Monday, February 29, 2016

The Lost Armitage Chapel -- Nos. 743-745 10th Avenue




Architectural Record, 1903 (copyright expired)
As the 19th century rolled over into the 20th, the block of Tenth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets was lined with small shops and dingy tenements.  For decades the neighborhood had been known as Hell’s Kitchen—a place rife with poverty, crime, vice and despair.

In 1894 the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church established Armitage House at No. 343 West 47th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.  It was described by the Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1900 as “a center of benevolent endeavor, where a day nursery, kindergarten and other work, religious and secular, have since been carried on.”

Armitage House was an early product of the Settlement House Movement.  Reformers hoped that by providing slum children a safe place to play, by teaching impoverished women about nutrition and health, and giving them skills to earn a living, their miserable lives could be improved.  The day nurseries and kindergartens provided women freedom to work during the day and add to the family’s income.

Almost from the day it opened, Armitage House was overtaxed and in 1897 a committee was formed to investigate the needs Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.  On the committee were the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church’s most notable congregant, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his daughter Alta. 

The decision of the committee was to enlarge the operations of the settlement house.  Rockefeller purchased about half of the western side of Tenth Avenue, from the 50th Street corner through No. 745.  A new five-story West Side Neighborhood House would take up the corner, two old brownstones would provide what today would be called low-income housing, and a mission church building, the Armitage Chapel, would replace the two small stores at Nos. 743 and 745.

The two buildings were constructed mostly by men recruited from the neighborhood.  Archibald A. Hill, head of the project, explained to The Commons in January 1901, “As far as possible the neighbors were given preference in filling [construction] positions.”

Like the settlement house, the Armitage Chapel was clad in red Harvard brick, laid in Flemish bond, with green-black header bricks.  Vaguely Sicilian Romanesque, its no-nonsense design was humble at best when compared to the more elaborate settlement house.


Between the new West Side Neighborhood House and the Chapel, an existing tenement remained.  The Commons, January 1901 (copyright expired)
But the often-acerbic architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler was lavish in his praise.  “Evidently it has been built at the ‘irreducible minimum’ of cost, with not a dollar to be had for ornamental superfluities.  And yet it is not only inoffensive, which is rather high praise to be deserved in such conditions.  It even takes on something of architectural character by taking on some structural and functional expression.”

Schuyler pointed out that “cheap” did not necessarily translate to “bad.”  “Slight, cheap and simple as the thing is, there has gone some thought to the devising of it.  Compare it with its flanking neighbors, which are merely the common New York tenement houses, with their pretentious sham cornices, and see how its plainness becomes even distinguished.  If our cheapest buildings were all as good as this, what a basis we should have for the elaboration of it into architecture as it became more costly.”

The chapel was 50 feet wide and extended 65 feet back, affording space for 350 worshipers.  A “primary room” upstairs held 150 and could be opened up as a gallery, increasing the total seating to 450.  There were also three classrooms and three offices (one for the pastor and two secretaries’ rooms).   The yard behind the chapel became an open-air playground—a rarity in the crowded, squalid tenement neighborhood.

Archibald A. Hill was quick to point out that the outreach of the Fifth Avenue Baptists Church in Hell’s Kitchen was not purely religious.  He explained in January 1901 “The Settlement is not to be used as a bait to lure any one to the chapel.  It exists to do that which in itself is worth the doing and hence has no motive back of the deed.”

In 1902 the Legal Aid Society was located in the second floor of the old tenement building next door, and George Duer ran his street level shop there.  Among the residents in the building was Mrs. Margaret McKeever, a widow. 

On Independence Day that year Mrs. McKeever was not at home in her top floor apartment as neighborhood boys played with fireworks in the street.  With uncanny bad luck a Roman candle shot into the air and straight into Mrs. McKeever’s open window where it exploded on her bed.

A fire ensued, unnoticed by the other tenants until a man on the opposite side of the avenue noticed smoke.   The New York Times reported “Two alarms were sent in during the excitement which followed…This brought a large force of firemen and the reserves from the West Forty-seventh Street Police Station.”

The fire fighters broke into Mrs. McKeever’s apartment and “after a hard fight” were successful in confining the fire to the top floor.  At one point, when the flames were bursting through the window, the Chapel and the rest of the tenement seemed in jeopardy.

The loss was significant.  John D. Rockefeller’s building suffered $4,000 damages (more than $115,000 in 2016 dollars), and the lower floors were damaged by water.

The Fifth Avenue Baptist Church’s assistant pastor, the Rev. W. S. Richardson, had been transferred from the fashionable Fifth Avenue church to the Hell’s Kitchen chapel upon its opening in 1901.  He threw himself head-long into the work in the gritty neighborhood.  Working with him in 1907 was W. H. Hellier, who addressed John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Bible Class at the Fifth Avenue church on January 6 that year.

“You frequently hear that we have a tough element of citizens over on the West Side,” he began.  “In our neighborhood there are six saloons.  I shall be satisfied if we can put even one of them out of business.” 

Hellier had a novel scheme for defeating the saloons, and he asked for volunteers from the upscale congregation.  “My idea is to give a free Saturday night concert at the chapel to counteract the drawing power of these places.  I want young men who can play the piano and offer other service in the entertainment line.   Instead of going to the saloon for recreation on the night of pay day, we will offer the workingman another place, and it will cost him less.  Who will help?”

Not one hand was raised; but the Hellier was optimistic.  The New-York Tribune noted “It is believed that by next Sunday, when the class has had time to think it over, there will be plenty of volunteers.”

Hellier’s idea of luring the Hell’s Kitchen men away from the saloons and youths from the nickelodeons by providing entertainment expanded the following year.  In 1908 the chapel initiated a silent moving-picture screening every Tuesday night.   A beer or a nickelodeon cost a nickel; admission to the Armitage Chapel’s movie show was a penny.  The average attendance was about 250 youngsters alone.

On November 11, 1909 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the titles to all of the Settlement House properties—including the Chapel—transferred to himself.  For the past decade they had been held in the name of James A. Jenkins, John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s private secretary.

His motive in taking over ownership from his father was most likely exposed five months later when, on April 10, 1910, plans were filed by theater architect Thomas W. Lamb to convert the Armitage Chapel into a moving picture house.  The New York Times expounded, “The alterations will not be very extensive, consisting of enlarging the platform and installing a fireproof screen and building an operator’s booth.”

The venture did not last long.  On January 5, 1915 the Young Women’s Christian Association announced it had hired architect William S. Miller to rebuild the former chapel “into a swimming pool and restaurant.”  Miller’s plans called for reducing the structure “in size to a one-story building” for the joint swimming pool-restaurant.

By the 1970s Hell’s Kitchen was, finally, seeing improvement.  The neighborhood had maintained its reputation as a squalid, dangerous area well into the second half of the century.  It was the setting for Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 musical West Side Story which exposed the area’s racial and gang tensions.  But now many of the old tenements and neglected buildings were being razed for modern housing.

photo tours.vht.com
In 1976 the entire block where the Armitage Chapel and the West Side Neighborhood House had stood was demolished; to be replaced by the 38-story Hudson View Terrace apartments.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The George F. Brush House -- No. 79 Greenwich Avenue





In 1840 mason George F. Brush constructed his family’s three-story brick-faced home at No. 79 Greenwich Avenue.  It stood on the northern rim of an expanding Greenwich Village.  The diagonally-positioned avenue followed the route of a former Indian path and drew the line between the eccentric roads of the Village and the rigidly geometrical scheme of streets and avenues created by the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan.

The ample, 25-foot wide house reflected its working class builder.  The straight-forward design included no unnecessary extras.  The brick was laid in common bond, simple stone sills steadied the openings, and a plain cornice capped it.

In the rear lot was a small house built for rental income.  In 1842 stable operator George Hyatt lived there. 

Brush’s son, George P. Brush, was also a mason and worked with his father’s company, Rogers & Brush.  He would soon have his own house nearby, at No. 87 Greenwich Avenue.  While the Brushes lived relatively modestly, the success of the company was reflected in the bill they presented to the managers of the New-York Institution for the Blind in 1849.

In reporting the “total cost of the new building on the 8th Avenue” the Annual Report of the Institution included “Amount paid Rogers & Brush, masons” at $7,685; with $545.70 added for “extra work.”  The total of $8,230.70 they earned for the project would amount to about $275,000 in 2015.

Son George was still living at No. 87 when he lost a valuable item on July 10, 1851.  Within two days an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune looking for a lost “memorandum book, belonging to George P. Brush; also a Letter directed to J. H. Cornell, Esq, containing a note for $1,000, at three months from July 5, signed Austin Sherman, and indorsed Rogers & Brush, and George P. Brush.”  The ad clearly admonished that “Payment is stopped” and promised that “Any one leaving the above with George P. Brush, 87 Greenwich-av., or 106 Nassau-st.; will be suitably rewarded.”

In the meantime, the Brush family rented rooms in the rear house.  In 1853 there were two roomers, William Merschoff, a bootmaker; and “carman” William Cahell.  In 1854 space was being rented to broker Thomas W. Ogden, whose office was at No. 50 Wall Street; in 1857 Michael Dunning, a porter, and Patrick Corley rented rooms; and in 1859 another mason, John Farrell, was here.  He also volunteered at the Guardian Engine Company’s firehouse on West 10th Street. 


Earlier, around 1853, George P. Brush and his wife moved back into No. 79; either because the younger Brush was ill, or because his father had died.  George P. died on August 26, 1854 at the age of 47, and his funeral was held in the house at 2:00 the following Monday.


By the end of the Civil War his widow was still living in No. 79 and was teaching at Industrial School No. 8.  She was also one of three women in charge of the Housekeeping and Repairs department there.

By 1880 the Brush house had become the undertaking shop of Joseph Hanna.  It was here that many coroner’s inquests were held when the circumstances of death were deemed suspicious.  Such was the case with Mrs. Harriet Deutch, or Van Buren, as her fellow boarders knew her.

Harriet arrived at the boarding house of Mrs. Margaret Morgan at No. 234 West 11th Street in March 1880.  She was accompanied by a man named Deutch, who said he was her “agent.”  It was later discovered he was her former husband.  The two were married on November 2, 1876 and divorced on December 3 that same year “on the ground of incompatibility of temper.”

After boarding with Mrs. Morgan four days, Harriet complained of pain.  A doctor was sent for; but she refused to take the medicine he ordered.  After he left, she asked for tea and toast.  While it was being prepared, another boarder, Belle Montaine, check in on her.  She found Harriet unconscious on the bed.  Before Mrs. Morgan could get to the room, Harriet was dead.

A few minutes later, before Dr. Miller could return, Deutsch arrived and was told Harriet had died.  “He did not seem to be affected by the news, but went up to the room, looked at the dead woman, but made no remark,” reported The New York Times on April 2.  “He then left and returned 15 minutes later with a lady.  He brought her into the room, did not say a word to any one, and went out of the house.  This lady was Mrs. Brodhead, a cousin of the deceased.  Deutch did not return to the house.”

Because of the mysterious circumstances, an autopsy was performed on Harriet.  The coroner pointed to opium poisoning as the cause of death.  On April 1 a jury was sworn in at Joseph Hanna’s undertaking shop after which “they then formally viewed the remains of the unfortunate woman.”

The jury found no foul play involved in Harriet’s death; a decision that was strengthened by Deutch’s attorney testifying that “the deceased had been a confirmed opium-eater for eight years past.”

Joseph Hanna lived in the house where he ran his undertaking business.  He had been a volunteer firefighter in his younger years, and was a member of the Algonquin Gun Club, the Tough Club of the Ninth Ward, and a Mason.  By 1888 he leased space here to industrial photographers Picken & Co.  The Electrical World noted on November 3 that year that “Picken & Co., photographers, of 79 Greenwich avenue, make a specialty of dynamos and other machinery, and can show many good examples of their work.”

While the two firms were operating in the main house, the class of occupants in the rear building had declined.  On March 17, 1888 The New York Times reported on “a little family jar.”   Mary Gain and her mother, Bridge Carney, lived together in the basement.  The newspaper said “Both were drunk yesterday.  Bridget threw a lighted kerosene lamp at her daughter, which exploded, and the burning oil was thrown over the arms and hands of the daughter, burning her severely.  Then the daughter belabored her mother with a bale stick, breaking several of her mother’s ribs and cutting a severe gash on her head.”

Both women were treated at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, and then Mary was jailed at the Jefferson Market Police Court “to await the result of her mother’s injuries.”

The meager circumstances of the tenants in the rear building was reflected in an advertisement in The Sun on February 17, 1892.  “Woman wants situation in hotel or restaurant as dishwasher.  79 Greenwich av., top floor, rear.”

Joseph Hanna died in the house on May 31, 1893.  His undertaking operation continued in the house for at least two more years.

In May 1920 owner George A. Hamilton sold the property to Clayton M. Hamilton for $5,000.  What the California investor may have already known was that directly across the street from No. 97 Greenwich Avenue, plans were underway for a lavish silent movie theater—the Sheridan.   Certainly Martin J. Durkin knew about the project when he purchased the property a year later, in April, for more than double the amount--$11,000.  The New-York Tribune noted on April 14, 1921 that Durkin “will remodel the property.”

The triangular plot of land across the avenue from No. 79 Greenwich Avenue was about to be improved by a lavish movie palace when this photograph was taken.  photo by Arthur Hosking from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Later that same year The New York Times remarked on the “very noticeable improvements, although not on a large scale, being made in the Greenwich Avenue and Bank Street locality opposite the new Sheridan Theatre, which will be opened this Fall.”  The article noted “The tenement at 79 Greenwich Avenue, opposite the theatre, and the old building on the southwest corner of the avenue and Bank Street are being altered into stores and small apartments.”

When Durkin transferred the title in 1922 to his wife, Annie, the property was described as a three-story brick tenement and stores, with a three-story brick rear tenement.  Annie Durkin sold it on January 24, 1926 to Adolph and Aaron Weiss.

In 1932 The Washington Square Review had to find a new home. The New York Times reported on May 29 that “The magazine is dedicated to the publication of collegiate rebel literature” and had been “suppressed at New York University.”   The radical journal leased space at No. 79 Greenwich Avenue and resumed publication by an editorial board headed by editor Leonard Dal Negro.

According to actor Arthur Anderson in his 2010 autobiography An Actor’s Odyssey: From Orson Welles to Lucky the Leprechaun, when his mother Violet moved the family into a two-room apartment here “above Notle’s Delicatessen,” in the winter of 1935, the monthly rent was $37.50.  The selling price of the property that same year had risen to $28,000.

In 1940 the building was renovated, resulting in two apartments each on the upper floors.  Another overhaul in 1995 resulted in the rear building becoming a single-family residence and No. 97 now having one apartment each on the upper floors.  Vised in between two early 20th century apartment buildings, George Brush’s home is the last surviving relic of the 1840s on the block.

photograph by the author

Friday, February 26, 2016

The 1819 No. 146 Spring Street




Joseph Watkins and his wife, Elizabeth, owned a large rural estate north of the city in the early 19th century.  The family lived in a house on Spring Street.   As the city spread northward, Watkins’s land saw the gradual construction of modest brick homes.

Watkins died before 1819.  George Wragg was one of the three executors of his estate.  An Act “for the relief of the devisees of Joseph Watkins” was passed in Albany on January 28, 1820, which permitted the men to sell off Watkins’ property except “a certain house and lot of ground in Spring-street, devised to his wife and daughters.”

George Wragg had already purchased the southern block front of Spring Street, between West Broadway and Wooster Street from Watkins.  His plans for developing the block were nearly thwarted when the City proposed to widen Spring Street from Thompson to Wooster Street in 1817.  Wragg knocked on the doors of the few houses that existed at the time, then presented a petition to the Common Council on October 20, 1817.

The Minutes noted “A Petition of George Wragg, and a Remonstrace from sundry Inhabitants remonstrating against the widening of Spring Street from Thompson Street, were read.”  The Council decided to abandon the plans.

Wragg went on with his project and in 1819 completed the row of houses that lined the block.  No. 146 Spring Street sat one house away from the Wooster Street corner.   Three-and-a-half stories high, it was a commodious three bays wide.  The handsome Federal style entrance at street level—with its fluted Ionic columns and egg-and-dart detailing around the transom—placed the house a step above a working class dwelling.


No. 146 may not have always had a shop in the first floor; but there was a pharmacy in the house by 1850.  On November 16 that year an advertisement for James A. Quinn’s Cough Candy appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune.  “A sure cure for Coughs, Colds, Asthmas, Sore Throats, Hooping [sic] Cough, Influenza and all diseases leading to Consumption.  This Candy is prepared under the advice of a skillful Physician, and may be relied on in all cases.”  The ad noted that the miraculous lozenges were available at No. 146 Spring Street.

The drugstore was possibly run by William E. Smith, who lived in the upper floors in 1853.  The house had changed hands by 1868 when Albert Moore leased the store to Frederick Moog for three years at $725 per year.   His rent would equal a little more than $1,000 a month in 2016.

John Hersche operated his shoe shop here in the 1870s.  A fire broke out in the store around 2:00 on the morning of August 30, 1873, causing Hersche $100 in damages.  His son, Frederick, had taken over the business by 1891.  He earned extra money as a voter registration clerk.

By now the upper floors of the former house were being used for factory work.  Brothers Samuel and Isidore Epstein moved here in 1890 after their shop at No. 213 Greene Street burned.  S. Epstein & Sons manufactured hats and caps and  in 1895 its 10 male and two female employees worked an average of 54 hours per week.  That year the Epstein brothers retired, turning the business over to Louis W. and Benjamin Epstein.  They renamed the businesses Louis W. & B. Epstein.

The Hersche shoe shop was gone in 1898.  In its place was a barber shop which served voters in the neighborhood that year as their polling place.  It was replaced in 1901 by the L. Baumann furniture store.

The same year that Baumann moved in, James K. Bradt was making gloves and mittens on an upper floor.  Bradt started out nearby at No. 110 Spring Street in January 1886, “his attention mostly to the manufacture of gentlemen’s fine kid gloves,” according to Washington Frothingham in 1892.

Although Bradt’s was a small operation, staff-wise, with just five men who worked 59 hours a week; it turned out 9,000 dozen pairs of gloves in 1891.

The Soho neighborhood, and No. 146 Spring Street specifically, went through a series of changes in the 20th century.  In 1921 Gennaro Mazzi operated the G. Mazzi Cigar Company here; and in 1942 Charles Cella manufactured wooden chairs in the building.  But in 1950 when Frank M. Conte purchased the property, it was described as a “tenement,” assessed at $8,500.

Spring Street, overlooked for years, was rediscovered in the second half of the century as artists transformed Soho into the nucleus of the Manhattan art community.  In 1981 Pinx, a vintage clothing store, took the ground floor space where miraculous cough drops were snatched up in 1850; and in 2005 the upper portion was converted to one apartment per floor.   

The property next door has been demolished, and the other Federal style homes replaced with 19th century commercial buildings.  But No. 146 survives nearly intact.
Rather astonishingly, throughout its nearly 200-year history little changed to the outward appearance of No. 146.  Despite a coat of gray paint and modernized windows and storefront; the 1819 Federal doorway and the prim dormers survive.

photographs by the author

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Unexplained Charmer at No. 12 West 69th Street




Real estate developers and contractors Leo S. and Alexander M. Bing routinely turned to architect Robert T. Lyons for their substantial commissions.  In January 1912, for instance, Lyons designed their 20-story office building at Broadway and 20th Street, and the following year he filed plans for a 12-story apartment hotel at Nos. 46 to 50 East 58th Street.  Accustomed to such ambitious projects, Lyons may have been a bit surprised at the scale of another 1913 job.

In November that year he filed plans for a “brick and stone apartment house” to replace the Francis R. Stoddard house at No. 12 West 69th Street.  Bing & Bing had inexplicably small-ranged objectives for the valuable plot.  The “apartment house”—just two stories tall--would contain a single apartment and one artist studio.

The $20,000 building was completed in 1914.  Both surprising and charming, it boasted an adjoining private garage—the latest in convenience in the automobile age.  Lyons had produced a quaint structure faced in brown-beige dragfaced brick.  Drawing inspiration from two unrelated periods—Gothic and Flemish Revival—he decorated the fa├žade with projecting brick diapering in a diamond design.  Arches over upper windows, spandrel panels, and other decorations were also executed in projecting brick.  Leaded windows echoed the diamond pattern.  Flemish stepped gables flanked the vast studio window on the roof.  Lyon’s sparse use of stone trim was most evident in the Gothic pointed entrance.


Only one of the leaded windows survives.
On August 16, 1914 Bing & Bing advertised the two spaces in The Sun.  The “exceptionally large and light” apartment contained four rooms and a bath, and was offered at $1,400.  The rent would translate to about $2,850 per month today.  The “one room studio and bath” was advertised for about half that amount.

The studio was leased to artist Emma Fordyce MacRae.  Known in her personal life as Mrs. Homer Swift, she produced still life and portrait paintings from the sun-drenched space.   In 1916 she first exhibited in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibition.  In February the following year she and nine other women artists held a show at the Art Club of Philadelphia.  The group would become known as the Philadelphia Ten and would exhibit their works together through 1945.

Of her scores of portraits, all of Emma Fordyce MacRae's subjects were women.  This one, Melina in Green, was painted in 1931 and is in private collection. 
In the meantime, writer Fannie Hurst leased the apartment below.  Unlike Emma, who used the studio only as a workspace, Hurst lived and worked in the apartment.  Her novels and plays often focused on the working class, which she meticulously researched for authenticity.  In 1919 Herringshaw’s American Blue-Book of Biography noted “She has made special studies of the stage, the shop girl and her environment; and served as saleswoman, waitress and other positions.  She also made a trip across the Atlantic in the steerage to obtain material for a novel.”

Among her works so far were the novels Just Around the Corner, Every Soul Hath its Song, and Gaslight Sonatas; and plays The Land of the Free, and The Good Provider.  Two of her later novels, Back Street and Imitation of Life would become the basis of successful screen plays.

Fannie Hurst had a secret.  And in April 1920 she found out that a St. Louis newspaper had discovered it and was about to print the sensational story.  Rather than allow the public to learn about her five-year marriage to pianist Jacques S. Danielson through salacious reporting; she held a press conference of sorts in the 69th Street apartment on May 3.

The New-York Tribune reported that the “Announcement of the marriage was made yesterday by Miss Hurst as she reclined on a mouse-colored lounge.”  Fannie explained that she and Danielson had been married on May 5, 1915 in Lakewood, New Jersey and “they parted company thirty minutes later.”

Fannie Hurst --photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Tribune advised “Since then they have maintained separate homes, so as not to interfere with each other’s artistic achievements…They will continue to live apart, maintaining separate studios, keeping their own friends, and doing just as they please.”

The modern and unorthodox arrangement was shocking to some readers.  But Fannie insisted the plan worked.  They considered the marriage “a trial” initially; but she said “now, after an acid test which has lasted five years the dust is still on the butterfly wings of our adventure and the dew is on the rose.”

She was blunt in her independent views on marriage.  “Five years ago I found my youthful determination that marriage was not for me suddenly undermined; but my determination that marriage should never lessen my capacity for creative work or pull me down into a sedentary state of fat-mindedness was not undermined.

“Being firmly of the opinion that nine out of ten alliances I saw about me were merely sordid endurance tests, overgrown with a fungus of familiarity and contempt, convinced that too often the most sacred relationship wears off like a piece of high sheen satin damask, and in a few months becomes a breakfast cloth, stale with soft boiled egg stains, I made certain resolutions concerning what my marriage should not be.”

The couple had breakfast together twice a week.   Fannie rejected the “antediluvian custom of a woman casting aside [her] name...I was born Fannie Hurst and expect to die Fannie Hurst.”  Should a baby arrive, it would take its father’s surname until it was of the age that it could choose for itself.

If either Fannie or her husband wanted to have dinner or go out together, they telephoned for an appointment.  And the author gave the press an amusing example of situations that sometimes arose because of their secret alliance.  “One evening last week, I attended theatre with a friend, and sat, quite by chance, next to my husband and a party of his friends.  And we were introduced to one another!”


By 1930, when Emma Fordyce MacRae was made a member of the National Academy of Design, Fannie Hurst been gone from the building for several years.  She had moved to the nearby 67th Street Studios Building.  Her apartment had been taken by artist Thomas Spector.   He had studied art in Europe for several years; and since 1925 earned his living as the director of the art department of the James Madison High School in Brooklyn.  Spector lived in the 69th Street apartment with his wife and three children.  He was killed in a horrific accident when the car he was riding in crashed into a stone wall in East Hampton, Connecticut on August 21, 1930. 

By 1933 actress Molly Picon was living in the apartment.  Born Malka Opiekun in New York City, her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland.  She began her stage career at the age of six in the Yiddish Theatre.  By the time she moved into No. 12 West 69th Street she was wildly popular and had opened the Molly Picon Theatre in 1931.   Decades later she would be a beloved character actress on television series like Car 54, Where Are You? and The Facts of Life.

On June 24, 1933 a reporter from The New York Times came to the apartment to interview Molly on her recent trip abroad.  She gave her perspective on the several social and political issues that were changing the world.

She was happily optimistic about the development of Palestine, saying “The people are building something new and they are building it happily and joyfully.  An atmosphere of friendliness and affection pervades the country and people go about singing in the streets.”

She touched upon the situation in Germany where a few months earlier Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor.  She said she and her husband had “encountered no discourtesy there, but that the country was exuding hatred for the whole non-German world, Jew and Gentile alike.”

Following Molly in the apartment was artist Joseph Hirsch.  While living here in 1944, with World War II raging throughout Europe, he traveled to the Italian front.  He spent two months on the battlefield, sketching United States Army doctors and nurses in action.

Emma Fordyce MacRae was still in the studio here in 1974, sixty years after she first signed the lease.  By now her works hung in the Cosmopolitan Club and the National Academy of Design.  She died on Tuesday, August 6 that year in her Park Avenue apartment.  She was 87 years old.

By the 1980s No. 12 West 69th Street had become home to the publishing firm English Crafters.  In 1994 it was converted to a single family house with a home gym, wine cellar, and, reflective of its new role, three “nanny rooms.” 

Other than the sad loss of the leaded windows, little has changed outwardly to the surprising little century-old building.

photographs by the author