Saturday, October 22, 2016

The S. C. Barnum House - No. 329 Lexington Avenue

When builder George H. Hamilton completed the 24-foot wide row house at No. 329 Lexington Avenue in 1858, he was on the cutting edge not only of high-end residential neighborhoods in Manhattan, but of domestic architectural trends.

Only six years earlier the vastly wealthy Dodge and Phelps families had begun construction on their three freestanding brownstone mansions on Madison Road (later renamed Madison Avenue), between 36th and 37th Streets. Theirs were the first dominoes to fall in the creation of an exclusive residential district.

Hamilton's row house on the east side of Lexington Avenue, between 38th and 39th Streets, was four stories tall above a high brownstone stoop.  The elliptically-arched openings sat within handsomely carved frames; their sills sitting on delicate stone brackets.  At the parlor level, where floor-to-ceiling height windows matched the proportions of the entranceway, there was most likely a cast iron balcony.

Most striking, however, was the fourth floor in the form of a steep mansard roof.  The French Second Empire style had arrived in the United States only within the past two or three years.  Its appearance at No. 329 Lexington Avenue meant that Hamilton intended the house for a discerning buyer; one aware of continental fashion and taste who would gladly turn his back on the predominant Greek Revival style overwhelming the city.

A complex pattern of slate shingles covered the mansard.  Two ornate dormers punched through, capped with triangular pediments.  Above a minimal cornice with stone dentils was perched an elaborate cast iron cresting--the latest in Victorian design.

The family which moved was without question well to do financially.  But the woman of the house was apparently frugal, nonetheless.  Pre-Civil War households retained staffs with clearly defined duties.  Cooks, drivers, laundresses and butlers all knew their individual duties.  A "waitress" needed to be more refined than a chambermaid.  She served the food to the family and their guests and waited upon their whims.  The chambermaid cleaned.  And as reflected in the title, she performed the unpleasant job of removing and cleaning chamber pots.

But the lady at No. 329 Lexington Avenue economically clumped up to three job descriptions together.  On June 1, 1867 she placed an advertisement in The New York Herald "Wanted--A neat and capable woman.  As waitress and chambermaid and to assist in washing.  References required."

By the 1880s the house was home to wealthy retailer S. C. Barnum and his wife, Amelia.  In 1845 Barnum had opened what he now marketed as "Barnum's old reliable clothing house" on Chatham Square.  While her husband added to their fortune downtown, Amelia struck out in the real estate business, buying properties and leasing them.  But her great passion seems to have been dogs.

In 1891 she was Vice President of the American Pet Dog Club.  The organization's reputation reached as far away as Honolulu, where The Daily Bulletin reported on February 20, 1891, "After invading almost every other domain that has hitherto, by the men at least, been considered to the lords of creation, the American woman is now arranging to enter actively into the field of bench shows."

The newspaper referred to the pedigree dog shows which, until now, had been male-only territory.  "The new departure is to be made by the American Pet Dog club, which is composed almost entirely of ladies, though, with the most praiseworthy magnanimity, male creatures are not entirely excluded."

The article noted "Mrs. the wife of a very wealthy clothing merchant, and lives in an imposing mansion on Lexington avenue, New York.  She has a ways taken an active interest in dogs, and was at one time a prominent exhibitor at the bench shows.  At present Mrs. Barnum is content with the honor of possessing the fattest and jolliest pug in the club."

Amelia routinely offered her home as the meeting place of the club.  But then in 1894 the Barnums left.  The title was held, as was expected at the time, in Amelia's name, and on July 14 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted that she had leased the house for three years at $2,200--a little over $30,000 per year in 2016 terms.  It was the first hint of financial problems in the Barnum household.  The following year the Sheriff held a court-mandated auction of the property for unpaid obligations.

The Barnum home was taken over by the S. G. Cloos School of Modern Languages.  Unlike some private schools, Professor Cloos focused on underachieving sons of wealthy families.  In September 1895 he described himself in The New York Times as giving "special attention to coaching pupils who have failed to pass their examinations at Columbia College.  He has always met with noted success in remedying their deficiencies."

Cloos had established his school in 1870 and, speaking in the third person, wrote "Prof. Cloos is always able to preserve order in classes which have sometimes contained as many as sixty-five boys at a single lesson.  He also teaches English to Spaniards, French and Italians by a method peculiarly his own, and which has always been productive of speedy and thorough results."

No. 329 Lexington Avenue saw a quick succession of owners.  It was bought early in 1897 by Edward H. Van Ingen for what the Record & Guide called "the remarkably low price of $26,000" (more than three quarters of a million dollars today); but weeks later he was looking to sell it "at a reasonable advance on very favorable terms."

The next owner, Charles Conti, found himself in financial problems as well.  In 1901 he was embarrassingly listed among those who were behind in his personal taxes.  The mansion was home to Augustine J. Smith by 1904, and A. V. Whittemeyer in 1909.

The noise and upheaval caused by the excavation for the Lexington Avenue subway was possiby a factor in the rapid turnover of the property.  By the early 1920s it was being operated as a rooming house.  One tenant named Maurice was out of work in November 1922 when he placed an ad in The New York Herald.  "Chauffeur-Mechanic:  Belgian, 9 years experience Rolls Royce, Renault, Simplex, Locomobile; best references."

Also living here that year were Mabel Elweil and Grace Ryson, both unmarried.  The young women were passengers in a Ford late on the evening of April 30 it crashed into a Studebaker limousine at the corner of 37th Street and Seventh Avenue.  "The noise of the collision attracted a large crowd of people, who had just left the theaters," reported The New York Herald the following morning.

The horrific crash left several people injured, including the chauffeur of the limo, who lost four fingers.  The driver of the car which carried Mabel and Grace was apparently in the wrong.  The Herald noted "The driver jumped out as soon as the collision occurred and vanished."

While Grace received only a cut and bruises and was able to go home, Mabel was taken to Bellevue Hospital with two fractured knee caps.

Two years later the owners, 311 Lexington Avenue Corp, hired architects Charles Kreymborg & Son to renovate the old mansion.  Completed in 1925, the changes included the removal of the stone stoop, the installation of a "studio" at sidewalk level, and "non-housekeeping apartments" on the upper floors.

Among the tenants living here in the early 1940s was the Cornelius Agnew Demarest family.  Victoria Booth Demarest was well known as a lecturer, author and preacher; and was the granddaughter of General and Mrs. William Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

On December 4, 1943 daughter Victoria Beatrice Demarest was married to the Rev. Claxton Monro.  The wartime wedding had a noticeably military atmosphere.  Victoria's brothers, John, David and Arthur, were ushers.  Arthur was a member of the USA Glider Infantry and David was a Pharmacist's Mate Third Class in the Navy.  Another usher was Lt. Brent W. Loew of the US Naval Reserves.

One year later the family's joy was crushed when word was received that David Livingstone Demarest had been killed in action on December 3, 1944 "in action with the Marine Corps in the Pacific area."

Squashed in among along the Lexington Avenue block of business buildings, the old brownstone is decidedly out of place.  Amazingly the upper floors retain their 1858 residential flavor and the wonderful mansard level is, while beleaguered, exceptionally intact.

photographs by the author

Friday, October 21, 2016

Battered and Endangered -- No. 25 Cleveland Pl.

Residents of the little two-block long Marion Street, which ran diagonally between Spring and Broome Streets, struggled for existence in the 19th century.  The 25-foot wide, brick-faced Greek Revival house at No. 25 was home to several immigrant families by 1851.  In the yard behind was a small building which was also rented to indigent tenants.

The plights of the residents throughout the 1850s was told through the classified advertisements they placed in search of work.  In September 1851 the occupant of the "first floor, front room," wrote "Wanted--by a respectable young woman, a situation as Nurse and Seamstress.  Has lived four years in her last situation, and left at her own request."  Six months later another tenant, also a "respectable woman," was looking for a position "as good plain Cook and first-rate Washer and Ironer."

A resident with the initials P.F. lived in the rear house in June 1853 when he placed an ad.  "Wanted--by a steady, active young man, a situation as coachman and to work in a garden, and to make himself generally useful.  Has satisfactory testimonials."  It was possibly P.F.'s wife who was looking for income following the birth of a child the following year.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on August 7, 1854 read "Nurse--A respectable married woman wishes a baby to wet nurse at her own house, 25 Marion street, in the rear."

The advertisements continued.  A month later a resident on the first floor of the main house looked for "a situation by a respectable woman, as excellent cook, washer and ironer, in a private family."

By the end of the Civil War the Marion Street neighborhood was part of what was deemed "The Italian District."  But at least one resident of No. 25 was Irish and the mix was not friendly.  Daniel Donovan "lived in the same premises with a number of Italians," as explained by The New York Herald on June 12, 1872, and "was in the habit of beating and abusing them."

Donovan's bullying came to an end on Sunday afternoon, June 9, 1872.  The Herald reported "he was practising with his fists upon John Beoni and Raxo Attela, the latter of whom dealt Donovan a blow on the nose."  Infuriated, Donovan "struck out right and left at the Italians."  During the melee, Guydon Bosstoffin grabbed a large pair of shears and thrust them into the Irishman's stomach.

As Daniel Donovan lay dying in his room, the Coroner rushed to take his ante-mortem statement, critical in the investigation of Victorian murders.  In the meantime, Bosstoffin and "two other Italians" were under arrest.

Within the next two years family issues would be a problem for some residents.  In April 1873 Donat Bruno, "an Italian flute player," left and never returned.  A month later his brother, Roch Bruno, placed advertisements hoping "to know in what town he is now residing."

Joseph Stefano was apparently frantic after his 12-year old son John disappeared on February 4, 1874.  Stefano offered $20 to "any one returning him to his father."  He ended his plea in The New York Herald by saying "He plays the violin."

Another Irishman who rented a room in the house occupied almost entirely by Italians was 40-year old James Gately.  He was taken from No. 25 Marion Street to Bellevue Hospital on the night of September 28, 1877 where he died in his bed two days later.  The Coroner's inquest found "cause of death, peritonitis, from stab wound of abdomen inflicted with a knife in the hands some person to the jury unknown at No 25 Marion street on the night of September 28."

Following former President and New York State Governor Stephen Grover Cleveland's death in 1908 Marion Street was renamed Cleveland Place in his honor.

The bleak lives of the impoverished Italian immigrants of No. 25 Cleveland Place were in stark contrast to the lifestyle of mining magnate Daniel Guggenheim.  The two worlds came unexpectedly together on January 29, 1915.

Six-year old Ignatio Lacarta was playing on Lafayette Street that afternoon, on the opposite side of the little triangular park in front of his home.  Just as Guggenheim's limousine approached, Ignatio darted out between parked cars and was struck.

The distraught millionaire took the boy in his arms and shouted to a traffic patrolman to direct him to the nearest hospital.  Guggenheim's chauffeur sped to the New York Dispensary.  The New York Times wrote "Mr. Guggenheim sent word to the boy's parents, and met them in the dispensary."

It appeared Iganatio was severely, but not fatally, injured.  "At the hospital, it was said the boy's skull was probably broken and his scalp badly lacerated, but he would recover."  Later the newspaper noted that Guggenheim had told the surgeon "to spare no expense to save the lad's life."

It was most likely Daniel Guggenheim's insistence on the best of care (and his money) which resulted in Iganatio's total recovery.  "For some time it was feared the boy would have concussion of the brain, but this was prevented by careful treatment," The Times reported weeks later.

Finally, on February 28 the boy was declared "thoroughly recovered" and released from the hospital.  Word had been sent to to a much-relieved Guggenheim the previous day.  He reported that the news made him feel "very happy."

Although the Cleveland Place neighborhood was just one block north of the Police Headquarters, it was the haunt of Italian gangsters and bootleggers in the 1920s.  The immediate area earned the nickname of the "whiskey curb market" during Prohibition.

A long-term resident of No. 25 Cleveland Place was petty gangster Frank Lucci.  The 20-year old was arrested on July 7, 1925 along with six other Italians suspected of "many hold-ups, burglaries and shootings in recent months," according to Deputy Chief Inspector Fay.  He was arrested again on September 11, 1936 for counterfeiting; and was still living at No. 25 when he was nabbed once again, this time for counterfeiting gasoline ration stamps, in 1943.  He was sentenced to four months in prison for that offense on October 7.

In the meantime the ground floor had been converted to a barber shop by the mid 1930s.  Operated by barber Salvatore Di Sapio, it doubled each year as a polling place.  Among the first voters here on November 2, 1937 was Tammany Hall leader Albert Marinelli.  The New York Times reported "He entered a barbershop at 215 Cleveland Place just after 6 A. M., spent a brief space at the machine and then stepped out to vote the paper P. R. ballot.  'A real Democratic vote,' he announced as he dropped the ballot into the slot."

Two years later it was not a politician whose name appeared in newspapers, but the barber's.  Salvatore Di Sapio and his wife, Angelina, lived on Staten Island with their four daughters.  He quietly cut hair in his three-chair shop on Cleveland Place.  Nothing, it would seem, suggested that he was involved in the criminal activities of the area.

For decades James J. Hines had been described by newspapers as "powerful" in the Tammany administration.  But as political reformers gained strength his reputation changed.  In May 1938 The Times referred to him as a "shadowy figure."  He was arrested for graft, corruption and illegal gambling.

On March 1, 1939 officials from District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey's office walked into Di Sapio's barber shop and arrested him.  He was charged "with attempting to influence a juror in the recent trial of James J. Hines."

The barber's attorney attempted to paint him as an unknowing pawn.  He told the court "that his client was a 'dunce or a boob' to have undertaken the fixing job, and that he had been 'sucked in on this,'" reported The New York Times on March 23, 1939.  The newspaper said "The type of sentence imposed on the barber will mean that he may serve from six months to three years."

Justice Finegan was unswayed by the attorney's argument; instead feeling that it was Di Sapio who had persuaded his accomplice in the case.  "I believe this man Di Sapio, led this man Ficke into this thing."

The judge lambasted Di Sapio when he handed down the guilty verdict.  "You can't make money like that.  You will suffer more than any sentence I can mete out for the rest of your days because you'll be shunned and your children will have a hard time living this down."

In 1984 United States House of Representative Geraldine Ferraro became the first female Vice Presidential candidate representing a major American political party.  Her husband, John Anthony Zaccaro ran the real estate company, P. Zaccaro & Company, founded by his father Philip.  He found himself in an unwanted spotlight following his wife's sudden celebrity.  Past improprieties and corruption convictions were now newsworthy.

On August 18, 1984 The Times printed a list of properties P. Zaccaro & Company managed; many of which were gritty tenements with eye-brow raising connections.  "City deed records now list the owner of a combined lot at 21-23-25 Cleveland Place as Joseph LaForte, whom the city police described to the Senate committee as a leader of the Gambino crime family" said the article.

The Soho area was revitalized in the coming years, and Savatore Di Sapio's old barber shop became La Locanda Di Giotto, an Italian restaurant in 1986.  In 1991 it was taken over by Caffe Giardino, described as a "small unpretentious cafe" with a large garden which "attracts tourists."  It later became home to Le Jardin, a "homey French bistro with a lovely garden," and then, in 2011, trendy restaurant What Happens When.

In 2006 No. 25 and its twin at No. 23 were purchased and the owner quickly hired David Turner Architect PC to "reconstruct" the combined buildings as a new condominium.  The Department of Buildings' permit allowed the removal of portions of the interiors, noting "Roofing Removal Excluded."

In what was most likely a deliberate "Oops!" moment the contractors demolished the roof of No. 23 and were quickly hit with a Stop Work Order in 2007.

Nine years later, in 2016, little has changed.  No. 23 sits partially demolished while No 25, with its gloriously colorful history of immigrant struggles, Prohibition gangsters and dirty politicians, awaits its fate.

photographs by the author

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The John L. Hasbrouck Bldg - No. 75 Hudson Street

The cast iron base begs for sympathetic attention.

John L. Hasbrouck came "of an old Huguenot family which was forced to leave France because of religious persecution," according to The Sun.  Born in Utica in 1810, he moved to New York City in 1860.  Financially secure, he purchased an interest in Benjamin Van Schaick's wholesale grocery operation.  Just five years later he founded his own firm, John L. Hasbrouck & Co.

John L. Hasbrouck & Co. was a departure from the grocery business.  Originally a wine importing firm, it would eventually include its own liquor distillery in Brooklyn.  For his substantial business, Hasbrouck quickly planned a new building.  He commissioned architect George Youngs to design a five story structure at No. 75 Hudson Street.

Cornelius Vanderbilt had purchased the St. John's Park neighborhood nearby in 1866.  He replaced the elegant Federal style mansions and park with the Hudson River Railway Company's freight depot.  Hasbrouck's chosen site was conveniently located to the depot.

The building was completed in 1868.  Hasbrouck announced his success by facing the building in gleaming white marble above the cast iron base.  The four-story upper section was divided into two parts.  At each level handsome pilasters with Corinthian capitals posed on paneled bases.  They stretched one-and-a-half stories before erupting in carved window moldings.  Rusticated piers ran along the sides the full length before terminating in brackets which resembled a single curled leaf or petal.  Even the modillioned cornice was executed in marble.

Hasbrouck was also a Director in the Fourth National Bank, and in the Columbia Fire Insurance Company.  He owned significant real estate, most of it north of the city.  When he brought his sons, Price W. and George S., into the business, the name was changed to John L. Hasbrouck & Sons.

The firm had unwanted publicity in 1894.  Joseph Ramsay Clark was a sales representative, or "drummer," for Hasbrouck.  When Lucy Harr Clark filed suit for alimony in Newark's Chancery Court he insisted the woman was not his wife.

Lucy, whom The Sun described as "a comely woman of light complextion [sic], 24 years old," had been employed as a housekeeper in the home of Clark's father in Lebanon, New Jersey in 1889.  The newspaper reported on her shocking testimony.  "She says the defendant continually made love to her, and, yielding to his importunities, she accompanied him to this city May 29, 1891, and they were married by a minister whom Clark addressed as the Rev. Mr. Smith."

The rushed marriage was no doubt prompted by the fact that Lucy was pregnant.  She returned to New Jersey and the baby arrived in November.   According to her, Joseph suddenly refused to acknowledge their marriage.  "Clark denies the plaintiff's story," said The Sun.  A trial was necessary to straighten out the conflicting stories.

Later that year John L. Hasbrouck broke his leg.  Refusing to be slowed down, the feisty businessman used crutches to get around.  But a year later, in January 1895, he broke his other leg.  He quickly declined.  On February 1 the 85-year old died "of paralysis" at his home at No. 151 West 23rd Street.

John Hasbrouck's sons moved the business headquarters to Brooklyn.  On November 18, 1898 the sale of the building to John Campbell & Co. was announced.  The $80,000 price would equate to about $2.4 million in 2016 dollars.

John Campbell was born in Liverpool, England.  He founded the dyestuff company that bore his name in 1878.  Now among the best-known manufacturers of dyes in the country, the erudite businessman was also a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History.

The company's extensive factory was located in Newark, New Jersey.  The Hudson Street building served as its offices and shipping facilities.

In February 1905 the 50-year old Campbell contracted typhoid fever.  Just two months later, on April 11, he died in his brick and brownstone rowhouse at No. 24 West 88th Street.  The operation of the business passed to George H. Whaley, the new president.

In 1918, with the country embroiled in World War I, John Campbell & Co. issued a pamphlet to other dye manufacturers.  In it Whaley insisted that America made "colors that are equal to, and in many instances better than, the so-called German standards."  He urged his counterparts to stop using German names for their dyes.

"No American mill man should use the German trade words for the names by which he has known colors in the past.  To do so would be playing right into the hands of the German business propagandist.  Therefore, let us be loyal to everything American, and among other things designate the American colors by their American names."

The firm's classy 1909 advertisement in The Sun was formal and understated (copyright expired)
If Joseph Ramsey Clark had brought scandal to the Hudson Street address; it would be nothing compared to that caused by May M. Croke.  By the time the anti-German pamphlet was published, the attractive young woman had been working as George H. Whaley's private stenographer a few year.

The executive-secretary relationship quickly became romantic (Whaley later said "their acquaintance had ripened into affection").  In 1917 Whaley put the title of the house at No. 301 West 88th Street, at West End Avenue, in May's name.  And in 1919 he gave her a fully-paid month's vacation.

Whaley told May that he would divorce his wife so they could be married.  When she returned from her vacation, he gave her a $2,200 diamond engagement ring and, indeed, divorced his wife.  What he did not realize was that May was carrying on an affairs with other married men in the office.

But soon his suspicions led him to hire private detectives who followed her.  Their reports showed "Miss Croke had associated with other men," including Monte F. Jacobs.  In fact, Whaley learned that much of the money he had been giving May was being spent on Jacobs.

It all became public when Effie Elizabeth Jacobs sued May for $100,000 damages for alienation of affection.  She got an attachment against the West 88th Street house pending the court's decision.  While May Croke appeared in the public eye as a gold-digging harlot; the once-respected George H. Whaley emerged as a fool.

Whaley weathered the embarrassing publicity and stayed at the helm of John Campbell & Co.  By 1922 he was President of the firm's two related companies, also in the building: Amalgamated Dyestuff & Chemical Works and The Republic Color & Chemical Works.  John Campbell & Co. remained in the building through 1947.

The building's marble facade stands out between its brick-faced neighbors.

Produce firms like the Brooklyn Egg Case Co. occupied the building through the next few decades.  But as Tribeca changed, so did No. 75 Hudson Street.  In 2003 it was converted to five apartments designated as "joint living and working quarters for artists."

photographs by the author

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The 1887 Engine Co. 55 -- No. 185 Lafayette Street

On April 10, 1886 the Board of Commissioners announced it would accept bids for "for furnishing the materials and labor, and doing the work required for construction and erecting" the firehouse for Engine Company No. 55 at No. 173 Elm Street.  The once residential neighborhood of half a century earlier was now filling with factories and warehouses.

Napoleon LeBrun & Son was the official architectural firm of the Fire Department.  The 1880s saw a flurry of firehouse construction as the city planned new stations in developing areas and modernized several existing houses.  Although Napoleon LeBrun & Son would be remembered for their exciting, individual firehouse designs, for several years during this period they recycled one Queen Anne model.

Engine Company No. 55 was completed in 1887.  Its facade was textured by diapered brickwork, highlighted with terra cotta ornaments, and trimmed in stone.  Three stories of brick sat upon a cast iron base dominated by the wide, paneled double bay doors.  The firehouse was strikingly similar to several others--like Engine Company No. 54 on West 47th and Engine Company No. 15 on Henry Street.
When completed in 1887, the firehouse was flanked by low, residential structures. The top floor was lopped off around 1898.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The firefighters of Engine Company 55 dealt not only with blazes in the low frame buildings from the first half of the century; but with hard to fight fires in the taller loft structures.  An example was the fire which broke out in the five-story building at No. 59 Spring Street on May 24, 1888.

Hugh McGinnis hired older Irish women to work in his "rag warehouse."  Ten were sorting rags on the top floor at 11:00 that morning when, as worded by the New-York Tribune, "a fire broke out almost under their noses."  The panicked women ran as the floor filled with smoke,

Seven women made it to the street safely.  Three others were less lucky.  The Tribune reported "Bridget O'Mara of Leonard-st., went down as far as the third-story and then tried to slide down a rope in the hoistway.  She lost her hold about sixteen feet from the ground and fell the rest of the way, breaking a rib and receiving serious internal injuries."

The central panels of the cast iron pilasters were like gently folded fabric; while the capitals were in the form of stylized flames.

By now Engine Company No. 55 was on the scene.  Firefighter Edwin Ford ran up through the flames.  He found Catharine Sullivan, her dress on fire, trying to escape to the roof.  He carried her to the roof of an adjoining building, then down the stairway to the sidewalk.  The newspaper said "She had been burned dangerously about the face and limbs."

Another worker, Mary McCarthy, had jumped from the window to the roof of the building at the rear.  Although she suffered only a sprained wrist and went home; Bridget O'Mara died at St. Vincent's Hospital later that night and a hospital spokesperson said that Catherine Sullivan, too, would probably die.

Only five years after the building's completion, in October 1892 the Board of Estimate and Apportionment budgeted funds for a new site "for Engine Company 55, now at 173 Elm Street near Broome Street."  The move was no doubt in anticipation of the proposed extension of Lafayette Place to Elm Street, and the simultaneous widening of Elm.

That ambitious civic project began in 1897 when the city condemned and demolished the buildings between Jersey Street and Great Jones Street in the way of the Elm Street project.  On July 7, 1898 The New York Times reported "Bids were opened for a new fire house at Broome and Elizabeth Streets, for Engine 55, which must move from Elm Street because of the widening of the street."

Elm Street was now part of the newly-formed Lafayette Street, taking the new address of No. 185 Lafayette Street.  Rather astonishingly, after Engine Company 55 moved out the city moved the facade back to the new property line.  It was no doubt at this time that the top floor was lopped off. The cornice, the band of terra cotta rosettes, and the brick corbelled brackets were all carefully lowered to make the alterations seamless.

The city retained possession of the old firehouse, maintaining it according to Fire Commissioner Adamson in 1914, "solely as sleeping quarters for Deputy Fire Chief Thomas R. Langford."  Three years later the city clumped No. 185 Lafayette Street with several other properties to be traded "for undeveloped land at Inwood Hill owned by private parties," according to The Sun on May 19, 1917.

Converted for business use, the ground floor of No. 185 was an automotive repair shop by 1923; and at mid century was the "surplus store" owned by Elias Ziegler.  By the turn of the 21st century the Soho neighborhood around No. 185 Lafayette Street saw the repurposing of old lofts and warehouses into residential spaces and trendy shops.  In 2004 the old firehouse was converted to a ground floor studio and a single apartment above.

In 2009 fashion and celebrity photographer Terry Richardson paid $3.3 million for the 2,800-square-foot residence.  Through it all the building retained the signature touches which make it immediately identifiable as the work of Napoleon LeBrun.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Benjamin George Friedman for suggesting this post

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The 1897 West Side Republican Club -- No. 2307 Broadway

On May 1, 1897 the Real Estate Record & Guide made a mistake.  It announced that a 32-foot wide "club building" was being planned for the Boulevard, between 83rd and 84th Streets.  It listed the owner as the newly-formed West Side Republican Club, the architect as J. A. Schweinfurth, and the builder as Frederick P. Forster.  (The Boulevard, by the way, would soon be renamed Broadway.)

Apparently Frederick Prentiss Forster quickly brought the error to the editor's attention.  Seven days later the Guide issued a correction, explaining that Forster was the owner and the West Side Republican Club his lessee.

The matter would have been important to Forster, a Harvard-educated attorney who had recently dived head-long into real estate development on the Upper West Side.  He was simultaneously at work on several projects in the area, using different architects.  Included was his own expansive, five-story mansion just around the corner at No. 270 West 84th Street.

The Guide had gotten the architect correct, at least.  Boston-based Julius A. Schweinfurth had been the chief designer for Peabody & Stearns in the mid 1880s.  His brothers, A. C. and Charles Schweinfurth, incidentally, were also successful architects.  The West Side Republican Club house would be, most likely, his only New York City commission.

(Interestingly, years later in 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide would mistakenly attribute the work to architect and West Side Republican Club member Charles H. Israels.)

Schweinfurth worked most often in the Colonial Revival or related neo-Georgian style.  For Forster he produced a distinguished American Georgian-inspired clubhouse which looked much like a private mansion.  The Indiana limestone base featured a columned portico.  Above, two stories of pink "wash" brick were trimmed in white stone.  Quoins, splayed lintels and six-over-six windows reflected the 18th century theme.  But the focal point of the design was the impressive deeply-inset Palladian balcony with its Ionic columns and wrought iron railings.

The newly-completed clubhouse was illustrated on the back of the Club's menus.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Political clubs were highly important and went far beyond mere social clubs.  They were the headquarters of ward politics, where candidates were nominated, campaign speeches made, and city and state issues debated.  In these clubhouses members boisterously celebrated victories and jointly mourned defeat.

Nevertheless, the West Side Republican Club, like the others, had all the obligatory amenities of an upscale social club--recreation areas like bowling alleys, billiard and card rooms, a library, and dining room.

In 1900 the Club had 450 members.  And it set itself apart from most such clubs by including females.  The Women's West End Republican Club shared the building, boasting 250 members that year.

It was here in December 1902 that Park Department President William R. Wilcox announced the plans to transform Seward Park in the impoverished Lower East Side to a "model park" with playground space for tenement children.  But speeches and announcements more often dealt with, of course, politics.

"Governor" John Sergeant Wise, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, railed against William Randolph Hearst here on October 25, 1906.  The New-York Tribune said he "told some things...that must have produced a ringing in [Hearst's] ears."

In language that smacked of 21st century campaigning, "Mr. Wise told of Mr. Hearst's 'unconquerable greed for power' and his 'disloyalty to all with whom he has become associated' and arraigned him for attempts to 'align class against class to promote his selfish ends,'" said the Tribune writer.

The Club scored a coup over all the city's other political clubs in June 1908.  President William Alexander Wise was so confident that William Howard Taft and James S. Sherman would be the Republican candidates in the Presidential race that he commissioned a large "TAFT & SHERMAN" flag well before the event.

On June 20 the West Side Republican Club members waited anxiously for word from the Chicago convention.  Then, eight minutes after the telegram arrived, the giant blue flag with white lettering was "waving in the dusty gusts of upper Broadway--the first campaign flag to taste the breezes in little old New York," reported the New-York Tribune the following morning.

An annual break in the political agendas was the collegiate chess tournament held here.  Begun in 1891, the Columbia-Yale-Harvard-Princeton contest became a tradition at the West Side Republican Club.  The tense tournaments started at 9:00 a.m. and lasted into the evenings for three days every December.
Well-dressed Ivy League players battle it out at a 1907 chess tournament here.  American Chess Bulletin, February 1907 (copyright expired)

Surprising many, in the fall of 1912 Frederick P. Forster leased his 84th Street mansion to the Club.  The Club announced it was taking advantage of the larger space; but Forster's motivation for giving up his home was not revealed until a year later.  He was sued by several of his legal clients for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from estates in his control.

Forster sold the Broadway building in January 1913.  The new owners gutted the elegant interiors, removed the portico and installed a store front.  In March 1913 the new ground floor was leased as the uptown branch store of the upscale Fifth Avenue "J. Fields," retailer of furs and dresses.

For years J. Fields advertised women's items like "gowns, dancing frocks and afternoon dresses" along with "tailleur suits."  The high-end character of its stock was evidenced in the seasonal clearance sale in June 1914, when "distinctive models" of evening gowns were discounted at $20--about $490 in 2016.

In the meantime, the upper floors of the building were leased to the Manhattan School of Dancing in August 1914.  It was joined, by 1916, by the Ad. Newberger dancing school.  While Newberger offered classes in traditional dance, it lured the younger set with modern, popular dances.  A year later, for instance, it was teaching students the "New Hawaiian Trot."

Ad. Newberger taught Physical Education as well as dance classes.  New York Tribune, Sunday October 15, 1916 (copyright expired)

Then in 1917 J. Jorgenson & Son, jewelers, leased the entire building.  The retailers commissioned architect Aymar Embury to renovate what was now described by the Record & Guide as a "store and office building." 

Jules Jorgenson and his son William leased the building until September 1921 when they purchased it from landlord Gifford Pinchot.  The jewelers-turned-property owners leased a portion of the upper floors to the Jewish service organization, B'nai B'rith.   Some activities of the 69th Annual Convention of the Grand Lodge of District No. 1 were held in B'nai B'rith Hall here that year.

In 1940 the West Side Republican Club sold its 84th Street clubhouse to a synagogue and the much scaled down Club moved back into rooms on the upper floors of its former Broadway home.  The following year a tragic incident occurred.

On October 28, 1941 the Republican leader of the 5th Assembly District North, Daniel Widdi, was making a speech here when he suddenly collapsed before the assemblage.  The 59-year old former candidate for State Senate had suffered a fatal heart attack.

Now known as the District Republican Club, the group remained here until 1945 when the building was once again sold.  At the time the street level store space, formerly home to the Jorgensen jewelry business, was occupied by Rappaport & Son, children's clothing store.

Another renovation followed, resulting in a store on the first floor and mezzanine, and stock rooms on the upper floors.   The ever-changing building became home to the Circle Theater by 1970 (it left in 1974 for its Sheridan Square location), a Charivari women's apparel shop (Selma Weiser, Charivari founder, purchased the building in 1985), a grocery store and a drugstore.

In November 2014 developer Joel Scheiber's Waterbridge Capital purchased the building for $25.9 million from Barbara Weiser, daughter of Selma Weiser.  While the ground level of the former West Side Republican Club bears no hint of its former elegant appearance; the upper floors, where spirited political debates and Ivy League chess tournaments took place, are astonishingly intact.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Lost Frederick Billings Mansion - No. 279 Madison Ave

While hulking business buildings loom in the background on August 3, 1924, the block around the Billings mansion retained its 19th century residential appearance.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the first years following the end of the Civil War the Murray Hill neighborhood was firmly established as a high-end residential district.  The extended Bliss family would be long-term Murray Hill residents over the decades.  Among the first to settle here was Justin A. Bliss, who erected his lavish brownstone mansion at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 40th Street.

Born in Ashleyville, Massachusetts on March 6, 1816, Bliss had come to New York as a young man.  He established himself in the dry goods business and later joined the textile jobbing house of Lee, Case & Co.  The house at No. 279 Madison Avenue reflected the vast fortune he had garnered.

The brownstone and brick residence was an ample 35 feet wide on Madison Avenue and stretched back along 40th Street 175 feet, including the private carriage house directly behind.  It boasted all the bells and whistles of the latest architectural trend, French Second Empire.  Fussy decorations included carved panels and window surrounds, the steep mansard roof obligatory to the style, and ornate iron cresting atop the cornice.  The columned portico above the dog-legged stoop supported a jutting bay--most likely fronting a bedroom.   The deep light moat surrounding the English basement was protected by a handsome balustraded brownstone wall.

In the mansion with his wife and two daughters was Bliss's widowed mother-in-law, Elvira G. Platt.  Her funeral was held here on Sunday, April 4, 1869 following her sudden death in the house the Friday before.

A member of the exclusive Union League and Riding Clubs, Bliss retired at the age of 54 in 1870.  Shortly thereafter he and his wife moved one block northward, to No. 301 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 41st Street.  No. 279 became home to fellow Union League Club member, Benjamin G. Arnold.  The millionaire was the principal in B. G. Arnold & Co., described as "the largest coffee firm in the country."

Arnold's firm started in business in 1820 as Reed & Lea.  It had changed names several times before becoming Sturgis, Bennett & Co. when Arnold arrived in New York from Providence in 1840.  He obtained a position with the firm as bookkeeper; and just four years later became a partner.

In 1872, following the admission of Francis B. Arnold as a partner and the retirement of the others, the company became B. G. Arnold & Co.  Around 1873 Arnold controlled the market for Java coffee in the United States.  The New York Times reported that his personal wealth was estimated, at that time, to be about $2.7 million--a considerable $55 million in 2016.

Arnold's incredible success was due to American taste changing from tea to coffee.  The Times noted in 1880 "The consumption of coffee has been increasing so rapidly since the war that the production has barely kept pace with it."

Unfortunately, B. G. Arnold & Co. got greedy.  In 1879 it stopped buying from coffee jobbers and began purchasing directly from the growers in an attempt to monopolize the market.  Overestimating the demand, the firm excessively "over-imported coffee," according to one newspaper.  The result was disastrous.

On December 8, 1880 The New York Times ran the headline "Ruined By Speculation."  B. G. Arnold & Co. was forced to close with liabilities of about $1 million.  Benjamin G. Arnold, a few years earlier one of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens, was now destitute.

No. 279 Madison Avenue became home to the Frederick Billings family.  Billings had become President of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1879.  Seventeen years earlier, on March 31, 1862, he had married Julia Parmly.  The couple had six children.

The family maintained a 1,000-acre summer estate in Woodstock, Vermont which, according to The Sun, contained "a mansion" and had "six miles of drives on it."  While Julia focused on New York City charities during the winter season, Frederick bestowed towns and institutions with gifts.

He purchased the 12,000-volume library of George P. Marsh, former U.S. Minister to Italy, for $15,000 and donated it to the University of Vermont.  To house the collection, he built a $200,000 library for the school designed by Henry Hobson Richardson.  In the late 1880s he erected a Congregational church in Billings, Montana (a town named for him).

Life in the Billings mansion was not without sorrow.  Parmly Billings graduated from Amherst College in 1884.  Following his untimely death four years later Frederick endowed $50,000 for a "chair of hygiene" at the school.   Sixteen-year old Ehrich Billings died on October 7, 1889 of heart disease.  He had been attending the Moody School for Boys in Mount Hermon.  His father endowed that school with $50,000 in his memory.

Two months later, on Christmas Eve, Frederick Billings suffered a massive stroke which left him paralyzed.  The Sun later reported "in May [he] was taken to Woodstock, where he calmly made every preparation for the end."  Billings died there at 10:00 on the night of September 30, 1890.

Still living with Julia in the Madison Avenue mansion were daughters Mary, Elizabeth and Laura, and son Frederick.

Following her mourning period, Julia picked up her philanthropic work.  On Monday, November 30, 1896 she hosted a reading by Sarah Cowell Le Moyne here.  The stage actress was famous for her readings of Robert Browning's poetry; and The New York Times noted "Mrs. Le Moyne has volunteered her services for a most deserving charitable purpose."  The event was not free, of course, and those wishing to purchase tickets could do so from some of Julia's wealthy neighbors, including Mrs. George F. Baker, who lived at No. 258 Madison Avenue; and Mrs. Frederick F. Thompson, at No, 283.

Sarah Cowell Le Moyne read for charity in the Billings mansion.  photo from the collection of  the University of Louisville's Ekstrom Library

In 1901 the house was the setting of the wedding of Laura Billings to Professor Frederick W. Lee of Columbia University.  The June 5 marriage was widely anticipated in the newspapers; however the following morning The Times noted it was "quietly celebrated yesterday noon."  The understated ceremony had no attendants and only "a few relatives and intimate friends were present."

Exactly two weeks later The Times reported that Julia "has closed her town house, and is at Woodstock" for the summer.

As the years passed, Julia continued entertaining in the Madison Avenue mansion for charitable causes.  On February 6, 1908 she hosted the annual meeting of the Preparatory Trade School for Boys and Girls, for instance.

Mary Montagu Billings, now a Presbyterian minister, married John French on Saturday, June 1, 1907; and on March 9, 1912 the engagement of Frederick to Jessie S. Nichols was announced.  Following that wedding only Julia and Elizabeth were left in the commodious brownstone house.

Julia received a scare on April 3, 1913 when a policeman banged on the front door and announced that her house was on fire.  The New York Times reported "He had seen the flames and smoke rising from the roof."  The Billings women and their staff rushed to the street while firemen traced the blaze to one of the large chimneys.  Fortunately, according to the newspaper the next day "this was extinguished without any damage."

On Tuesday night, February 17, 1914, Julia Parmly Billings suffered a fatal heart attack in the Madison Avenue mansion.  The house passed to Elizabeth who stubbornly stayed on despite the increasing commercialization of the neighborhood.

Early in 1920 Mary C. Thompson was amassing a large block of properties on the block.  She owned the entire blockfront with the exception of the Billings mansion and No. 295.  And she finally convinced Elizabeth to sell that year.  The New-York Tribune reported on February 25 that Thompson had taken out a $450,000 mortgage on the Billings house.  It added that she was negotiating for No. 295 in preparation for "an important commercial improvement."

In the meantime, Elizabeth was temporarily permitted to stay in the old family home.  In January the following year the New York Herald mentioned that "Miss Elizabeth Billings, who is at her home, 279 Madison avenue, will go to Aiken S. C., early next month."

But she had moved out by October.  Mary Clark Thompson was apparently having problems finalizing her control of the block.  That month the Herald reported that she had leased "the Billings mansion" to Mrs. Maude Ames, "who will remodel for bachelor apartments and a tea room."

On May 10, 1923 The Battle Creek Enquirer announced "The Forum and Vocal Press Club has been established on Madison Avenue where one may talk over affairs of the day."  Lectures and discussions here covered current topics like Prohibition.  A month earlier, on April 13, Dudley Field Malone gave a speech in which he "expressed disapproval of the League of Nations," according to The Times.

The club's tenure here would be short lived.  In 1925 the mansion was demolished to be replaced by the 25-story Murray Hill Building designed by Rouse & Goldstone which survives today.

The newly completed building was photographed by Wurts Bros. in 1926.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fred F. French's 1922 Nos. 59-63 East 54th Street

For years the three four-story brownstone houses at Nos. 59 through 63 East 54th Street had been in the same families.  In October 1922 Edward Oliver Balzer purchased the old Boles house, No. 61, “for occupancy.”  In doing so he caused a wrinkle in the plans of Frederick F. French.

The Record and Guide reported on October that “a builder” reportedly had his eyes on all three “fine dwellings.”  He had already obtained No. 59 from Mrs. Nannie H. Olyphant for $85,000 (about $1.2 million today) and No. 63 from Mrs. Charles E. Miller.  Now the publication noted “It is learned that Mr. Balzer…is negotiating with the builder for a resale.”

No matter how fine the vintage, high-stooped brownstone homes had been; they were decidedly out of date in 1922.  And modern apartments had replaced private homes as fashionable living in the 54th Street neighborhood between Madison and Park Avenues.

The completed building (at right) replaced three houses identical to those still standing in this 1938 photo by P. L. Sperr.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Fred F. French obtained the third property and his nine-story replacement building was completed in February 1923.  The Fred F. French Co. Apartment most often acted as both developer and architect.  Buildings by the firm often appeared in quaint neo-Tudor half-timbering at the time.  But Nos. 59-63 East 54th Street was a modern mix of Renaissance and Elizabethan faced in red brick and trimmed in limestone.  Stone quoins ran up the sides of the unpretentious façade and framed the central windows.  Carved balconettes at the fourth floor anticipated the geometric Art Deco influence to come.

The middle two balconettes have been lost.  In 1959 storefronts were carved into street level.

The new building attracted moneyed residents.  Retired bachelor Arthur Thomson was among the first.  The former broker was 79 years old when the building was completed and was among the oldest members of the exclusive Union Club.

Charles Reed and his wife took an apartment here.  Their movements between their summer home in Tuxedo Park and the city were closely followed by society pages in the early 1930s.  

Another wealthy resident at the time was Thomas C. Eastman, member of Eastman, Dillon & Co., investment bankers.  His summer estate was on Long Island’s Gold Coast.  Undisturbed by the gloom of the Great Depression, on June 30, 1933 he gave a supper dance for “about 200 members of the Summer colonies of the north shore,” as described by The New York Times.  Among the guests were some of the most impressive names in society, including the Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitneys, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, the W. Goadby Loews and Mr. and Mrs. Whitney Kernochan.

Following the death of George A. Skinner on December 21, 1935, his widow Rebacca (known as Peggy), moved into the 54th Street building.  Skinner had co-founded Educational Pictures, Inc. in 1914 as a distributor of short educational and entertainment films.  But by the 1920s the firm turned to comedies; becoming the major independent distributor of short subject films.  By the time of Skinner’s death, it was producing comedy films with motion picture greats like Buster Keaton.

Peggy Skinner had enjoyed the life of the wife of a motion picture executive.  But now she was faced with “financial reverses.”  In January 1938 she sublet her apartment and moved into the Prince George Hotel at No. 14 East 28th Street.  The once elegant hotel was now mainly occupied by tourists.

The desperate widow attempted to kill herself on the morning of February 28 by taking poison and slashing her wrists.  When she failed, she jumped from her eighth floor window to her death.

The 1940s would see high-profile residents.  On October 1, 1942 Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe moved in.  Stieglitz had suffered a serious heart attack in 1938 which left him increasingly weak.  According to biographer Laurie Lisle in her Portrait of an Artist, Georgia “wanted a place with a bedroom for Stieglitz that was small enough to be kept warm by an electric heater should wartime fuel rationing make that necessary.”

In 1939 Beatrice Ashley Chanler had moved in.  She was the widow of William Astor Chanler--celebrated African explorer, soldier and former Democratic Representative in Congress and a great-grandson of John Jacob Astor.  He died on March 4, 1934.  Beatrice was no less well-known.

The former actress had begun her career as Minnie Ashley and was discovered by De Wolf Hopper in 1895.  After marrying Chanler, she gave up the stage and turned to sculpting, producing portrait busts and bas-reliefs.  The bas-reliefs in the Hotel Vanderbilt were her work.

Her extraordinary war relief efforts had earned her the French Legion of Honor.  She founded the Lafayette Preventorium, Inc. in 1917.  The institution tended to French children, many of them “pre-tubercular” and malnourished.  She toured war-devastated areas of France for the Federation of American Agencies for France in 1919.

When ill health forced her to give up sculpting, Beatrice turned to historical writing.  Among her works was the 1934 Cleopatra’s Daughter: Queen of Mauretania.

When war again broke out in Europe, Beatrice Chanler again offered her services.  She was the president of a Greek relief organization and of the Committee of Mercy, Inc., and chairperson of the Ambulances for Our Army Committee, chairperson of the Salvage for Defense Division of Bundles for America, and an organizer of the British Civil Defense Emergency Fund.

Beatrice was notified that she would be decorated by the Greek Government for her efforts.  But she would not live to receive the award.  While on a train to her summer home in Islesboro, Maine, on June 20, 1946, she quietly died.

In 1959 the building’s owners, Leonard S. Kandell and Myron Eisenstein, commissioned architect H. E. Feldman to convert the upscale apartment house to an office building.  Feldman and interior decorator Eugene Stephenson surprisingly left many of the interior residential features intact.  The New York Times noted on November 27 that year, “Many of the building’s offices…have wood-burning fireplaces.”

Storefronts were installed at street level, but otherwise Fred F. French’s reserved façade was little impacted.  Interestingly, Feldman and Stephenson gave the office building a “homelike lobby.”  The Times said the owners were “mindful of the desire of many business men for homelike décor in their offices.”  In response they decorated the lobby with “upholstered furniture, window draperies, plants and rugs on the marble floor.”

Fred F. French’s 1922 building draws little attention on East 54th Street; and few who pass by would guess that wealthy New Yorkers once came and went from their summer estates or that two of America’s greatest creative talents—Stieglitz and O’Keeffe—once lived here. 

photographs by the author