Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Unexpected Relic at 33 West 63rd Street



A sidewalk bridge obscures the ground floor as renovations continue in January 2018.

Richard Everett was a member of the real estate firm Everett & Murphy; but he and his wife, Margaret, sometimes struck out on their own.  Such was the case on May 16, 1890 when they purchased the three old frame buildings at Nos. 31 through 35 West 63rd Street from Eugene A. Philbin, paying $16,000, about $414,000 in today's dollars.

No 31 was 37.5 feet wide, twice the width of the other two buildings.  On September 11 that year Richard Everett sold the property to Robert Carey for a satisfying $19,500.  The Everetts and Carey now laid plans for matching apartment houses on the sites of the wooden structures.

George Fred Pelham had learned his trade in the architectural office of his father, George Brown Pelham.  He had just opened his own practice and the twin apartment houses for Carey and the Everetts was among his earliest, if not his first, commissions.

Decades later Pelham would become well-known for his neo-Tudor apartment buildings and homes.  But for now he was content to work in the same historic styles being used by any number of New York architects.  For the 63rd Street project he turned to Romanesque Revival.

His plans called for "two double five-story brown stone front flats."  The Record & Guide noted "They will have steam heat, cabinet trim servants' stairs, etc., and will cost about $75,000."  The inclusion of hardwoods, servants' stairs and the significant cost--nearly $2 million each today--are evidence that the apartments were intended for upper-middle-class families.

Indeed, the $2,200 invoice submitted for both buildings by the Hardwood Decorative Co. would equal about $30,000 each today.   Each of the apartments contained eight rooms, making them the size of a small private house, and included space for a live-in servant.

Completed in 1891, the matching buildings had centered entrances within a two-story brownstone base.  Chunky, rough-cut quoins flanked the second story and framed all the openings.   The upper three floors were clad in red brick, the brownstone trim here including swirling carved panels between the third and fourth floor windows.   A cast metal cornice originally ran above the arched openings of the top floor.


Among the earliest tenants of No. 33 was George S. Adams and his family.  A director and treasurer of the Bidwell-Tinkham Cycle Company on West 59th Street, he was called to jury duty in 1893 and was chosen to sit on a shocking murder case.

Dr. Robert W. Buchanan was charged with having killed his wife, Anne.   Buchanan had been served with divorce papers on June 14, 1890.   Anne had apparently discovered he was having an affair with his first wife.  Soon afterwards she became sick and suffered a prolonged death.  It was not long before Buchanan and his first wife remarried.

Suspicious, authorities had Anne's body disinterred.  The New York Times reported "and the discovery was made that she had died of an overdose of morphine."  The case made nationwide headlines, the North Dakota newspaper The Washburn Leader saying he was charged "with killing his second wife with slow poison in order to obtain her fortune."

Jury selection was a slow process, with many potential jurors admitting they had already decided on the doctor's guilt.  George S. Adams, however, was among the first accepted.  The trial lasted until August 25 and ended with a conviction.  The Washburn Leader reported "Dr. Robert W. Buchanan is sentenced in New York to die in the electric chair in the week beginning Oct. 2."

Another early tenant was William Scott, listed merely as "a clerk."  He and his wife, the former Emma Douglas, had a baby girl, Cora, the year the apartment building was completed.   He, too, would see jury duty; albeit his case was not a life-threatening as Adams's had been.

In April 1895 Scott was chosen to serve in the case of Police Inspector William W. McLaughlin, who had been arrested and charged with extortion.  He was accused of squeezing Francis J. Seagrist, Jr. for $50 years earlier while he was captain of the First Precinct.

McLaughlin walked free when the jurors could not arrive at a verdict.  Amazingly, The New York Times listed each juror by name, along with his address, and published his vote.  William Scott had considered McLaughlin guilty.

Ade Stephens appeared in a courtroom in 1901; but as a witness rather than a juror.   John H. Shults, Jr.'s German-born father was a millionaire whose Brooklyn bakery was one of the largest in the world.  He married Caroline C. "Daisy" Beard on December 3, 1890.  His bride, too, came from immense wealth.  Her father, William Beard, made his fortune in streetcar and railroad construction.

But Daisy reached the end of her patience only three years later when she left her philandering husband.  She and their two children moved into her parents' home.  Finally she filed for divorce in June 1901 charging that John was "guilty of misconduct with one Sylvia Thorne in the latter part of 1897 and the early part of 1898, and in November, 1900, with one Eva Richards, in an apartment house on Fifth Avenue, Manhattan."

Testifying for Daisy was Ade Stephens and her maid, Fanny Fox.  The New York Times reported that they "gave confirmative evidence."  How exactly Mrs. Stephens and her maid knew that Daisy's husband was carrying on sexual affairs was not revealed.

By around now Emma Scott's father, Franklin Douglas, had moved in with the family.  He became ill in the spring of 1902 and died in the apartment on April 15 of pneumonia.  He was 75 years old.

Three years later the family would be devastated again, when Cora, now 14 years old, died on March 2, 1905 of spinal meningitis.  She had been sick only a short time.  Her funeral, like her grandfather's had been, was held at the Thirty-fourth Street Reformed Church just west of Eighth Avenue.

A terrifying tragedy occurred in the second floor apartment of Charles Baker on the night of June 16, 1907.  Living with Baker and his wife was his 76 year old mother-in-law, Mary J. Odell.  The Bakers left the apartment early that evening to visit friends.   Sunlight still lit the room where Mary sat knitting when they departed.  But as twilight fell, she struck a match to light a kerosene lamp for more light.

The Sun reported "The match fell from her hand and ignited the table cloth.  The fire spread to some lace curtains near by."  Mary's screams were heard by Mrs. Jacob Plass, who lived on the third floor.  She rushed to inform the janitor, Thomas Hannan.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Baker apartment worsened.  "The room had filled with smoke in the meantime and Mrs. Odell fell onto the table.  Her clothes caught fire."  Hannan tried to break in the locked door, but it was no use.  More time was lost as he ran to the third floor and lowered himself down to the Baker's window ledge.  He kicked in the window and stumbled over Mary Odell in the smoke.

"Hannan smothered the fire in the woman's clothes, which had burned her about the head and body," reported The Sun.  Residents lowered a pail of water from the upper floor which he used to put out the fire.   The elderly woman was taken to Roosevelt Hospital with severe burns where her condition was listed as critical.

Broker Arthur Edmund Kramer was living in the building in 1910.  The 22-year old was the son of Arthur Booth Chase, brother of Salmon P. Chase, former Supreme Court Chief Justice.  He had an impressive pedigree, earning him membership in the Sons of the Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, and the Sons of the American Revolution.  He was also a member of the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, often referred to as the Silk Stocking Regiment or the "Dandy Seventh" because of its long tradition of being composed of sons of Manhattan's wealthiest families.

When he was still young, his father died and his mother remarried Edward G. Kramer, who adopted him.  Now, on December 15, 1910, he appeared in New York Supreme Court to get his birth name back.  He told Justice Seabury that he was the last surviving male descendant of his branch of the Chase family.  The Times added "He gave as his reason for making the application for the change of name his desire to perpetuate the honorable name of Chase."  The judge agreed and granted the application.

Margaret Everett still owned No. 33 at the time, extending her $35,000 mortgage until March 1915 that year.  (It was a significant mortgage, equal to about $875,000 today, especially considering that the Everetts had owned the parcel for two decades.)

At least through the World War I years the building continued to house financially comfortable residents, like Augustin B. Healy, who was here in 1911.  He was a director in the Central Leather Co.  But by 1925 the aging structure saw a less affluent population as modern apartment buildings lured away the moneyed tenants.

The widowed Hannah Forgeiase lived in a top floor apartment by 1925, sharing it with her two sons Alexander the Theodore.  Both men were steeplejacks and neither of the blue collar workers was about to allow anyone to threaten their mother.

Hannah was infuriated that the lock to one one of her windows had been removed by the building superintendent.   When Perry Frucht, a manager, knocked on her door on Saturday night, March 7 that year to collect the rent, she told him she was withholding the rent until the lock was reinstalled.

Frucht explained that the window opened onto a fire escape and that fire laws demanded there be no locks.  The discussion became heated, drawing the attention of Alexander and Theodore.  Frucht was punched in the face and sent back down the stairs.

Frucht went to the building's super, Percy Wilkins and asked for his help in collecting the rent.  The New York Times reported "Wilkins went up to the top floor and a short time later came down with a cut on his eye and no rent."

Now the battered pair enlisted the help of Policeman Zessna whom they found outside.  The officer had no sooner walked into the apartment than Theodore threw a heavy flat iron at him, hitting him on the ear.  The policeman responded by pulling out his pistol and firing.  The bullet lodged in the ceiling and he fired again.

Just as he pulled the trigger, Hanna ran into the hall.  The bullet hit her in the hand, resulting, naturally, in screams and more chaos.  "In the meantime," said the newspaper, "the neighborhood had become excited by the noise and rumors that a policeman had been killed."

Word soon reached the West 68th Street precinct house and No. 33 West 63rd Street was besieged by cops intent on aiding their fallen comrade.  The Forgeiase brothers were arrested for felonious assault and their mother was was treated by an ambulance doctor on the scene.

The Times ended its account of the affray saying "Frucht left without the rent."

The Depression was not kind to the old building,  It was lost in foreclosure to the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank early in 1938.  The bank resold it in October that year to 40-year old real estate operator Jehiel R. Elyachar.  He quickly hired architects Voorhis, Walker & Foley to make changes, among them was the installation of an elevator and reconfiguring the eight-room apartments to "suites of one and one-half, two and three rooms," as announced on October 20.

The alterations were completed the following year, resulting in five apartments per floor.  The architects explained in August 1939 that the "modernization consisted of simplifying the facade by removing the old cornices and substituting [a] decorative parapet flush with the front of the building, modernizing the entrance...providing fireproof stairways, new floors, plumbing, tile bathrooms and tile or terrazzo floors in the hallways, and rearranging the apartments to meet present-day demands."

As seen in 2010, the renovations stripped the ground floor and left a blank scar in place of the cast cornice.  photo by "Marjorie" via http://marjorie-digest.blogspot.com/2010/10/lonely-little-red-building.html

The modernization stripped the ground floor of nearly all its architectural details.  And while the architects boasted that the loss of the 1890 cornice resulted in a "decorative parapet," it looked more like an ugly scar where a handsome cornice once hung.

Jehiel R. Elyachar was a colorful character.  Born in Jerusalem, he had immigrated to the United States in 1928 and founded the Straight Construction Corporation.  Despite his age, he joined the Army at the outbreak of World War II.  He rose to the rank of colonel, in charge of military intelligence under General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Upon his return to Manhattan, he continued using his rank of colonel before his name.  He added about a dozen more rental properties to No 33 West 63rd Street by the mid 1950s when he stopped buying, "content to collect the rents and supervise the maintenance," as explained by Albert Scardino in The New York Times years later.  With holdings worth more than $100 million, he turned to philanthropy, giving generously to American and Israeli causes.

By then the neighborhood around No 33 was seedy at best.  Under the initiative of John D. Rockefeller III and civic leaders, an urban renewal project, the Lincoln Center Renewal Project, was initiated.  It was well under way when developer Paul Milstein got into the act in 1968 when he began planning his Lincoln Square steps away.

Elyachar was by now a founder and president of the American Society for Technion, which raised money for scholarships and financial support for the Israel's primary technical education institution, was influential in Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University, and owned the largest collection of Ladino and Sephardic literature in the Western Hemisphere.  He was 70 years old when Milstein approached him, wanting to buy No. 33 West 63rd Street.

But Elyachar did not need Milstein's money.

The developer was eyeing the 63rd Street property as part of the site for a 43-story mixed-use tower.  Every other owner, including the owners of the matching building next door at No. 31, agreed to sell.  But Elyachar seemed to enjoy taunting Milstein.  Repeatedly the two would agree on a price, then the old man would change his mind; at one time adding the condition that Milstein donate around $100,000 to one of his charities.

Finally, according to Milstein's son Howard, "My father said, 'You know what, you're going to keep your building.'"

The Milstein family forged ahead with the complex, named One Lincoln Plaza, working around the 1890 flat building.  Unexpected problems arose for Elyachar and his tenants when the abutting buildings were taken down.  On May 11, 1891 Richard and Margaret Everett and de facto partner, Robert Cary, had signed a "party wall agreement" for the two buildings.  That wall was never intended to be an exterior partition and, therefore, was not built to withstand weather.   Now with No, 31 gone, ice formed on living room walls of some tenants.

photo by "Marjorie" via http://marjorie-digest.blogspot.com/2010/10/lonely-little-red-building.html

The unconventional, generous and often feisty Jehiel R. Elyachar died in Bellevue Hospital Center following a heart attack ob March 29, 1989.  He was 90 years old.

After a lifetime of amazing accomplishments, perhaps his most visible legacy is the out-of-place Victorian apartment building sitting awkwardly in the plaza of One Lincoln Plaza.


In 2001 an ongoing apartment-by-apartment renovation was begun.  Among the improvements was the welcomed installation of a reproduction cornice in keeping with the building's architecture.

photographs by the author

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Lost 1854 Madison Square Presbyterian Church - Madison Ave and 24th St


By the time this somewhat ghostly photograph was taken, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's headquarters had edged up to the brownstone church.  To the left, on the opposite corner of 24th Street, the mansion of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe can be partially seen.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the winter of 1852-53 the congregations of the Pearl Street Church, at the corner of Elm and Pearl Street, and the Central Presbyterian Church on Broome Street faced a problem.  As described by the Rev. Dr. Charles Henry Parkhurst half a century later, because of "the large exodus of the people up-town...the down-town churches became greatly weakened."

Meetings were held and "after mature deliberation," according to Parkhurst, the two congregations agreed to merge and find a new site uptown in an upscale neighborhood.   That site was secured in February 1853 and could not have been more fashionable--a large plot on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 24th Street overlooking Madison Square.  Miller's Stranger's Guide to New York would mentioned in 1866 "The houses surrounding this park include some of the most elegant of this city."

The eastern edge of Madison Square at around the time the church purchased property.  Booth's History of New York, from the collection of the New York Public Library


The Rev. Dr. William Adams, the pastor, explained "The site which had been selected must strike all as peculiarly pleasant and favorable.  It was at once conspicuous and retired; it was accessible, central, and yet removed from general disturbance."

On March 3, 1853 the new congregation's trustees met and resolved, among other things, "that the said church be designated as the Madison Square Presbyterian Church of the City of New York."

Adams leased Hope Chapel on Broadway for twelve months while construction of the church was underway.  On May 2, 1853 he oversaw the sale of pews for the next year.  The New York Herald noted "there was a large number of persons present, anxious to procure seats in this commodious place of worship."  Pews were offered at a fixed price, and then congregants bid up the cost on "choice" pews.

Names in the group bidding that evening included Sheppard, Stebbings, Livingston, Hudson, and Blanchford; among the most prominent families in New York.  The sale that night brought in about a quarter of a million in today's dollars.

The cornerstone was laid two months later, on July 12.   The New York Times described what would be a substantial structure.  "The entire length outside, including tower and lecture-room, will be 146 feet; breadth, 74 feet 4 inches; space inside, 62 by 85, with a pulpit recess of 5 feet, making the entire length 90 feet."  The soaring tower would rise 208 feet, and the stone walls would be three feet thick with buttresses of matching width.

"The edifice will be entirely built of Jersey free-stone, similar to that of Trinity Church," said the article.   Interestingly, the architect of that church, Richard Upjohn, was the father of Richard M. Upjohn, hired to design Madison Square Presbyterian. 

And in his remarks, Rev. Adams made it clear that he had aggressively steered Upjohn toward Gothic Revival.   The Times reported "Dr. Adams said that he confessed a long cherished attachment to the spire of a Christian church.  This, though sometimes added to the Grecian style of architecture, belong altogether to the Gothic style.  He would never have this form superseded, which made the churches distinct throughout a metropolis."

The completed edifice cost $175,000--more than $4.8 million today and the first service was held in the church on Christmas Eve, 1854.  The black walnut pews could seat 1,200 worshipers.

(top) Looking east toward the pulpit.  (below) Looking west toward the entrance and organ loft.  Note the lacy Gothic struts that upheld the roof and made obstructing columns unnecessary.  from "A Brief History of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church" 1906 (copyright expired)

The Rev. William Adams would lead his congregation for decades; sometimes speaking out on social ills with a frankness that no doubt made his Victorian congregants squirm.  On May 8, 1870, for instance, he addressed prostitution and laid the blame directly on the men who patronized them.  His sermon was entitled "God's Legislation Concerning Marriage, Divorce, and Moral Purity" and referenced specifically the Home for Fallen Women.  A special collection was taken up at the close of services for that institution.

Before beginning, he effectively warned his audience of what was to come.  The New York Times reported "He said that he was not ignorant of the difficulties which pertained to an ample and public discussion of the topic," and noted "He entered upon the discussion with the fullest sense of the sensitiveness with which a pure mind shrank from its announcement."

Adams said that in talking about "the fallen and friendless of a particular class, he thought the best way would be to lay the ax at the root of the tree."   The root, he insisted, was marital infidelity.  The rector drove his point home in terms no man in the audience could have mistaken.

He then went on to other sinful problems which might induce a man to stray.  The Times wrote "Dr. Adams then spoke of the evil effects of light reading, immoral plays, &c., on the imagination."

Rev. William Adams, from Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, 1884 (copyright expired)

The Madison Square Presbyterian Church was, of course, the scene of marriages and funerals of some of Manhattan's wealthiest and most distinguished citizens.  Theodore and Martha Roosevelt attended with their four children, including Theodore, Jr. who would become U.S. President, for instance. 

Another prominent family was that of Horace Francis Clark.  Clark had married Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1848.  That resulted in his becoming a director of the New York and Harlem Railroad and eventually president of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Michigan Southern Railroad and others.  He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1857.

Horace Clark died on June 19, 1873 and his funeral in Madison Square Presbyterian Church was a notable affair.   Following the 4:30 service on June 21, a line of black carriages followed the hearse to Grand Central Depot.   There a special train carried the casket to Woodlawn Cemetery, followed by another private train for the mourners.

After a pastorate of more than 20 years, Rev. Adams tendered his resignation on November 19, 1873.  He was convinced to remain five more months, but on Sunday, April 19, 1874 he gave his farewell sermon.  The following day The Times reported that the church "was crowded to its utmost capacity yesterday morning, and many were obliged to stand in the aisles and passages of the floor and gallery."

Adams was back on May 12 the following year to install the new pastor, Rev. William J. Tucker.  Tucker would address social problems through his coming pastorate, like the miserable conditions of tenement houses; but he never achieved the prominence of his predecessor.  And he would most definitely be overshadowed by his successor.

Tucker was offered the position of chairing the Sacred Rhetoric in Andover Theological Seminary in the summer of 1879.  In reporting on his acceptance, The New York Times hinted at the difficulties he had dealt with in filling the shoes of Rev. Adams.  "It was not an easy matter to follow one so beloved and respected, and who had for so may years been over the church."

Tucker's leaving meant a significant cut in pay.  He had been earning $10,000 a year at Madison Square Presbyterian--a comfortable $275,000 by today's standards.  He would now be grossing $3,000.

But if Adams had been a force within the church, perhaps no minister in the history of New York City would be more colorful and impactful than Tucker's successor, the Rev. Charles Henry Parkhurst.

Parkhurst was installed on March 9, 1880.  Among his first socially-notable functions was marrying Norman W. Dodge, the son of millionaire William E. Dodge, and Emma Hartley on May 6.   He officiated at the funerals of the celebrated Dr. J. Marion Sims in November 1883 and that of Civil War General George B. McClellan two years later, on November 2, 1885.  The services for McClellan required more than 250 policemen to control the crowds, 10 carriages just for the family member, and streets being shut down for the funeral procession afterward.


But it was not society weddings or the funerals of war heroes and titans of industry for which Parkhurst would be most remembered.  As the 1890s dawned, Parkhurst became obsessed with social reform.

After being elected president of the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime, he turned his attention to the police department, challenging its methods and targeting corrupt officers like Capt. Alexander "Clubber" Williams of the 29th Precinct in the Tenderloin district.  Williams had become a millionaire from payoffs and bribes.

In 1892 Parkhurst openly attacked the Tammany regime from the pulpit, and then personally set off to collect evidence of government corruption and graft.  Not only did he hire a private detective, he and a friend went into the streets in disguise to collect proof.  His sermon on March 13, 1892, peppered with documented instances of government crimes, led to the formation of the Senate's famous Lexow Committee in 1894 to investigate police corruption.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

But it was his personal interest in prostitution that raised some eyebrows.  On April 11, 1892 The New York Times reported on "many rumors, among which was one that certain members of the Board of Trustees of the church had made objections to Dr. Parkhurst's preaching any more sermons on municipal affairs."  The article added that some members of the Board of Trustees were reported to be dissatisfied "with the doctor's choice of subjects for sermons and with his recent personal investigations as to the breaking of the excise law and the existence of disorderly houses."

By now the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime was best known as the "Parkhurst Society" the goal of which had broadened to the shutting down of places of vice like gambling dens, "houses of disrepute," and illegal saloons.   The Society had a staff of agents who not only supplemented official police investigators, but superseded them in many cases.

It was the reverend's personal visitations to brothels that most likely concerned many of his conservative congregants.  Parkhurst routinely put aside his clerical attire and went undercover to these "vile dens."

On March 11, 1892, for instance, two of Parkhurst's agents, John L. Erving and a man named Gardner, went to the brothel run by Hattie Adams.  Convinced of what was taking place there, they arranged to come back with a "friend who was seeing the town."

That alleged friend was Rev. Parkhurst.  The three returned and according to Erving's testimony recounted in The Times, "They drank beer supplied by Mrs. Adams, staid in the house from a half to three-quarters of an hour, and witnessed dances and other disorderly performances.  Gardner held up his hat as high as he could and the girls, who were disrobed, kicked at it.  The played 'leap frog' with Gardner, and the witness waltzed around the parlor with one of the women."

Hattie Adams's attorney tried his best to fluster the minister or discredit him.

Did you tell Mrs. Adams that you were a minister of the Gospel?
No. I did not.
Did you remind those poor creatures that they were misbehaving?
No, Sir.
Did you tell them to put on their clothes?
No, Sir.
Did you see them undress?
I did not.  I turned my gaze away.
Did you play 'leap-frog'?
No.
But you drank beer?
Yes.
And you are a minister?
Yes.

Despite the attack, The Times was impressed on Parkhurst's ability to remain calm and unwavering in his testimony against Adams.

Parkhurst's general views on women were traditional, Bible-based and most today would say backwards and offensive.  In his sermon on the suffrage movement entitled "The Biblical Definition of Women" on May 13, 1894, he said in part, "If you women want to preserve your individuality you will do so by remaining womanly and not in trying to become mannish."

He went on to say that some women believed "If a man undertakes a certain business, why should not a woman?  If a man votes, why should not a woman?"  He called that tendency "manhoodmania" and instructed that women needed to "choose to fully understand what is the peculiar mission they have before them."   There was to be no arguing with his logic.  He concluded saying "if the congregation did not understand him it was their fault."

A turn of the century postcard labeled the structure "Dr. Parkhurst's Church." (copyright expired)

At the turn of the century Madison Square was no longer the quiet and exclusive neighborhood it had been have a century earlier.  The Metropolitan Life Insurance  Company had begun construction of its new headquarters next to the church in the spring of 1890 and one by one the residences around the park were either demolished or converted for business purposes.

According to Rev. Parkhurst in his A Brief History of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church in 1906, "As early as 1896, the question began to be considered whether...it would not be to our interest as a church to build elsewhere if a suitable site could be found on Madison Square or in its neighborhood."   A meeting was held on May 14, 1894 during which it was unanimously agreed that the church would not move uptown.

Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company coveted the church's property as it anticipated enlarging its headquarters.  Finally, on January 6, 1903 The Evening World reported "The congregation of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church that since 1865 has worshipped in Dr. Parkhurst's Church at Madison avenue and Twenty-fourth street, will soon move across the street, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company having finally purchased the present site to complete the great building planned for the entire block."

The insurance firm had paid Catharine Lorillard Wolfe $700,000 for her mansion, one of the last private homes on the Square.   It gave the church that plot and additional $300,000.  The Evening World reported that the church had raised another $200,000 "to insure the imposing new structure for the church home."

The two Madison Square Presbyterian Churches sat briefly side-by-side as construction continued on the new structure.  (copyright expired)
Imposing it would be.  Stanford White designed a Roman basilica to replace the Wolfe mansion.  Completed in 1906, the new Madison Square Presbyterian Church was one of the architects greatest works. 

The venerable brownstone Upjohn-designed church was demolished that year to be replaced by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's "tower building," designed by Napoleon Le Brun & Sons which survives.

A circa 1907 postcard pictured the new tower.  (copyright expired)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The 1848 P. H. Williams House - 349 West 21st Street



On Thursday August 10, 1843 the Board of Aldermen met.  Among the petitions it reviewed and approved was "Of P. H. Williams and others, for a Hose Company and Carriage, to be located in Twenty-sixth or Twenty-seventh street, near the Ninth avenue."  The reason Williams was eager to have a firehouse established in the rapidly developing Chelsea neighborhood became apparent four years later.

In 1847 he started construction on a three-bay wide brick house at No. 349 West 21st Street.  He was not the only Williams erecting a residence on the block at the time; so his confidence in the new neighborhood may have been shared by family members.  Completed the following year, his home was designed in the recent Greek Revival style.  Three stories tall, it featured understated brownstone trim and a high stone stoop over the English basement.  The double-doored entrance forewent the stone pilasters and entablature of the grander Greek Revival homes in the area.

Financially comfortable and apparently well respected, Williams was a director in the Brooklyn Fire Insurance Company, with offices in the Merchants Exchange Building on Wall Street.  His professional stature earned him entrance to a grisly scene on October 28, 1858.

That morning The New York Herald ran the dramatic headlines "Terrible and Appalling Tragedy / Murder Most Foul and Unnatural / Parricide, Fratricide and Suicide / A Night of Horrors."  The article began "One of the most horrible and bloody tragedies ever enacted occurred at the dwelling house No. 217 West Thirtieth street on Tuesday night.  A father, mother, two children and two female domestics, were butchered by a revengeful son, who subsequently retired to his bedroom and there ended his earthly career by blowing his brains out with a pistol."

The house was home to the family of wealthy retired lumber merchant, Francis Gouldy.  He and his wife Jane had three sons and three daughters, the eldest, Francis Jr. being 19 and the youngest, Catherine, just an infant.  The Herald called Francis "a young man of unsteady habits [who] often caused his father much annoyance in consequence of his wild and extravagant course of living."

After the teen quarreled with his father over money that night, the boy began a blood bath in the house with a large axe and a knife.  As the servants rushed to help the family, they, too, were bludgeoned to death.  Only 16-year old Mary Elizabeth survived.  Because she believed the house was invaded by burglars, she had locked her bedrooms door and screamed out the window "Murder! Murder!" catching the attention of two policemen.

They broke in the front door to find the horrific scene of dead or dying victims.  Francis, realizing he was trapped, fled to his bedroom and shot himself.

By the time the coroners arrived the following morning, word had spread throughout the city.  The Herald reported "the street in front of the house was crowded to suffocation with an eager and exited throng...All sorts of means were resorted to by the spectators with a view of gaining admittance to the house, but as a general rule few persons were admitted who had not some legitimate business within."

Among those allowed in was P. H. Williams, who along with six other men, were appointed on the spot as the on-site coroner's jury.  The inquest was held in the basement and the men heard the testimonies of the surviving victim (Jane), doctors and neighbors.

By 1868 No. 349 was home to the Curry family.  Young and unmarried, Sarah Curry was a teacher in the boys' department of School No. 35, on 13th Street near Sixth Avenue.

The block continued to be fashionable enough that most families employed, if not a small staff of servants, at least one girl.  The owners of No. 349 were seeking help in January 1873.  An advertisement in The New York Herald read "Wanted--In a small private family a girl about 14 years of age, to make herself generally useful; wages moderate and an excellent home; must come well recommended."

Most of the girls who answered that ad were, quite likely, immigrants from Ireland.  Mary O'Malley landed a job with the family not long after; but her unfortunate circumstances spiraled out of control.

On August 15, 1879 The Times reported "Mary O'Malley, a servant employed at No. 349 West Twenty-first-street, who has been drinking to excess of late, attempted to commit suicide yesterday by taking Paris green."  The highly-toxic powder was used to kill rats and mice.  She was taken to New-York Hospital, but her chances of recovery were not good.

As the turn of the century neared, the house was owned by James T. and Eleanor S. Wright.  Off-site landlords, they leased the house to respectable occupants for years.  In 1898 James A. Trowbridge signed a 1 year lease at $1,200, or a little over $2700 per month today.

In 1915 No. 349 was home to the architect Hugh J. Campbell.   He established his office in the house as well.  Because Campbell's expertise was in engineering he did not design structures, but focused on alterations and improvements of existing buildings.

Change to the 21st Street block was evident in the Depression years.  In 1939 No. 349 was no longer a private home, but a warren of furnished rooms.   It would be decades before things got better on the Chelsea block.

In 1952 the Mendez family lived at No. 349.  Their son, 17-year old Pedro, worked as a machine operator.  On the afternoon of July 1 that year he was playing dice with four other teens outside a bar and grill at No. 294 Eighth Avenue, near 25th Street.  They were making so much noise that one of the owners, Harry Oransky, sent a janitor out to disperse them.

The confrontation resulted in a shouting match, prompting Oransky went out to take matters into his own hands.  Mendez responded by producing a screwdriver and attacking the 54-year old, plunging the instrument into his temple.  Mendez then escaped on his bicycle.

Ironically, Oransky and his family, who lived in the Chelsea Hotel nearby, had been under police protection.  His daughter was married to gangster Harry Gross, recently convicted of bookmaking.  While he lived in fear of a mob hit, it was the teen-aged Puerto Rican who ended his life.

Pedro Mendez was apprehended and stood trial for first-degree manslaughter in January 1954.  He was convicted by an all-male jury and on February 10 was sentenced to "an indefinite term in Elmira Reformatory."  The New York Times noted "Mendez could be kept in prison up to twenty years."


Change came to No. 349 West 21st Street in 1969 when a renovation resulted in one apartment per story, with a duplex in the third and newly-added fourth floor.  The architect laudably copied the vintage openings in the addition.  Nevertheless its high visibility from street level upsets the proportions of the structure and appears as an awkward add-on.

photographs by the author

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Wendolin J. Nauss House - 17 East 94th Street



Acting as their own developers, Robert N. Cleverdon and Joseph Putzel almost single-handedly transformed the northern blockfront of East 94th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in 1892.  That year they started construction on two rows of upscale residences--one group of five, the other of six.  Plans projected the building costs to be $20,000 each; more than half a million dollars today.

The more easterly row, Nos. 15 through 25, were designed in an A-B-C-C-B-A pattern.  The "B" houses, Nos. 17 and 23, were a profusion of shapes and textures.  Stone carvers would have spent months on the intricate Romanesque Revival decorations--the stubby capitals of the sweeping dog-legged stoop and of the engaged columns of the parlor floor, the exquisite basket-weave cornice above the entrance, the tangle of leaves and knots in the base of the second story bay, and the lavish spandrel above the third floor openings, for instance.

The intricate bay and basket weave cornice are masterworks of the stone carver's craft.  The paired, engaged columns share a capital. Terra cotta tiles fill every other void in the band below the bay--originally creating a delight of contrasting shades before a coat of paint.
Cleverdon & Putzel gave the stonework of each story a different treatment--rusticated at the basement level, planar at the parlor, banded at the second, overall-carved at the third and rough-cut at the fourth.  The contrast of colors and materials added to the shapes and forms to create a vibrant facade.  The architects gave a brief concession to the newly-popular Queen Anne style with an alternating checkerboard pattern of terra cotta floral tiles and blind spaces below the second story bay.

Construction was completed in 1894 and No. 17 was purchased by Wendolin J. Nauss, president of Nauss Brothers Co., provision merchants.  With him in the firm were Frederic, Charles and Adam Nauss.  Like many other merchants and manufacturers at the time, Nauss invested heavily in real estate.  He built and maintained tenement houses and commercial buildings.


The 45-year old and his wife, Anna, had six children, Wendolin, Jr., Edward, Anna, Frederick, Charles, and Florence.  Their summer home was in Larchmont, New York and it was there, in June 1905 that the couple hosted a dinner to announce the engagement of their youngest daughter, Anna Louise, to Frederick Porter Smitley of Pittsburgh.

By 1918 Wendolin and Anna lived alone in the house with their staff.  The sons by now had been taken into the family business, as had Florence's husband, Henry J. Hildebrandt.  Wendolin died that year, leaving an estate of $966,990--or more than $15 million today.

Tragically, the following year on December 18 27-year old Edward died.  Anna had sold the 94th Street house eight months earlier.

It became home to Herbert J. Stursberg, and his wife, the former Marie Louise Vietor.  A 1912 graduate of Yale, Stursberg had served in Squadron A, one of the Army's "aero squadrons" during the war.  Their country home, Cranbury Farm, was Norwalk, Connecticut.

An easily-overlooked detail are the whimsical faces staring out from the top floor.

In 1933 Swami Nikhilananda founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center--the New York City branch of the Ramakrishna Order of India.  It is based on the System of Vendanta, a form of Hinduism established in the 19th century and demonstrated by Sri Ramakrishna. 

The Stursbergs sold the 94th Street house to the Center in 1939.  In reporting the sale, The New York Times described the group as a "Hindu cultist organization."  The article noted that it would move into the mansion "upon completion of extensive alterations."  The top three stories remained a single family house, while the basement and parlor level were converted to that Department of Buildings documents termed a "chapel."

As it does today, the Center provided services and classes, as well as guest speakers.  Swami Nikhilananda, whose name translates loosely as Brother Felicity, spoke frankly to the press about his thoughts on Communism upon his return from India in June 1949.  He told reporters "Communism never will succeed in India."  The Times reported that during his five-month trip, "he conferred with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and other Government officials and 'did not hear a single word from anybody about wanting Communism.'"

The purpose of the Swami's press conference was less political than humanitarian.  He stressed that because of the "chaos and Communism in the Far East," Indians were not getting sufficient food.  The importing of rice into the country had been halted and he called for "downright American aid."

Lectures in the Center were not limited to Hindu topics.  In November 1950, for instance, Japanese author D. T. Suzuki spoke on "Buddhist Mysticism."

The Center drew followers from all economic, political and social areas.  Author J. D. Salinger accepted the Swami as his spiritual teacher, and regularly attended the classes and services from around 1960 until his death in 2010.

German-born artist Max Beckmann and his second wife, Mathilda von Kaulbach, better known as Quappi, became members in the early 1950s.  According to Beckmann's biographer, Sabine Rewald in her 2016 Max Beckmann in New York, Swami Nikhilananda was highly influential in Quappi's life and "became for her an anchor."


Around 2005 the Center expanded into the house next door at No. 19.  Of all the other houses in the row, only the Nauss residence retains its stoop.  A regrettable coat of gray paint obliterates Cleverdon & Putzel's purposeful contrast of colors and materials; but their delightful design remains otherwise untouched,

photographs by the author

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 1890 Sun Fire Insurance Building - 54 Pine Street




Architect Arthur D. Pickering, whose offices were at No. 105 Fifth Avenue, enjoyed a varied practice in the 1880s and '90s.  His commissions ranged from luxurious country homes, to hotels and commercial buildings.  In 1889 he was hired by the London-based Sun Fire Insurance Company to design its new New York City offices.

Established in 1710 the firm was the second oldest fire insurance corporation in the world.  (A representative dismissed the second-place designation, noting in 1890 "As a corporation doing a purely fire insurance business it is, however, the oldest, as well as one of the richest.")  The firm had branched into New York City in 1882 and by now had 1,500 agents across the United States.  Now it looked to replace its old building at No. 54 Pine Street with a modern headquarters.

On June 7, 1889 Pickering filed the plans.  Three weeks later the Record & Guide noted the 27-foot wide building would be "constructed of Jonesborough granite and light-colored Baltimore brick."  The interiors, said the article would be of "marble and hardwoods" and there would be one elevator.

At a time when large buildings were thrown up within months, the Record & Guide seems to have been a bit impatient with the progress three months later.  "The five-story building now being erected at No. 54 Pine street, for the Sun Fire Office, of London, is not far advanced as yet.  The first floor iron beams are laid, and the side and rear walls are up to about the third story."

Construction was completed in May 1890 and the trade journal apparently felt it was worth the wait.  On May 10 the trade journal said "Indeed, it is safe to say that this building is one of the handsomest of its kind in the city."   Despite having just five floors, it was a pricey project, costing $160,000 with the land--just over $4 million today.

Pickering produced an eye-catching Queen Anne-style structure with no lack of visually interesting details.  Bands of stone contrasted with the Roman brick at the second floor, creating a striped effect.  The openings on this level were given egg-and-dart ornamented terra cotta frames.

A projecting cornice introduced the third and fourth floors where the openings were unified by a pair of complex Greek key terra cotta enframements.    Spandrel panels depicted sunbursts with faces, a nod to the name of the insurance company.  The top floor openings were grouped together within elaborate terra cotta frames.

The ground floor had little (or nothing) in common with the upper portion.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, May 24, 1890 (copyright expired)
Given the up-to-the-minute design of the upper stories, the ground floor was surprising.  The granite piers and entablature echoed the Greek Revival storefronts that had peppered the neighborhood decades earlier  The arched openings, as well, were holdovers from a generation earlier.

The Record & Guide said that much of the high cost of construction was "due to the quality of granite, marble, hardwoods and other embellishments used in the interior.  It pointed out "The flooring and wainscoting are of marble, and this is carried through the entire building.  Each floor is in hardwood trim, oak and quartered oak being used.  There are mantels, mirrors and fireplaces in the private offices of each suite, and all the necessary accommodations for an office building of a fire-class character have been provided, including an elevator, steam heat, electric gas lighting, sanitary plumbing, etc."

Nearly cartoonish sun faces symbolized the firm's name.

By the time the doors opened, the building was fully rented.  The basement through second floor were the Sun Fire Insurance offices; the third floor was taken up by the Transatlantic Insurance Company of Germany; the fourth was leased to insurance broker Frederick H. Parson; and the top floor to Joseph S. Spinney, a merchant who did significant business shipping goods to California.

Sun Fire Insurance would not be in the building long before it was one agent short.  In 1886 the 21-year old Charles Ackerman was hired for $5 a week.  The job, a company spokesperson later divulged, "was procured for him through the influence of H. M. Flagler."  Henry M. Flagler was, of course, a multi-millionaire partner in the Standard Oil Company.

Ackerman was more interested in enjoying a genteel lifestyle than in working.  The Sun later noted "He lived well and dressed well.  His commissioners were very small."  Describing him as "a tall, good looking young fellow," the newspaper said that he began courting "a young lady of good family" in Brooklyn, whom he married in 1890.

Ackerman's Sun Insurance manager, named Renshaw, told the reporter "during his courtship Ackerman gave his fiancee expensive presents, and his friends wondered where the money came from."  Everyone involved would find out when the firm's secretary, John J. Purcell, sent a letter to a policy holder in New Jersey asking why he was behind in his premiums.

The man appeared at No. 54 Pine Street with a receipt for $50 signed by Ackerman.  He then headed off for Ackerman's house in Brooklyn.  He waited there eight hours until the agent showed up.  Ackerman explained that it was all a huge mistake and that the man's money would be refunded the following day.

The Sun Fire Insurance Company would soon be looking for a replacement agent.  The Sun reported on October 21, 1891 that, indeed, he did pay back the $50; "but things were becoming very warm for him, and he departed to Chicago, leaving his young wife behind him.  This was six months ago."

Despite the size and wealth of the Sun Fire Insurance Company, its mangers showed their human side in 1894 when the firm was the victim of forgery.   After the perpetrator was caught, the circumstances surrounding the crime melted the hearts of the executives.

James E. Cowan had been working as a bookkeeper at the Norwich Fire Insurance Company nearby at No. 59 Wall Street.  But like so many other low-level workers, the Financial Panic of 1893 cost him his job in August that year and he could not find another.

He had just enough money to pay the $8 rent on the one-room apartment on West 133rd Street that he shared with his wife and 18-month old baby.  But he had nothing left for food or rent.

He forged a $40 check with the signature of  John C. Alten and went to the Sun Fire Insurance offices, saying he was the agent of Alten, who wished to insure two houses.  He received a $12 commission for the deal.  When Alten received the policy, the scam was uncovered.

Cowan was arrested and he confessed.  On October 13, 1894 The Sun reported, "Cowan, who is only 35 years old, but looks fully 50, wept as he stood at the bar."  The Evening World added "he told how he had committed the crime to get money to buy food for his wife and little girl, who were literally starving.  He had been out of work for a long time, and although brought up as a gentleman, he could not see his loved ones suffering for food."

In light of the several letters sent by officials of the Sun Fire Insurance Company "begging for clemency," Judge Cowing suspended sentence.

The firm was not so understanding when it came to George W. Holt, one of its fire insurance adjusters.   The city had been plagued with a rash of commercial fires in 1894 and early 1895.  In what seemed a remarkable coincidence, most of the cases were handled by Holt.

The disbelief on co-workers faces can only be imagined when police walked into the Sun Fire Insurance offices on June 22, 1895 and arrested Holt for arson and conspiracy to defraud.  Detective work had discovered that he was involved with a ring of "fire bugs" that included Policeman Charles H. Lenz.  The group would conspire with businessmen to burn their buildings, then divvy up the insurance settlements.


On October 16 The Sun noted that "There are seven persons charged with arson and said to be members of various firebug gangs awaiting trial now."  Among them was George W. Holt, who the newspaper said "is alleged to have made a fortune out of the business."

While Holt lost his job, he did not lose his freedom.  He was released when the jury was deadlocked for "lack of evidence."  Amazingly, he obtained a job in the New York office of the Fire Association Insurance Company of Philadelphia and immediately returned to his old ways.

On May 19, 1896, not a full year after his initial arrest, he was arrested along with Henry Vaughan and charged "with the presentation of false and fraudulent proof of loss with intent to defraud."  The New-York Tribune reported "The fire which they are alleged to have started was in the frame building owned by Max Gluckman, at No. 175 South Eighth-st.  The house was worth $1,200.  Hold was the representative of the fire insurance company."

Although the district attorney "strenuously contended that the defendants were guilty;" Judge Hurd dismissed the case in the County Court on January 6, 1897, saying it could not be proven.  The judge may have regretted his decision when three months later Holt was indicted "as an accessory after the fact to the crime of arson," according to The Sun on March 12.



Another tenant at No. 45 Pine to see the wrong side of jail bars was attorney Marshall R. Van Nostrand.  Following the death of one of his clients, Benjamin Pickman, on June 4, 1893, the administration of his $94,479 trust fund passed to Van Nostrand.  This gave him, according to The Evening Times of Washington D. C. years later, the "power to dispose of the principal by will."

Van Nostrand served as the legal adviser to the deceased man's widow, Sarah O. G. Pickman.  She became suspicious five years later and closely looked at the books.   She was displeased with what she found.

According to The Evening Times, "She asserts that he was to pay certain bequests in accordance with the will, and to invest the remainder for her benefit.  She acknowledges having received $82,494 from the lawyer, but says he has not accounted for $11,910."

The missing money would equal about a third of a million dollars today.  She filed suit for $18,070 and had Van Nostrand arrested.  The lawyer proclaimed his innocence and attributed the missing funds to "a claim against her for professional services, which, if settled, would clear the matter."

Another attorney in the building at the same time was Neville Castle, whose story outdid Van Nostrand's for drama.   Castle was doing a good business when he married San Francisco actress Mary Scott in 1899, whom The Hawaiian Star newspaper said "was regarded as the most beautiful woman on the Pacific Coast."

The bride moved to New York following the wedding and made her debut in The Princess and the Butterfly.  The New York Times mentioned, "in the role of Fay Zuliani, a debutante, Mary Scott, in private life Mrs. Neville Castle...seems to have made a note-worthy hit."

But while Mary's professional fortunes seemed bright, her husband's were not.   In 1900 his business failed.  Leaving his actress wife behind, he forged off to join the Alaskan gold rush.  On April 1, 1901 The Hawaiian Star reported "until a year ago [he] had offices at 45 Pine street.  He then lost his money, and hoping to regain his fortune, went to the Klondike."

Mary continued her stage career, while living at No. 220 West 45th Street.   In March 1901 a cousin, Mrs. Frank Goodwin, who lived at No. 467 Central Park West, gave a dinner in her honor.  Afterward Mary was supposed to attend rehearsals, but she complained of feeling ill and left for home.

She did not show up there and days later was still missing.  Newspapers nationwide reported on the search and suggested suicide.  Another cousin, Crocker Goodwin, who had been at the dinner, told reporters "In my opinion Mrs. Castle has made away with herself" and refereed a letter Mary had recently written to his wife that said "The game is not worth the candle, for the strain has absolutely worn me out."  Another cousin, Lawrence Griffith had spent two full days searching for her.  He added "She was too ambitious to be happy.  She simply wore herself out."

In fact, it may have all been a well thought out publicity scheme.  A few months later, on July 28, The Times reported "The feature at Keith's next week will be Miss Mary Scott, (Mrs. Neville Castle), who will make her first appearance in New York in vaudeville.  Miss Scott claims relationship with the late ex-President Benjamin Harrison."  No mention was made of the earlier incident.

In an interesting side note, eight years later Mary was arrested in the Waldorf-Astoria after she shot her lawyer William L. Craig in the main hallway there.  Rumors had already swirled that the two were carrying on an affair.  But she insisted that "she was not divorced nor legally separated from her husband, and that neither he nor she had any cause for divorce.  She said he was 'a Yale man and a gentleman,'" reported The Times.

Despite that, the couple was divorced within the year.

In the meantime, The Sun Fire Insurance Company had commissioned architect Richard K. Mosley in 1904 to "take out and rebuild [the] front wall" and to do interior renovations, including "re-arrange elevators."  While two of the hefty granite pilasters remained, the two openings were replaced by a yawning arch that engulfed a centered window flanked by two entrances, one to the upper floors and the other to the insurance offices.  Carved decorations in the spandrels of the arches depicted crossed burning torches--symbols of fire departments and related companies--under a heraldic shield.  An incised sunburst, symbolizing the Sun Fire Insurance company provided the background.

The corner carvings depict torches, symbols of the fire department, on a sunburst background.
One tenant in the pre-World War I years who was not involved in the legal or insurance industries was Harper Gallagher, a jewelry dealer.  He became the victim of a thug on his way home on the night of August 14, 1913 while riding on the Broadway streetcar.

Around 20th Street he felt a hand reaching for his wallet.  He grabbed the wrist of the middle-aged man sitting next to him, who pulled out what appeared to be a black-jack.  The New York Times reported "Whatever it was it landed on Gallagher's head with sufficient force to knock him from the car."

Gallagher's problems were not over by far.  As he began to get to his feet, he was struck by a north-bound street car and knocked to the gutter.  He was so battered that he was taken to the New York Hospital.  Detectives launched an investigation "to find out how the assault on the open trolley car had escaped notice."

After half a century at No 54 Pine Street and 30 years in the Pickering-designed building, in May 1920 the Sun Fire Insurance Company leased space at No. 56 John Street.   Three years later it transferred title to No. 54 Pine to real estate operator Frederick Brown.

Then, on May 1, 1926 The New York Times reported that A. G. Becker & Co. have moved their office to their own building at 54 Pine Street."   Prior to moving in, the firm had commissioned architect Lester Kintzing to remodel the interiors to "banking offices," as described in his plans.  The minor alteration to the facade was the inclusion of bronze lettering above the first floor entablature which announced the firm's name.

The Chicago-based brokerage firm filled all five floors and did business here until 1955 when it sold the property to Simon Mogeloff and the Interboro Realty Company.  A. G. Becker & Co. moved to No. 60 Broadway in December that year and the new owners renovated No. 54 to house a restaurant on the ground floor and mezzanine, with offices above.  For some reason, the bronze lettering over the new restaurant's window were preserved.



In 2000 a three-year renovation resulted in one apartment on each of the upper floors.  A restaurant is still housed at ground level.  Arthur D. Pickering's striking 1890 building is overshadowed by its soaring skyscraper neighbors.  It is nonetheless a delightful surprise on the narrow little street.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The 1913 Goupil Building - 56-58 West 45th Street




At the turn of the last century West 45th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was still holding on as an upscale residential block.   The widowed Mrs. Henrietta Holbrook lived in the three-story brownstone at No. 56.  Before long her next door neighbor would be a men's social club.  In 1906 the Caduceus of Kappa Sigma noted "The Cornell Club also has a house of its own, having recently made its home in a five-story, brown-stone house at 58 West Forth-fifth street."

But change was most definitely on the horizon.  Already hotels and shops were inching into the neighborhood.  The end of the line for both buildings came in 1912.

George Backer ran the George Backer Construction Company and he often acted as his own developer.  On August 3, 1912 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that "Work will start immediately on the 16-sty office building to be erected at 56-58 West 45th st. for George Backer."

Backer commissioned the firm of Wallis & Goodwillie to design the structure.  Frank E. Wallis was a respected architect who also wrote articles and books like his ABC of Architecture.  His partner, Frank Goodwillie, specialized in the engineering aspects of their projects.

Costing $300,000--a stunning $7.3 million today--the building was completed in September 1913.  The New-York Tribune commented that it "is considered one of the finest office buildings north of the Grand Central Station."   Wallis & Goodwillie had produced a striking neo-Gothic structure entirely clad in white terra cotta.  A two-story eliptical arch at street level fronted the retail space.  A row of medeival masks connected by ribbon decorated its edge.

Elaborate Gothic elements decorate the lower facade.

The lower three floors and top two were heavily embellished with Gothic motifs--quatrefoil panels, heraldic shields, and pointed arches, for instance.   The spandrel panels of the midsection offered repeating tapestries of geometric lines and rosettes--a bit more Tudor than Gothic.

There was one non-commercial occupant.  The 17th-floor contained a nine-room apartment for George Backer.  He also moved the offices of his construction firm into the building, and, interestingly, Wallie & Goodwillie moved in as well.

The retail store was leased to Goupil & Co., of Paris, dealers in costly prints, paintings and other artwork.  The firm had established a New York City branch as early as 1857.  George Backer named his building after his prize tenant.

The Sun, April 30, 1916 (copyright expired)

While the bulk of the early tenants were unexceptional--the Parks & Weiss Agency, real estate offices; the Falk Tobacco Co., and James M. Faust real estate, for instance--one stood out.  On October 4, 1913 the Record & Guide ran a headline reading "A Novel Lease" and explained that Dr. Watson L. Savage intended to open what today is commonplace--a gym.

The article said "An interesting lease was closed yesterday...whereby an opportunity will be presented to overworked business men and women to regain their strength, without interfering seriously with their business."  It explained that Watson had leased an entire upper floor.  "He will install exercising apparatus for the convenience of those who are in need of such, and will also install squash and handball courts for recreative purposes."  The writer noted "The game of squash, a form of tennis, has become very popular here, and many wealthy people are constructing courts in their homes."

The George Backer Construction Co. was still headquartered here when Backer sold the building to Conrad Hubert in 1915.  Backer essentially doubled his money in the sale, which grossed him $600,000.  It was not a cash deal, however.  The Record & Guide noted that in part payment Hubert gave his "country estate, 'Vista Range,' near Summit, N. J., comprising 160 acres, with a large residence and outbuildings."

The terra cotta panels of the lower floors are veined to imitate marble.

Hubert was owner and president of the American Ever Ready Company.  He had purchased the rights in 1898 to the battery-powered "electric device" or "torch" which would become best known as a portable flashlight.  His firm manufactured and sold batteries under the brand name "Ever Ready."  (The trademark would later be shortened to Eveready.).

Hubert moved his firm into the building and made one significant change--he got rid of George Backer's penthouse apartment.  The New-York Tribune explained "the demand for space in the building caused Mr. Hubert to convert the apartment into offices."

The American Ever Ready Company remained in the building until 1921 when Conrad Hubert sold it to Herman Lakner on May 9--ironically the day after George Backer died.   Like Hubert, Lakner (who paid $700,000) immediately made one noticeable change.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 10 that the building "will be called the Lakner Building by the new owner."

When Lakner purchased the building, two old brownstones, altered for business, still survived next door.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the time of Lakner's takeover, the building was rented at about $102,000 a year, or about $1.6 million in today's dollars.  He added new tenants that year, including the newly-formed George K. Culp, Inc., the California-based May, Sherman, Clay & Co., and the Savings Bank Association of the State of New York.

George K. Culp had been involved in the tire industry for a decade.  His new firm was organized "for the purpose of putting into effect the 'Culp Plan' of co-operation in the manufacturing and merchandising of tires, tubes and other automotive accessories," according to Elastomerics magazine on July 25.  In effect, the firm marketed surplus tires to foreign countries.

The May, Sherman, Clay & Co. was also involved in the automobile industry, providing "associated auto loans."

The Savings Bank Association took over the space formerly occupied by Goupil & Co.  The Evening World, April 21, 1921

The highly-esteemed architectural firm of Buchman & Kahn were in the building at the time.  Albert Buchman and Jacques Kahn had formed the partnership in 1917 following the dissolution of Buchman & Fox, "well known for many years in the practice of architecture," as pointed out by Architecture and Building that year.  From its offices here the firm would produce some of Manhattan's most recognizable structures like the jazzy 2 Park Avenue and the 1930 Squibb Building on Fifth Avenue.

Nos. 56-58 was also home to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, best known today as ASCAP.  Its president, internationally-known music publisher George Maxwell, brought scandalous attention to the group when he was indicted on charges of "forgery in the third degree and a misdemeanor in sending scurrilous letters to Allan A. Ryan, the financier, reflecting on the latter's wife," as reported in The New York Times on May 11, 1923.

As it turned out, Maxwell had apparently been sending slanderous letters under false names for years to respected businessmen.  They laid out in detail the supposed affairs the men's wives had been carrying on.

On May 16 the board of directors of ASCAP met, and then released a resolution to the newspapers which said in part that they "unanimously record its complete and entire confidence in its President, George Maxwell, and in his complete innocence of the accusations made against him and in his ability to secure complete vindication of the charges."

Although experts testified that the handwriting on the letters was Maxwell's, the charges were dropped in July 1923.  With the ugly affair behind them, the ASCAP members turned to other business.

One of the organization's most illustrious members was composer Victor Herbert.  On the day of his funeral, May 28, 1924, ASCAP members assembled in the 45th Street building, then processed up Fifth Avenue to St. Thomas's Church for the ceremony.  The Police Band led the procession.  Herbert's honoary pall bearers included orchestra leader Nathan Franko., Jerome Kern, John Philip Sousa and Max Dreyfus.

Another tenant at the time which seemed to be associated with the entertainment industry was the Amusement Privilege Company in Room 412.  And while it could be argued that the firm provided entertainment of a sort, it was not in the form of music or theater arts, as newspaper readers discovered following a raid on its offices in November 1925.

Prohibition had been in effect for five years and the Amusement Privilege Company had devised a clever scheme--what Federal officials called "a mail order rum ring."  On November 17 U.S. Attorney Emory R. Buckner alleged that "the activities of the alleged ring had been nation-wide, that its work has been carried on in many States and that its customers had been numbered by the thousands."  The company hired traveling salesmen who covered the entire country.   They would take orders for liquor, which were then filled and delivered.

But unlike speakeasies or underground distilleries, the offices here had no liquor on premises.  Before they could make their raid, the Federal agents needed clear evidence.  Working with the building management, they instructed the janitor to save the contents of the wastebaskets from Room 412.  During the trial in March 1926, the rental agent, a Mr. Whiteford, testified "that he pasted together many torn bits of paper from these waste baskets and later turned them over to the Government in the form of valuable evidence."

The pasted-together documents were customer orders ranging from $50 to $500, and price lists of cases of liquor costing as much as $100 ($1,400 today).  The quality of that liquor was beyond questionable.  In reporting on the case, The New York Times revealed "It is alleged also that the so-called Scotch whisky sold by the company was manufactured on a few hours' notice."

Ironically, the following year, on April 17, 1927, the Government announced it was opening the Government Service Institute in the 45th Street building.  "The school is the first institution, so far as is known," said The Times, "to undertake the training of men for prohibition enforcement.  It was formed for that specific purpose...The general idea will be to utilize the practical experience of the members of the Faculty, which includes all branches of prohibition work."

ASCAP was still in the building at the time.  Music publisher A. J. Stasny Music Co., was also here, as was the publishing firm of Walker V. McKee.   With the onslaught of the Great Depression, the Regional Planning Association of America established offices here by 1932.  Part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, it highly involved in developing the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The architectural office of Kohn & Butler, formed in 1917 by the partnership of Robert D. Kohn and Charles Butler, was here by 1934.  Among their associate architects were Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright (both of whom received fellowships to the American Institute of Architects that year), Frank Holden, and Frank E. Vitolo.  Like Buchman & Kahn, the firm was responsible for striking structures, like Congregation Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue.

A repeating honeycomb-like pattern with three-dimensional rosettes fills the upper spandrels,

The post war years saw a change in the type of tenants.  In 1950 Jay Florian Mitchell had operated his photography and camera business here for several years.  Working in cooperation with the Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound that year, he came up with an innovative scheme for his patrons, what he called a "regatta camera trip for amateurs."

He told reporters on July 15, "This new kind of camera trip gives the amateur a chance to photograph yachts of many classes competing in actual races in Long Island Sound."  He had arranged on-shore visits for close-ups of the boats and crews, and scenes in the clubhouse and piers.  It was not all work, however.  "Everyone is urged to bring a bathing suit, as provisions have been made for swimming as part of the trip's program."

Radio and television distributor Monarch-Saphin Company was in the building at the time; and architect Charles Butler was still working from his office here in 1953 when he died at the age of 82.

By the 1960s the West 45th block was just steps away from the Diamond District, and jewelry manufacturers and sellers took advantage of the proximity.  Among them was the Jack Beck Diamond Company on the 17th floor on Nos. 56-58 which became a victim of a rash of violent jewelry heists in October 1960.

On Thursday night October 27 Beck was waiting on a customer, Sam Sharaby, when two gunmen rushed into the shop.  Both Beck and Sheraby were bound with tape and rope, then the robbers made off with $50,000 in loose diamonds (more in the neighborhood of $413,000 today).  The Times reported "Detectives said later that Mr. Beck was so unnerved by the incident that they were unable to obtain much information."

The following year the Greater New York Anglo-Jewish Publications, Inc. moved its offices to the building.  The firm published the Long Island Jewish Press and the Westchester Jewish Tribune.  By 1966 the ground floor space was home to the Low & Hughes Golf Shop.

In 2008 trouble played out in the sixth floor shop of NS Diamonds.  Pritam Sharma, a 38-year old diamond importer, was owed money by the owner, according to him.  In a fit of rage over the unpaid debt, he walked into the office around 12:45 on the afternoon of February 25, and drew out a knife.  He stabbed and slashed the man in the torso, according to police.  An employee who tried to intervene was cut on his right hand.  All three men were taken to Bellevue Hospital and Sharma was arrested, charged with two counts of assault and criminal possession of a weapon.


Today the space where Goupil & Co. sold artwork and pottery, is home to a clothing store.   The Midtown Center for Treatment and Research of addictive drugs, run by the Weill Cornell Medical College occupies the ninth floor.  Through it all, other than the remodeled storefront, Wallis & Goodwillie's remarkable terra cotta facade is essentially untouched.  A striking relic of a time of change on the 45th Street block a century ago.


photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Michael Schwenk for suggesting this post