Times reported that the title to the Cushman Building "pass from the hands of William Barthman to the One Maiden Lane Corporation."   Around the same time a long-standing issue with the sidewalk clock was addressed.  Frank Homm had originally maintained the clock, regulating it nearly every day.  With his death in 1917 his intimate knowledge of its workings were lost.  William C. Barthman replaced the unusual and temperamental mechanism with a standard dial-faced clock under heavy glass.

At the time of the title transfer, jewelers were migrating north, to what would become known as the Diamond District.  While some remained downtown, the Cushman building saw an increasingly diverse type of tenant, including rare stamp dealers C. I. Crowell, Inc.

Among those jewelers that did stay on with William Barthman was DeNatale Brothers, headed by Blase DeNatale.  It occupied the third floor.  That firm received an extraordinary honor in January 1952.  It had manufactured the jeweled crowns that would adorn the painting of Mary Queen of Peace in the Regina Pacis Votive Shrine in Brooklyn.  Now Blase DeNatale and his wife took the diamond-studded gold crowns to Rome where, accompanied by Monsignor Angelo R. Cioffi of the Regina Pacis Votive Shrine, they were received by Pope Pius XII.

The Pope blessed the items, which had significance beyond their religious and monetary value (they were insured for $100,000).  The Times reported on January 13, 1952 "The gold, diamonds and other jewels, were provided during the war by 12,000 parishioners of the Regina Pacis Votive Shrine."

William C. Barthman died on July 1, 1968, at the age of 73.   The William Barthman jewelry store, however, kept going in the corner space it had occupied for more than seven decades.

Blase DeNatale received notice from the Homes Protective Company on May 10, 1970 that a burglar alarm had been tripped.  A Holmes guard had gone to the location and found the street door to the building locked and no evidence of a break-in.    DeNatale went to the office and was no doubt initially relieved to find all four safes secured.  But when the safes were unlocked, he found about $200,000 in jewelry and precious stones missing.  "Investigators were unable to explain how the theft was accomplished," reported The New York Times.

The address had an unexpected and somewhat shocking tenant in the 1980's.    The Wall Street Sauna was one of several homosexual bathhouses throughout the city.  Because of its location, it catered mostly to a daytime business clientele, unlike its late-night counterparts further north.  When the AIDS epidemic began slaughtering Manhattan's gay population, City officials closed many of the bathhouses because of "unsafe sexual practices."  Two years after the first baths were closed, the City still had the Wall Street Sauna within its sights; but it and three others remained open.

On May 2, 1987 health officials announced, perhaps begrudgingly, that they "have found no violations to warrant their closing."  It did not stop them from, nevertheless, from publicizing the names and addresses.

When the World Trade Center Towers collapsed on the morning of September 11, 2001, the impact blew out the show windows and door of William Barthman.  Sadly, over the following three days--while most New Yorkers joined together in solidarity and mourning--thieves looted the store.  A full restoration was completed before Christmas and the store was in operation again.

In 2004 what The New York Daily News called a "gay sex club" here was shut down by the City.  Bad news coverage came again in October 2012 when undercover detectives uncovered a brothel operating from an upper floor.



Despite its few bouts with unflattering publicity, C. P. H. Gilbert's French Renaissance-style  Cushman Building still commands attention on the highly visible corner; and the Barthman sidewalk clock still ticks out the time under the feet of unnoticing tourists and brokers.

photographs by the author

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Howard T. Kingsbury House - 116 East 70th Street



The house originally matched the brownstone partially seen at the right.

In 1869, the year that developer Christopher Keyes was completing five brownstone houses on East 70th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, Congressman Hervey C. Calkin was embarking on his two-year term as a U.S. Representative to Congress.  Upon his return to New York in 1871, he would purchase one of them, No. 116.

Designed by the obscure architect James Santon, the houses at Nos. 108 through 116 were four stories tall above high English basements; designed in the quickly-waning Italianate style.  Classically-inspired triangular pediments capped the parlor floor openings.  The top floors took the form of stylish mansard roofs, covered with multi-colored slate shingles, above robust cast cornices.

Hervey Chittenden Calkin had married Violette Adeline Brant in 1852 and the couple had two children.  Although he did not run for reelection, he remained a visible figure in Tammany dealings.  But his interests went far beyond politics.

Born in Malden, New York on March 23, 1828, he received a public education and moved to New York City at the age of 19 to work in an iron works.  In 1852 he went into the plumbing and copper trades with his brother.  An athlete, he was active in the new American sport of baseball and appears to have been one of the organizers of the Brooklyn Eckfords in 1855.  By 1857 he was listed as a vice-president of the club.

Hervey Crittenden Calkin -- from the collection of the Library of Congress
During his term in Congress he was a vocal advocate for American shipbuilding, complaining in one speech in particular about the enormous expenditures for British-built vessels.  That interest seems to have followed him to East 70th Street and in 1871 he applied for a patent for a life raft.  His ingenious design incorporated two wood-plank decks between cylindrical metal floats--a predecessor of sorts of a modern pontoon raft.  It was designed so that it did not matter which side landed up when thrown into the water.

Calkin returned to his former business activities, to local politics, and to baseball (he was still pitching as late as 1893).  He and Violetta remained in the house until the spring of 1881 when they sold it to Philip Pfeiffer and his wife, Johanna, for about $530,000 in today's dollars.

Born in Bavaria, Pfeiffer had come to America around 1838 and rose to become what The New York Times would described as "one of the largest wholesale clothing merchants in the city."  Like Calkin's, his was an uphill struggle.  He started out as a peddler, later opening a general store in the South.   By the time he returned to New York he was successful enough to open his wholesale clothing store.

He and Johanna had eight children--four daughters and four sons.  Three years after moving into No. 116 he retired.  But his new-found quietude seemed threatened in 1887 when the New York and Long Island Bridge Company proposed an elevated railroad that would run up the enter of Park Avenue.  He joined a long list of other property owners who signed a petition on May 5 that declared the plan would cause "very great injury and enormous deprecation in value."

In the fall of 1898 Pfeiffer, now 85 years old, caught pneumonia.  He died in the house early on the morning of October 5, and his funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Johanna almost immediately sold No. 116 to prominent builder Michael Reid.

Reid was born in Ireland in 1833 and arrived in New York on the S.S. Constitution on April 20, 1854.   Reid's father, also named Michael, and his mother followed the next year.  Michael Sr. was a mason and it was most likely he, rather than his 21-year old son, who founded the construction firm of M. Reid & Co. in 1857.

It was around this time that the younger Michael married Margaret Kelly.  Before her death in 1872 at the age of 30 they had had six children together. Michael soon married Mary Ann McCormick and the couple would increase the family with another five children.   Mary Ann died in 1892 at the age of 37, leaving Michael widowed for the second time and the single father of nearly a dozen children.

Before moving into No. 116 Reid made extensive alterations, designed by himself.  He removed the stoop and moved the entrance to just below the sidewalk level.  This enabled him to increase the square footage of the former parlor and second floors by installing a copper-faced bowed bay supported by dainty iron columns.  The Victorian window enframements were toned-down, the cornice streamlined, and while the polychrome shingles of the mansard were kept, the dormers were not.


Reid's concern for the upscale character of the block seems to be evidenced in a "building restriction agreement" he entered into in 1900, with the owners of Nos. 118 through 122, plus his own.  The vague wording in the Real Estate Record & Guide did not specify terms of the agreement "each with the other;" but most likely obstructed the use of the houses for commercial purposes.

The Reid family's large summer home was in Far Rockaway, when that area of Queens was still a village.  Here the builder, deemed by the Real Estate Record & Guide "a good judge of horseflesh," stabled his thoroughbreds.   Although some of his animals were well-known, like Willie E, Thurley, and Farmer, he never exhibited or raced them.  The Guide said "He always explained that he owned horses for the pleasure driving gave him--not for publicity."

Reid's significant wealth came from impressive contracts like the construction of the Morgan Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906 and of eleven Carnegie Libraries.  When he incorporated his firm in 1906, Reid brought his son, John F. Reid, in as a junior member.  One by one all of Reid's sons would join the firm.

In reporting on the completion of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1911, The New York Architect noted "Mr. John F. Reid, who had charge of the construction of the Ritz, has shown by the results obtained, his particular fitness for the branch of the business."  The article added "The work of M. Reid & Co. has always been recognized by architects as of the highest order."

Among the last of the children to wed was Anna, who married Arthur Kenedy in Far Rockaway on October 1, 1912.  A reception was held in the Reid house afterward. 

It appears the newlyweds moved in with her aging father, for less than six years later, on May 9, 1918, Anna died in the East 70th Street house.  It would not be the only death in the house that year.  On December 11 Michael Reid died at the age of 86 after a short illness.  In reporting his death the Record & Guide noted he had built "hundreds of private residences and scores of big office buildings."

John F. Reid sold No. 116 to Colonel Howard Thayer Kingsbury in 1920.   He was married to the former Alice Cary Bussing, and the two had already had a colorful life.  It all started just before their wedding in 1902.

Two days before the wedding, on Saturday night, April 19, Howard held his farewell bachelor dinner at the University Club.  All of the ushers, of course, were there, including Joseph Holden Sutton.   Following the dinner Sutton went to his room at the Hotel Manhattan where the wedding party was staying and wrote 21 letters.

Busboys delivered the letters to each of the recipients the following morning, including each of the ushers.  The contents were alarming.  They announced his suicide by saying "I have been going crazy for some time and I have felt ill.  Good-bye."  His timing might have been better thought-out, since the suicide put a decided pall over the wedding ceremonies.

Unknown to most in society, Alice was not the daughter of Emma F. Bussing.  When she was just a few days old Emma and her husband had taken her in and raised her.  There were no general adoption laws in New York at the time.  Mr. Bussing died in 1905 and his will described Alice as his daughter.

After New York enacted adoption laws, Emma sought to protect Alice by adopting her on February 9, 1916; even though she was about 45 years old and had been married for 14 years.   Emma died on June 30, 1918 leaving her entire estate to "my daughter," Alice Kingsbury.  But in 1920, the year the Kingsburys purchased No. 116, Emma's relatives went to court.  Shockingly today, they managed to overturn the will and Alice was left with nothing.
The New York Times, June 5, 1937
The Yale-educated Kingsbury was a well-established attorney, having been with the firm of Coudert Bros. since 1900.   He and Alice had two children, Howard Jr. (familiarly known as "Ox"), and Ruth.  They maintained a summer estate, "Rivombra," on Long Island.  And while Kingsbury was an authority on international and military law (he was Judge Advocate for the New York National Guard for 15 years), his interests extended to the arts as well.   In fact, it was Kingsbury who had translated Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac into English in 1898.

Kingsbury's legal interests transcended military and international law.  He recognized an injustice in American citizenship laws shortly after moving into the 70th Street house.  At that time, if an American women married an alien, she lost her citizenship.  Kinsbury, with members of the National Women's Party, addressed the House Immigration Committee on March 23, 1926 urging that the law be reformed and those women be re-naturalized. 

Howard Jr. had been an outstanding athlete at Yale University, where he was captain of the rowing team until his graduation in 1926.  So accomplished was he, in fact, that he took time off from school to participate as a member of the U.S. Rowing Team in the 1924 Olympics, bringing home a gold medal.   He then studied at Oxford University and rowed with the Oxford crew in a well-publicized race against Cambridge in 1927.

In the meantime, Ruth was educated in the Spence and Wheeler Schools, and made her debut into New York society at the Colony Club in December 1925.  The house was the scene of the wedding breakfast and reception following her marriage to Frank Ford Russell in St. James's Church on May 26, 1928.   And while the event garnered significant newspaper coverage, it was way the couple left for their honeymoon that caused headlines.

The groom was the son of  Frank H. Russell, a vice president and general manager of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company.   At a time when newlyweds boarded yachts, ocean liners or touring cars for their trips, Ruth and Frank boarded a private airplane.  The following day The New York Times reported that the newlyweds left "in an airplane furnished by the Curtiss flying service, for a destination which they would not revel even to the pilot before they entered the cabin."

Moored near Rivombra was the Kingsbury yacht, the Southwind.  The family's lavish lifestyle was reflected in an article in Motor Boating magazine in December 1930,  "Col. Kingsbury, after a very arduous week in court and being completely fagged out with an excessive period of heat in New York City, relaxed in a comfortable deck chair after changing from his business suit to yachting togs.  Mrs. Kingsbury reclined on the chaise longue, apparently absorbed in a French novel, but in fact very much alert to the movements of her pet Pekingese, Toki, who was playing on the spacious after deck with a rope-end."

In the pages-long article, the writer meticulously described the luxurious amenities of the Southwind, including the menu.  The Steward, it said, "had prepared a delightful lunch from his well stocked larder; bouillon cup, cold cuts of chicken and tongue, fresh string beans, mashed potatoes, egg and tomato salad, with a tempting tumbler of iced coffee topped off with bannana [sic] jello submerged in whipped cream."

Howard Jr. was married to Ellen Munroe Wales in October 1931; and Ruth died on November 31, 1933, just five years after her wedding.

Howard Thayer Kingsbury died in the 70th Street house on June 5, 1937 at the age of 67.  In reporting on his death The New York Times mentioned "He served as counsel to the Transit Commission in 1921, and 1922.  After the World War he represented British interests, including the government, as counsel in a number of cases in this country."

By the mid-1940s Howard Jr. was leasing the house to a close friend and business associate, Timothy J. Mulcare.  He and his wife, Lillian, had two daughters, Frances and Eileen, and a son, John.   Eileen was married on June 21, 1947 and her sister married James Alexander Phelan on October 31, 1953.

Oddly, following Timothy Mulcare's death in the house on March 7, 1957, his obituary did not mention any survivors.  Instead it simply described him as "for many years the faithful and trusted friend and employe[e] of Howard T. Kingsbury."

Howard retained ownership of the house until 1966.   Major interior renovations were done around 2005, when it was purchased by Susan Soros Weber, the former wife of billionaire George Soros,  She sold it in 2014 for a staggering $31 million.

The new buyer attempted to make a quick profit, putting the house back on the market the following year for $33 million.   There were no takers.  The price was reduced to $28 million, then $27, million, then in May 2016 to $22 million.   Despite its lavish interiors--real estate listings described five bedrooms, a 26-foot deep garden, a"glass-domed breakfast room," two terraces, and a celebrity next door neighbor (Woody Allen)--no one seemed interested.

Finally in November 2016 No. 116 sold for $19 million, a $12 million loss for the seller.

Despite all that, the Kingsbury house, with its distinctive copper bay, is a standout on the architecturally captivating block.

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1891 Garfield Flats - 104 Forsyth Street


A coat of chocolate-colored paint covered the checkerboard terra cotta tiles and polished stone columns of the first floor.
A North Carolinian, Lt. Colonel Benjamin Forsyth was based in New York State during the War of 1812.  He was killed in action in June 1814 and became a hero in both his native state and in New York.  North Carolina named Forsyth County after him and in 1817 New York City changed the name of an eight-block stretch of 2nd Street to Forsyth Street.

The block of Forsyth Street between Broome and Grand Streets would be lined with prim brick-faced Federal style homes.  No. 104,  was a 25-foot wide, two-and-a-half story home with a wooden dwelling behind.  (In the rear yards of nearly each house on the block was be a small building--either a second house, a stable or a shop.)

The quiet residential block began to change in the years before the Civil War as thousands of immigrants poured into the Lower East Side.  Between 1859 and 1880 the number of Jews who settled in New York City had doubled--from 40,000 to 80,000.  Little Forsyth Street saw the construction of several synagogues, and private houses were either demolished to be replaced by tenements, or were converted to shops.

No. 104 had a store on the first floor in January 1890 when Albert Stake bought the property.  While he lived on Staten Island, he made his livelihood in Manhattan, buying and selling real estate as well as insurance.

Stake wasted no time in setting his plans for the Forsyth Street property in motion.  Twelve days after the purchase architect A. I. Finkle filed plans for a five-story "brick and stone flat" to cost $17,000, or about $475,000 today.

Mostly forgotten today, Finkle was busy in the 1880's and '90's designing, for the most part, tenement buildings.   Aimed at low income families, the buildings offered little in amenities but were often lavished on the outside with overblown ornamentation.  Finkle did not disappoint with his design for No. 104, and threw in a heavy splash of patriotism and sentiment.

Nearly a decade had elapsed since the assassination of President James A. Garfield, but public emotions were still strong.  Stake dubbed his building The Garfield and Finkle announced its name in a flowing banner in the pressed metal cornice, along with a patriotic shield.



A centered stone stoop let to the entrance under a portico upheld by polished stone columns.  A quilt of Queen Anne style terra cotta tiles graced the upper portion of the first floor facade.  Finkle did not hold back on the succeeding levels.  A burst of colors and materials graced the second floor--brownstone, limestone, terra cotta, and brick.  Winged faces upheld floating pairs of Corinthian pilasters, the tympana above the windows were decorated with delicate vines, and the spandrels were filled with multicolored tiles.  Carved Renaissance Revival panels formed the bases of the three-story piers above, which terminated in terra cotta Corinthian capitals.

Albert Stark was an operator, not a landlord, and as soon as the building was completed he sold it, in February 1891, to Frederick J. Seelig for $45,500--a hefty $1.25 million today.

The basement level contained two stores, one on either side of the stoop, with living space behind.  H. S. Eisler opened his "houshold furniture" store in 1891; and Victor Cohen moved his family and shoe shop into the other.

Colorful tiles and carved angel heads on the outside could not change the fact that life on the inside of tenements was often miserable.  Apartments were either drafty and cold in the winter or stiflingly hot in the summer.  There was no hot water if there was running water at all, and sanitary conditions were poor.  And landlords were notoriously cold-hearted.

The landlady of No. 104 in 1895 was Sarah Davis.  She grew impatient when Victor Cohen fell behind on his rent.  Cohen and his wife had five children, the youngest just a year and a half old.  After running his shoe store here for nearly four years, business had dropped off.  Sarah David ordered the family out.

She hung a "To Let" sign on the storefront and rented the space to another tenant.  Cohen was told he had to be out by February 1.  But his youngest child was seriously ill and a doctor warned against moving him.  When the family was still there on the first of February, Sarah was enraged.

What happened next prompted The Evening World to run the headline "DYING CHILD EVICTED / Sad Case of Victor Cohen, a Poor Cobbler."   The article told that Sarah Davis got a dispossession notice from the court giving the Cohens five days to move out.  Fearful of moving the boy and with nowhere to go, they stayed.  Sarah took her next move.

"The next day Marshal Hirschfield evicted him, although Dr. Shenkman said it would be dangerous to take the child out of doors," reported the article.  Neighbors took the family in until Cohen was able to find rooms nearby on Hester Street.

In 1899 Bennett & G signed a lease for one of the stores.  The firm ran a string of soda fountains around the city.  The Bennett & G soda fountain would remain for several years.

In the meantime, things had not improved for tenants who were paying about $13 a month rent (around $390 in today's dollars) for three rooms.  On May 4, 1900 the Tenement House Commission made an "inspection tour" of Lower East Side buildings.  The inspectors found that there were no hallway lights in No. 104 Forsyth Street, in violation of city law.  "Tenants have to grope along it and stumble as best they may up the staircase," reported The New York Times.

Among those who groped along the hallways was John Sullivan.  While others in the building made their living as blue collar laborers or tailors and such, Sullivan preferred an easier method--robbery.  Around 1:00 in the morning on November 13, 1901 he and two cronies, John Shea and Frank Lynch, saw a lone sailor at the corner of New Chambers and Oak Streets.  They attacked, knocking him to the ground.  While two held him down the other went through his pockets and took all the money he had--25 cents.  The New-York Tribune reported "They then gave him several kicks and went on their way."

The sailor, Swan C. Carlsen, did not call for a policeman (despite being only steps from the 5th Precinct Station House).  Instead he following the Irish toughs from a safe distance.  Just as they reached Catherine and Cherry Streets, Henry Moore walked out of Andy Horn's saloon.  He became their second victim.

"They knocked him down and were going through his pockets when his yells reached the ears of Detective Hahn and Patrolman Frank Sheridan," who were around the corner.  The officers ran to the scene where "a desperate struggle ensued."  The Tribune happily reported "The highwaymen were subdued."  Swan Carlsen went to the station house both as a complainant and a victim.  John Sullivan and his cohorts were charged with highway robbery.

G. Sucher moved his barber shop into one of the basement stores in 1903 and, like the soda fountain, would remain for years.

The conditions upstairs were no better, or perhaps were worse, than they had been.  In 1907 the owner was ordered to correct conditions which made the building a "public nuisance."  The catch-all phrase often referred to foul odors, garbage, rats and vermin, or other conditions that made the property a problem to the neighborhood.

Behind No. 104 was the Eldridge Street Police Station.  On the afternoon of Friday, March 12, 1910 officers were playing handball in the yard of the station house when a fire in Minnie Brennsilber's kitchen on the second floor erupted.  The men looked up to see flames licking out of the apartment window and jumped the fence.

Patrolman Martin Owen was the first to enter the burning building.  The New York Times reported "Owen rushed to the second-floor hall, and, bursting into the apartment of Mrs. Minnie Brennsilber, found her and her two young children cowed with fright."  The way down was blocked by flames, so Owen headed up.  He grabbed the youngsters and directed their mother to follow to the roof.  There he took them to the roof of the building next door.

In the meantime, Officer August Schimp had brought 60-year old Rose Flitzer to the roof.  The two policemen went back into No. 104.   On the third floor the heat burst a window and the resulting back draft overtook the men.  With their uniform coats ablaze they managed to scramble back to the roof where they fell unconscious.  They were found by other policemen who carried them to the street.

At the same time, a fireman from Truck 6 was "found staggering through a lower hallway, almost overcome by smoke, but was revived by an ambulance surgeon," according to the newspaper.  Another responder, policeman John Stanford, dodged serious injury when a blazing mattress thrown from an upper window landed on him.  Another policeman managed to push the mattress aside before it could burn Stanford.

Both Officer Schimp and Owen were honored for their bravery the following year by the mayor and police commissioner.

Close inspection reveals the once colorful tiles, now significantly damaged, and the quirky winged faces.
Hyman Grossman moved his grocery store into the basement of the repaired building.  He found himself in trouble in November 1911 when health food inspectors fined him $100 for violating the pure food laws.  The New York Times reported the fine was "for having bad milk."

World War I had a personal effect on at least one family in The Garfield.  Six residents of Forsyth Street were drafted on the same day in March 1918, including Samuel Wasserman who lived at No. 104.  The men were ordered to leave "for Camp" on April 3.

One tenant of The Garfield was not enthusiastic about his military service.  On June 9, 1921 the War Department published its list of "draft deserters."  Included was Leib Merkin of No. 104 Forsyth Street.

A grisly discovery was found in front of The Garfield on July 28, 1956.  Police had been looking for Frances DiZinno's 1955 Buick sedan since it was reported stolen the night before.  At around 8:30 Detectives Edgar Brennan and Joseph Byrnes spotted the car parked in front of No. 104.

"When the detectives opened the door of the car they were assailed by an unpleasant odor," reported The New York Times.  "On the floor of the rear seat was an unwieldy tarpaulin bundle tied with heavy cord in a way that indicated to them that it contained a human body.  When they opened the trunk compartment they found an even larger bundle, wedged against the spare tire."

Before long the street was filled with Homicide Squad detectives, the Police Department mobile laboratory truck, and officials from the Medical Examiner's office.  "Meanwhile crowds of excited residents of the densely populated area made Forsyth Street impassable," said the article.

The bodies were identified by fingerprints as two of the three men wanted by the FBI for jumping bail in a fur hijacking case.   James Joseph Roberto was a former prizefighter known as Jimmy Russo, and the other was Richard Michael Langone.  Both had been killed by ax blows to the head and had been dead for as long as three days.

As the search intensified for the third defendant, Louis Joseph Musto, a shocking twist in the case came to the surface.   James T. Ryan had joined the New York Police Department on February 1, 1947 and was promoted to detective in January 1949.  Then, in November 1955 he was demoted to patrolman "for the good of the service."  Now, three days after the bodies were discovered, he was pulled off his post and arrested for receiving stolen property in connection with the fur heists.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the Forsyth Street neighborhood, once filled with German Jews, then Italians, was increasingly becoming part of New York's Chinatown. 

Nevertheless, Seymour Anczelowitz operated his store, Sy's New and Used Clothing, at No. 104 here in 1982.  Just before 1:00 on the afternoon of January 31 that year a man and a woman came into the store and told the 47-year old he was being held up.  Whether Anczelowitz fought back or not is unclear; but the crooks shot him in the head.  They escaped with as much as $2,000 in cash.  Anczelowitz was taken to Bellevue Hospital in critical condition, where he later died.


Despite its often sketchy history, the suffering of its early tenants, and the unfortunate coat of brown paint on the stone and tile of the first floor, A. I. Finkle's patriotic and exuberant Garfield is still an attention grabber.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Soon to Go - McMahon's Oyster House 499 3rd Avenue


Behind the orange-painted stucco is the 1850 clapboard house.

Broker E. H. Brown's office was at No. 71 Wall Street when he began construction of his rather modest home at No. 499 Third Avenue in 1850.   It was barely completed when he offered it for sale.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on January 21, 1851 said the 24-foot wide house "has Croton water throughout, and [is] in every respect well built."  The advertisement noted it had been "finished by the present owner for his own occupation, and sold because of a change in business."

The mention of "Croton water throughout" referred to running water; a significant convenience in the first half of the 19th century.  Whether Brown decided to sell because of a "change in business" is debatable.  He was still carrying on business in the same office for several more years.

The two-story wooden house was quickly renovated with a business on the ground floor.  George Ricardo was issued his innkeeper's license on July 21, 1857.   It cost him $30.

By 1861 the restaurant-saloon was called The National, run by John Sherman, who was also the secretary of the Empire City Regatta Club.   In reporting on the club's upcoming "rowing regatta" The New York Clipper added on September 7, 1861, "The club meets every Saturday evening at the National, 499 3d Avenue."

In 1875 the Coutant family--brothers John S. and Thomas J., and their sisters Emily T. and Elizabeth J.--purchased nearly the entire eastern Third Avenue blockfront between 33rd and 34th Streets, including No. 499.    Architect James E. Ware was commissioned to add a rear extension and alter the front.  It was most likely Ware's update--which cost the Coutants $3,500--that resulted in the Eastlake style window treatments and updated cornice.

The geometric, toothy decorations of the window cornices were up-to-the-minute in the 1870's.
A much more significant change was to come.  At the time Walter Silsbe and his son ran an oyster saloon at the corner of 33rd Street.  In 1880 Silsbe purchased No. 499, putting the title in the name of his wife, Hannah.  Before he moved his restaurant, he jacked up the wooden house and built an additional floor under it.  "I spent improving that property probably $1,200," he recalled in 1895.

Following the death of Silsbe's son in 1887, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "Silsbe's Oyster Saloon" had been rented to Terence McMahon for $3,000 a year.   The McMahon family moved into the upper floors and little Willie was enrolled in P.S. No. 16.  Although the lease was for 5-1/2 years, an early agreement was reached and on June 2, 1890 McMahon paid the Silsbes $30,000 for the house and business--nearly $835,000 today.

The New York Times later described McMahon's Oyster and Chop House saying "The floor was luxuriously carpeted and the tables and chairs were of solid mahogany.  In the center of the restaurant was a large fish tank which usually contained about 200 fish of varying size and species."

A disagreement with a waiter landed an off-duty policeman in hot water in the fall of 1889.  Roundsman Thomas Cassidy of the 21st Precinct had dinner with a friend on the evening of Friday October 27.   He got into a quarrel with the waiter, Hugh Kane, over what The New York Times described as "a trivial matter connected with the meal."   After finishing he ordered brandy and, after paying for it, arrested Kane "for violation of the excise law on the ground that McMahon's license was only for the sale of beer and light wines."

Terence McMahon was close on the heels of the pair.  At the station house he not only provided his liquor license that proved Kane had done nothing illegal; but complained to the Inspector that his arrest "was actuated by malice" and described the argument that led to the arrest.  The tables were now turned and the Inspector ordered a complaint filed against the policeman.

In 1895, when Terence McMahon took the Manhattan Railway Company to court over the Third Avenue Elevated train, he gave a superb description of his property.  "The building has two floors over the store.  It is made of wood, except the extension...The back part, the extension part, the walls are brick; the front part is wood.  The ground floor is a store.  There are two stories over that used for dwellings.  I occupy those myself.  There is a cellar used for coal and stuff...The store is used for a restaurant.  The upper floors are used by myself as apartments for myself and my family."

McMahon's complaint with the Railroad was the platform it built directly in front of his oyster saloon.  He complained to the court that even on the brightest days he had to burn "from four to six, and sometimes twelve to sixteen lights in the middle of the day."  In addition, "Sometimes there is quite a bad smell.  If we leave our windows open there is quite a quantity of dust and cinders [which] blow in there."

Despite the cinders, noise and shadows of the elevated train, McMahon's Oyster and Chop House was a favorite meeting and dining spot for politicians and judges.  Mayors George B. McClellan and Seth Low were regulars, as were Tammany Hall bigwigs Richard Croker and Charles F. Murphy.

Terence McMahon died in 1900.  Although his will suggested that the property be sold, it gave his widow a life tenancy.  The family decided to continue the business until 1911 when the restaurant was leased to Peter and Ida M. Maucher.

McMahon's widow continued to live upstairs until her death in 1936, leaving the property to her four sons.  Through the years the old restaurant space had been used for a variety of different purposes. A layer of stucco now disguised the clapboards.  When the family put the property on the market in order to settle their mother's estate in 1938, Lee E. Cooper of The New York Times waxed nostalgic, saying it "deserves a bit more than cursory notice."

"For one thing," said Cooper, "the three-story building itself is of frame and stucco, and frame structures are becoming rare in Manhattan...But the history of occupancy of the building is of more romantic interest."

The article recalled how "the little structure was raised to three stories" by George Silesbe, whom it said "will be remembered by some old-time New Yorkers as the 'wholesale oyster man' who also conducted an oyster and chop house in the Third Avenue property."   Turning to the McMahon years Cooper added "Theodore Roosevelt is said to have been host at a dinner here to nearly a score of his Rough Riders shortly after the Spanish-American War."

The little anachronistic building changed hands several times over the succeeding decades.  The former oyster saloon was home to the Columbia Lighting showroom in the 1970's and '80's; then became Blockheads Mexican restaurant in 1997.  The eatery was a neighborhood staple until it was forced to close in 2017.

In July 2016  Extell Development had announced plans to build a 13-story mixed-used building on the site of No. 501 and 499 Third Avenue.   In March 2018 demolition permits were granted, signaling the end of the 168-year history of the little wooden  house.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The 1904 Hotel Walton - 104 West 70th Street


One of the most important design elements, the elaborate cornice, is conspicuously absent.
At the turn of the last century developer Elizabeth A. Wilcox held her own among her male counterparts.  She was responsible for erecting large office buildings and hotels, most often working with builder Ranald H. Macdonald & Co.

In May 1903 the two teamed up for another project--the Hotel Walton on the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue and West 70th Street.  Elizabeth's architects, Israels & Harder, filed plans for a "12-story apartment hotel" to cost $600,000--a significant $17.2 million today.

Completed the following year, the architects' toned down design was a bit of a surprise.  At a time when other Beaux Arts-style residence hotels were overladen with a profusion swags and wreaths and other frothy decorations, the Hotel Walton was shockingly restrained.  Its red brick facade above the two-story stone base included limited stone embellishments.  Two-story copper clad projecting bays graced the fifth and sixth floors, adding interest and dimension.

Nevertheless, Israel & Harder let loose Beaux Arts resplendence on the entrance (located on the side street).   Carved bell flowers dripped from the banding of the double-height fluted Corinthian columns of the entrance.  A French-railed balcony sat on scrolled brackets, and a feathery fan filled the semi-round pediment.   Eleven stories above, the elaborate metal cornice sat on heavy brackets.



Ranald H. Macdonald defended the scaled back decoration in June 1908.  He told a journalist from The Real Estate Record & Guide, "The exterior of the building is certainly plain, but I consider it in good taste.  It is not so expensive as some in the city, but the result of giving people something worth while for their money has borne fruit.  I believe there is a waiting list of about forty families desiring to rent suites there."

Residence hotels like the Walton were designed to relieve well-to-do families of the necessity of maintaining a large domestic staff.  Meals could be taken in a common dining room and the building management provided basic services like cleaning, "hall boys" (who delivered packages and handled small chores), and such.   Families could make do with a single maid in most cases.

The Hotel Walton was designed with income-producing stores along Columbus Avenue.  A handsome cornice finished the design.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The tenants of the Hotel Walton were financially comfortable, if not wealthy.  Among the early occupants was Althea Randolph Bedle, the widow of former New Jersey Governor Joseph D. Bedle.   Her grown sons had both gone into the legal profession.  Randolph had graduated from Princeton University and was a practicing lawyer, and Joseph was a former judge.

Althea suffered some public embarrassment in December 1910.  A year earlier she had been concerned that Randolph had a drinking problem.  Therefore, on October 6, 1909 she and Joseph had him committed to the New Jersey State Asylum for the Insane in Morris Plains.  Their belief was that "the close confinement there would assist in saving him from a too strong craving for alcoholic liquors."

Randolph felt otherwise.  He pleaded with friends to help in his release and told Robert O'Donnell, for instance, "Because I drank too much fourteen months ago is not a good reason for keeping me locked up with lunatics.  During the first few days I was a prisoner here I was ill from the effects of the drinking I had done.  As soon as I recovered I realized that unless I was released I was doomed to a living death of horrors."

Randolph's friends rallied to his cause and hired lawyer Alexander Simpson to fight for his release.  Newspapers in several states carried the story as the case played out in court and the Bedles' good name was loosely linked with insanity and alcoholism.

Pianist and writer Harriette Moore Brower lived in the Hotel Walton at the time.  The wrote the column "Page for Pianists" in The Musician and contributed articles to Musical America.  Eventually she would publish ten books, like The Art of the Pianist and Home Help in Music Study.

The rent for the least expensive apartment listed in this 1915 would be equal to about $1,050 a month today.  New-York Tribune, September 12, 1915 (copyright expired)
Nobel McConnell was a partner with his brother in the dry goods commission agency Edward A. McConnell & Co.  But it was his wife, the former Adelaide Dorn, who drew attention.  Adelaide held a physician's degree; although she does not appear to have ever practiced nor used her title.  Instead, she focused on philanthropy and music.

She was the founder and president of the New York Mozart Society, which staged concerts and musicales that often featured some of the most recognized soloists in the country.  Possibly to maintain enthusiasm among the younger members she hosted a monthly dance during the winter seasons.   On October 29, 1916, for instance, The Sun reported "Mrs. Noble McConnell will resume her monthly dance for the choral members, bachelor girls, junior cabinet and ushers of the New York Mozart Society, of which she is president, on the first Wednesday in December at Bretten Hall."

Adelaide McConnell was a visible presence in the Hotel Walton.  Musical Courier, December 25, 1919 (copyright expired)

The McConnell's country residence was upstate and that particular winter season they kept it open.  Although they were back in the Hotel Walton, The Sun noted "but [they] will keep their country home at Scarsdale open throughout the winter and will entertain week end parties there."

Another colorful resident was Colonel N. B. Thurston of the 74th New York Regiment.  Thurston had enlisted in the National Guard in 1877 and saw action in the Spanish-American War.  He assumed command of the 13th Regiment of the Coast Artillery in June, 1914.  In 1902 he had been appointed First Deputy Police Commissioner by Mayor Seth Low.

Rather surprisingly, given his age, he was sent to the Mexican border after President Woodrow Wilson ordered 117,000 National Guardsmen to reinforce U.S. Army garrisons along the border line in 1916.  His wife received devastating news on September 9.  Major George H. Robinson's succinct telegram read "Thurston died tonight of dysentery.  Every one broken-hearted."

In 1910 Manuel Quevedo, Sr. was appointed Cuba's vice-consul in New York City.  He partnered eight years later with his son, Manuel Quevedo, Jr. and J. A. Arroyo to form the Havana Hotel Corporation.  On June 22 that year The Hotel World reported that the new group had taken over the lease of the Hotel Walton and purchased its furniture and equipment.

Little changed in the operation of the Hotel Walton under the Cuban organization.  It did, however, become home to notable Cuban nationals who split their time between New York and their homeland.  Among them was Gabriel Menocal, who owned sugar plantations and a cattle ranch.  The brother of former Cuban President Mario Garcia Menocal, he was here with his wife, Marie, and five children in the winter of 1922.  Four days after he contracted influenza on February 9 the 53-year old died in his apartment.

On June 30 that year 35-year old George Hill entered the dining room of the Hotel Walton with another man and two women.  When their meal was nearly over, Hill called over the head waiter, Alexander Haggis, flashed a shield, and identified himself as a Prohibition agent.  He pointed to the two drinks sitting on the table.

The waiter staunchly denied he had served the drinks, and later told Haggis he had seen Hill remove a flask from his pocket and pour the whisky himself.  As Hill wrote out two summonses, the two waiters continued to protest their innocence.  Then the agent "indicated that everything might be 'fixed up' for $200."

Unwilling to be bullied into paying for a crime that was not committed, Haggis and the Hotel Walton management went to authorities.   As it turned out, Hill was not a Government employee at all.  He was arrested at his home on Amsterdam Avenue on the night of August 26, charged with extortion and impersonating a Federal agent.  The following day The New York Herald reported "in about twenty cases [he] got money from waiters by similar threats."

In 1928 Cuba President Geraldo Machado brought an end to the republic by declaring himself the only legal candidate, thereby ensuring his uncontested election.   His dictatorial actions, including the assassination of revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, led to a revolt in 1933.

Albert Barreras had been President of the Cuba Senate and was a close friend of the ousted dictator.  He and his family left Havana for their safety.  When his daughter, Sofia, and her husband Carlos Montalvo arrived in New York on August 24, 1933, they moved into the Hotel Walton, well-known among Cubans for decades.

But New York had a substantial community of anti-Machado Cubas, as well; and they quickly discovered where the Montalvos lived.  On the night of September 8, Carlos was standing in the lobby with "two other refugees," as described by The New York Times, when they were "set upon by a group of young Cubans."  There were six or seven in the angry group, but they were bested by the three hard-hitting refugees.   The Times reported Montalvo and his friends "stood off the attacking party with their fists," and that "after an exchange of fisticuffs the assailants fled."

Residents were understandably shaken and one called the police.  The newspaper said "Senor Montalvo...ignored a police warning that he remain indoors until the unrest in Cuba subsides.  When the excitement had died down he took up a post at the hotel's entrance.  Conspicuous in his linen suit, smoking a long, black cigar, he admitted he was waiting for his assailants' return."

He told a reporter "I took care of three of them myself.  They are cowards.  They cannot fight."

The Hotel Walton played a minor part in world politics again in 1946 when one of the store spaces became the offices of the Political Action Committee for Palestine, Inc.  Despite its unassuming headquarters, the group was significant.  In June that year it announced the appointment of a board of seven to investigate conditions in the prison camps of Palestine and the concentration camps of Eritrea, Africa.  Concurrently it announced the appointment of eight new members of the executive board, including Governor Lester C. Hunt of Wyoming, Joseph E. Davis, former United States Ambassador to Russia, and Dr. Wallace W. Atwood, president of Clark University in Massachusetts.



In 1950 a renovation resulted in 13 apartments per floor.  Among the residents in the now-smaller spaces in 1955 was Marie Monell.  Although her second floor apartment contained just one bedroom; she still brought her 12 year old niece, Olga Cassanova, from the Virgin Islands to live with her.

The two managed for two years.  In 1957 Olga was enrolled as an eighth grade student at the Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic School on West 70th Street.   But on the night of May 20 that year, she and her aunt got into a serious argument.  Olga stormed out of the apartment and, unknown to Marie, headed upstairs rather than to the street.

At about 9:15 someone noticed the 14-year old girl standing on the edge of the roof.  Police arrived and pleaded with her not to jump as a growing crowd assembled on the street.  The police worked with Olga for about 20 minutes.  The Times reported "Several hundred persons watched as the girl threatened to jump.  She plunged from the ledge at 9:42 o'clock."  Olga died instantly.

In 1958 Cuba was once again on the brink of revolution.  And once again the Hotel Walton played a small part.  Despite its tradition of being a refuge of the Cuban establishment--or perhaps because of it--it was the scene of a press conference by Dr. Mario Lierena, chairman of the Committee in Exile of the 26th of July Movement, and Judge Manuel Urrutia, Fidel Castro's choice for Provisional President to replace President Fulgencio Batista.

During the event, the men predicted "that President Batista would fall from power by the end of the month," according to The Times on April 4, 1958.  "At the same time, the spokesman also declared that the 26th of July Movement, headed by Senor Castro, would reject any cooperation from Communists in Cuba."

As the decades passed, the Hotel Walton settled into a much less political role and disappeared from the news.  It was to most just another brick apartment building.   In 1980 another renovation resulted in eight apartments per floor, and an added penthouse level that includes three apartments and half of a duplex which extends to the 11th floor.  Sadly, the cornice--all-important to the 1903 design--was removed, leaving a decidedly unfinished appearance.

photographs by the author

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Lost Adolph Lewisohn Mansion - 9 West 57th Street


The original appearance of the 1870 house was similar to the houses on either side..  The Architectural Record, July 1900 (copyright expired)
On March 29, 1895 Ernest Rudolph Gunther hosted what The New York Times described as "a very pretty 'stage dinner.'"  The guest of honor was Russian Prince Lubecki.  The newspaper added, "Covers were laid for ten persons."

Gunther's four-story brownstone rowhouse at No. 9 West 57th Street was well-known for such entertainments.  The New York Tribune remarked that same year that Gunther was "a clever conversationalist and extremely popular among club men and the people who comprise what is known as the best society in New York.  An invitation to one of the frequent musicales, given at his residence, is prized very highly by members of the New York smart set."

The house was new when Gunther's father, German-born furrier William H. Gunther, purchased it for $100,000 in 1875.  The price--nearly $2 million today--and the 30-foot width reflected the exclusivity of the neighborhood, just steps from Fifth Avenue.  Following the senior Gunther's death, the family sold the house in March 1897 for $165,000.

Seven months later, on October 24, the New York Journal and Advertiser reported that Adolph Lewisohn had filed plans "for alterations costing $50,000" to the house.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added more details, noting that the architects would be Brunner & Tryon and the work would include "extensive interior and exterior alterations, including new front."

The project was an early example of the sweeping remakes of outdated homes in fashionable neighborhoods.  The architects removed the stoop and facade, lowering the entrance to two steps above the sidewalk.   Drab brownstone was replaced by white limestone and the matronly 1870's personality gave way to modern French exuberance.

The columned entrance portico supported a one-story faceted bay which morphed into a blustraded balcony at the third floor, accessed by sets of French doors.  Another stone balcony graced the third floor.   A stone balustrade perched above the bracketed cornice.

The interiors of the Lewisohn home were decorated by well-known artists.  Edwin H. Blashfield painted the ceiling of the music room with a fresco entitled "Music," as well as other decorations; and he painted "Dance" in a hallway panel.  Joseph Lauber's "Psyche at the Spring" adorned a window panel.

Like William Gunther, Adolph Lewisohn was born in Germany.   Three years after his father's death in 1872 he came to New York City at the age of 16 to assist his brothers in their mercantile business, Adolph Lewisohn & Son.  He quickly became the moving force in the operation.

Not long after arriving in America he had met Thomas Edison.  The meeting led to Lewisohn's realization that the conductive properties of copper would make it vital in electrifying the country.  The Lewisohn brothers were among the first investors in western copper mines.

On June 26, 1878 Adolph married Emma Cahn.  The couple had four children, Clara, Adele, Sam and Julius.  By the time he purchased the former Gunther house Lewisohn had branched into banking as well, and had amassed a vast fortune which enabled him to indulge his love of the arts.  He filled the residence with a notable collection of paintings (his favorites being of the Barbizon School and later Impressionist works) and modern sculptures.  The Lewisohn were ardent patrons of the musical arts, as well, and were important supporters of facilities like the Metropolitan Opera.

The renovations to the 57th Street mansion were completed just in time for a major event.  On April 26, 1899 The New York Times reported "Alfred Rossin and Miss Clara Lewisohn were married yesterday afternoon at the newly completed residence of the bride's father, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, one of the most beautiful of New York's newer houses."

The bride's parents spent lavishly on the floral decorations.  "The ceremony was performed in the drawing room, beneath a canopy formed of white roses.  Garlands of the same flowers, pink in color, festooned the windows, mantel, and doorways.  The music and dining rooms were gay with American Beauty roses.  Palms were plentifully used in the decorations."

The Lewisohns were well known for their generous philanthropies.  On October 16, 1904, for instance, the directors of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Orphan Asylum announced that Adolph had contributed $25,000 to its building fund.  The New-York Tribune added, "The Lewisohn family has been liberal in contributions to the asylum, Adolph Lewisohn having given previously $15,000."

Three years later, on August 11, 1907, the newspaper noted "although  he has been exceedingly liberal in his donations to other charitable and education institutions, the Sheltering Guardian Society is said to be his pet.  He contributed $140,000 to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, where children of poor people may learn useful trades and fit themselves to earn a living."

By the time of the article he had also given $50,000 to the Jewish Protectory, erected the chapel for the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver, and built a "large annex to the Jewish hospital at Hamburg, Germany, where Mr. Lewisohn was born." He he also had completed a complex of free housing in Hamburg for the needy, donated a chemical laboratory to Dartmouth College, the Pathological Building to Mount Sinai Hospital, and the School of Mines Building to Columbia.

The Lewisohns became unwitting participants in a scam in 1906.  The first indication of the scheme came early on the morning of February 9 when the butler answered the servants' bell.  He opened the door to what The New York Times described as "a shabbily dressed young woman."  She told him, "I've come to work.  Mr. Lewisohn has engaged me as cook."

The butler checked, then informed the woman she was mistaken.  Ten minutes later another woman appeared, then another.  Before noon at least 30 would-be cooks had rung the bell.  Lewisohn learned of the parade of women appearing at the servants' entrance and complained to the police.

An investigation quickly uncovered the swindle by a "Mrs. White."  The Times explained "Mrs. White's game is to call upon women advertisers for situations and tell them that they are to be employed by some well-to-do person.  Mrs. White then finds that she has lost her pocketbook and needs $10 temporarily, of course.  In many cases the money was paid."

In 1906 architects Coutler & Westhoff were commissioned to design Lewisohns' 20-bedroom summer home.  The following year, on October 6, 1907, the New-York Tribune reported "The new week-end home of Adolph Lewisohn on his 315-acre farm at Ardsley, N.Y., is rapidly nearing completion, and when all the plans have been carried out it will probably be one of the show places of that part of the country."

Landscape architect James L. Greenleaf designed the grounds, which included greenhouses, tennis courts, and a private golf course.  The Tribune wrote "Mr. Lewisohn's family will have an excellent attraction for week-end parties and an objective point for automobile trips."

Press coverage of the Lewisohn family was routinely positive, most often reporting on generous gifts.  An notable exception to that came about in the summer of 1908.  On August 11 the wife of mechanical engineer James W. Ellis was standing with her children on a street corner in Perth Amboy, New Jersey when Lewisohn's chauffeur, James Pettit, lost control of the limousine.

The "unmanageable" vehicle, as described by The Sun, ran into the family.  The newspaper reported that "Mr. Ellis's daughter had her leg broken and the other members of the family were bruised."   On December 1 a summons was served on Lewisohn in his Broadway office "to recover $107,000 damages."    Included in that amount was $10,000 "for the loss of his wife's services during the time she was recovering from the accident."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
In March 1913 The New York Times devoted nearly an entire page to the Lewisohn collections.  The article said in part "Among notable American collectors of literary and artistic treasures is Adolph Lewisohn, whose city mansion, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, and country home at Ardsley contain many rare books, manuscripts, and pictures, the result of their owners' activities as a collector during the past twenty or more years.  On every floor of Mr. Lewisohn's urban residence the art lover will find objects that will surely hold his or her interest."

The article listed rare volumes, like the "beautifully illuminated Persian manuscript of seventy-three folio leaves entitles 'Marvels of the World'" with its more than 50 miniatures, and the 1466 volume of Cicero's Offices.  Other books pointed out included a first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, a third folio Shakespeare, and the 17th century works of Ben Jonson.

While public attention tended to focus on Adolph, Emma was active in philanthropic work as well.  Among her favorite causes was the Penny Lunch program in public schools.  Underprivileged children were provided with wholesome, hot lunches for one cent; the actual cost of the meals coming from donations from people like Emma.

By now the once-exclusive neighborhood around No. 9 West 57th Street was becoming increasingly commercial.  As they had done nearly two decades earlier, in January 1915 the Lewisohns commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to renovate a brownstone house at No. 881 Fifth Avenue into a modern mansion.  But before their new home was ready, Emma died at their Ardsley estate on July 28, 1916 at the age of 60.  She had been ill for several months.

In what may have been a gesture to his wife's concern for feeding the poor, Lewisohn provided the 57th Street mansion for a meeting of women on March 5, 1917.  According to The Times, "Sarah Goldstein and other Brownsville women and East Side women will tell what they suffer from the high cost of food."

It would be the last event in the mansion as a private home.  The following month Lewisohn leased it for 21 years to Tappe, Inc. milliners.  The Sun reported on May 1 "The building is to be completely changed.  A new facade will be built and the interior altered to suit the needs of the tenant."

In its June 1917 edition, Millinery Trade Review reported that "Tappe has outgrown its present quarters to such an extent that a removal to the former residence of Adolph Lewisohn has been necessitated, and will be accomplished in the near future...An entirely new entrance is to replace the present one, in the style of the Early Italian Directoire, and the interior arrangements will display the Early Victorian characteristics."
The dapper Herman Patrick Tappe was considered on par with Henri Bendel  Millinery Trade Review, June 1917 (copyright expired)
Before Herman Patrick Tappe set his contractors loose on remodeling the interiors, he gave his employees "a very noteworthy ball" in the mansion.   His female workers dressed in 1830's gowns and officers from a French warship anchored in the Hudson River were invited for "added zest to the affair."

Interestingly, while Adolph Lewisohn retained ownership of what was now called "the Tappe Building," he began buying up other properties on his former block as investment.   On January 11, 1919 the Record & Guide reported he had purchased the two houses at Nos. 27 and 29 West 59th Street, adding "he already owns 10 and 12 West 57th street, known as the 'Bendel Building," as well as No. 31 West 57th Street and, of course, his own former mansion.

Like his landlord, Herman Tappe was an avid art collector.  His second floor apartment at No. 555 Madison Avenue was described by The New York Times as being "furnished in Victorian style with hundreds of valuable objects of art" including "oil paintings of great value, tapestries and needle-point lace curtains."  When fire broke out on the first floor of that building on November 7, 1927, Tappe "had some anxious moments."  Among the belongings he personally carried out to the street was a Rembrandt valued at $150,000.

Tappe's upscale shop was still at No. 9 West 57th Street at the time, but he would soon be gone.  In 1930 it was home to the art gallery of Julius H. Weitzner.  He dealt in masterworks like the self portrait of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, purchased by the Smith College Museum of Art in December that year.

It may have been the Great Depression that resulted in Weitzner's stay in the building to be short-lived.  For whatever reason it closed in 1933.  On April 13 The New York Times reported "With the assistance of Ed Wynn, Harry Herschfield and other stars of the theatre, Thrift House, a new venture in raising funds for relief work and other philanthropic activities, will be opened today at 9 West Fifty-seventh Street."  The store sold contributed items, both old and new, ranging from"wearing apparel, pins and bird cages to kitchen equipment and furniture."  The proceeds went to the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies.

The Lewisohn family continued to buy properties along the 57th Street block.  Following its purchase of No. 42 in April 1946, The New York Times noted "The Lewisohns figured in many deals on Fifty-seventh Street which resulted in development of a shopping center there."  At the time of the article, No. 9 was being leased to the Pepsi-Cola Company.

The much altered mansion survived into the second half of the 20th century.  Finally billionaire Sheldon Solow commissioned architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a skyscraper on a site engulfing the property.  Completed in 1974 the sloping, 50-story Solow Building is a landmark in its own right.