Tuesday, April 24, 2018

From Rudy Vallee to Ghostbusters--55 Central Park West


The color of the brick gently changes from dark to light, giving the impression that the sun is always shining on the facade.
For decades The Courtney and The Georgian Court had stood at the southwest corner of Central Park West and 66th Street.  Like other resident hotels along the swanky street, their residents enjoyed spacious suites.  A 10-room, 3- bath apartment in The Courtney rented for up to $4,500 a year in 1922--about $5,500 a month today.

The Beaux Arts style The Courtney  (with the mansard) and The Georgian Court catered to turn of the century upper class residents.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

But the 1920's saw Manhattan's lavish private homes and fussy Victorian resident hotels losing favor to modern apartment buildings.  Scores of smaller buildings were razed and replaced by Art Deco behemoths.  On April 6, 1930 The New York Times noted  "Central Park West will witness the opening this year of about half a dozen new structures all covering large plots."

Among those was 55 Central Park West on the site of The Courtney and The Georgian Court. Its trendy Art Deco design came from the drafting rooms of Schwartz & Gross for the 55 Central Park West Corp., especially formed for the project by Victor Earle and John C. Calhoun.

Schwartz & Gross released this rendering in 1930.  (copyright expired) 
Completed in the fall of 1930, the 19-story brick and stone structure epitomized the Jazz Age.  The warm yellow stone of the base stair-stepped to four floors above the entrance at on the 66th Street side.  The Oz-ready geometric piers that clung to the facade gave dimension and dynamism.  The top-most floors detonated in a white mountainscape of spiky stepped finials and piers.

Upper West Side apartment buildings, unlike their East Side peers, were routinely given names--like The Dakota and The Ansonia.  The new Central Park West buildings followed suit, including the San Remo and El Dorado.   But Earle & Calhoun were content with the address, 55 Central Park West.

Months before its completion well-heeled tenants had lined up to sign leases.  The building was 75 percent leased in July.

The wealth of it residents was was evidenced the following year when Charles E. Douglas's 65-foot yacht exploded in Gravesend Bay.  On October 20, 1931 the captain of The Hat, Victor Belding, was filling one of the fuel tanks when the explosion occurred, destroying the vessel.  Douglas placed its value at more than $800,000 in today's dollars.

Living in an eight-room apartment on the 17th floor was Edward R. Brevoort and his wife, the former Mary Waldie.  Like the wives of most moneyed businessmen, Mary spent her summers away from the city, being joined by her husband one the weekends and periodic longer stays.

Mary was on Cape Cod in the summer of 1932.  The household staff was cut back to one maid during the summer months and she "slept out," meaning she did not live with the couple.  She was therefore not there at 6:00 on the morning of August 18 when doorman Stanley Dawson "was startled by the thud of a body in the rear courtyard," according to police.

He discovered the body of the 60-year old Brevoort, in his pajamas, beside a window screen.  The impact was powerful enough to wake other tenants.  The suggestion of suicide at the time was something that was strenuously denied by upscale families.  That may have led to investigators releasing an amazingly detailed conjecture of events preceding Brevoort's death.

Police told reporters "His bed had been slept in.  Walking through the apartment, he had apparently felt dizzy, stepped toward the window for air, and toppled out, carrying the screen with him."

The year that 55 Central Park West was completed famous band leader and singer Rudy Vallee married the relatively unknown motion picture actress Fay Webb.  The newlyweds moved into the new building. 

On September 23, 1932 the upstate New York newspaper The Irvington Gazette reported "''Barney' Huston, of East Clinton Avenue, popular Rye patrolman, had the privilege last Friday night of ticketing Rudy Valee [sic], noted orchestra leader and crooner."  The officer had been sitting in his patrol car on the Boston Post Road when Vallee sped past him on the way home from Connecticut.

"The orchestra leader was brought to Rye headquarters and posted at $15.00 bail for speeding at 45 miles."  Vallee gave his name as Hubert P. Vallee.  He did not bother to show up at court the following Monday, forfeiting his $15.  The newspaper clearly sided with Officer Huston.  "Poor Rudy seems to have no end of trouble if it isn't with his wife, it's a cop, but in this instance with a good one who believes in doing his duty.  Rudy or no Rudy."

The trouble with his wife mentioned in the article referred to reports of marital discord that had hit the newspapers a month earlier.  Only a year into their marriage, The New York Times reported on August 30, 1932 "a Reno divorce is likely unless difficulties that have arisen between them can be harmonized."

Rudy Vallee and his new wife would enjoy brief wedded bliss at 55 Central Park West -- original source unknown

Both the crooner and his wife were using attorney Hyman Bushel.  He told reporters the "several court actions" brought against Vallee by Fay were caused by "a question of not getting on together" and a "wide divergent in temperament."  The Times article noted that Vallee was on tour and said "Mrs. Vallee is staying at the Vallee apartment at 55 Central Park West with her father and mother."

Fay Webb Vallee left New York and in 1935 Vallee sued for divorce, contending that she was carrying on a dalliance with dancer Gary Leon.  The courts sided with Vallee, giving Fay little compensation.  She filed several appeals in California and New York to no avail.

Rudy Vallee's name had appeared in newspapers for another legal matter in the spring of 1934.  On April 2 a maid, Nora Sullivan, took Beauty, a black Pomeranian, for a walk in Central Park.  She was one of 34 other women who were fined $1 each "for allowing their pets to roam unmuzzled."  Like Beauty, the other 33 dogs were Pomeranians.  The women appeared in court and complained that "muzzles are not made for Pomeranians."

The judge was not moved.  According to The New York Times Magistrate Aurelio barked "Get a muzzle anyway, even if you have to make it yourself."  The article pointed out that Beauty was "a dog owned by another Vallee servant, not the crooner's shepherd, Windy."

Photographer Edmund Vincent Gillon successfully captured the architectural beauty of the upper section, which Real Estate Magazine once described as looking like an Alpine mountain.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Vallee was not the only celebrity in the building at the time.  Opera star Lily Pons was a resident during the 1930s, and Ginger Rogers took an apartment here at the same time while appearing on Broadway. Like Rudy Vallee, Pons had a pet; but unlike his German shepherd, hers was far more exotic--a Brazilian jaguar named Ita.

The diva had received the animal as a gift when it was just three months old.   She treated it like a house cat and Ita traveled with her in railroad cars and hotel rooms.  Eventually, however, Pons was convinced to give Ita to the Bronx Zoo.  The Times explained on March 16, 1934, "But Ita disliked visitors.  She didn't mind Miss Donna McKay, the singer's secretary, or the French maid, because she grew up with them.  Lately, however, she had begun to snarl at visitors and her restless tail gave danger signs."

Ita rode to the zoo in the front seat of Pons's limousine with the chauffeur.  The singer and her jaguar had a sad parting and Pons was specific regarding the cat's diet.  She told keeper Max Lendsberry "Ita must be fed twice each day.  She likes only raw meat, run through the chopper."

Another high-profile resident was former broker Charles A. Stoneham.  His colorful and sometimes shady career included ownership of the New York Giants baseball team and the New York Giants soccer team.  By the time he and his wife, Johanna, moved into the building his name was still stained by two Federal indictments in 1923--one for perjury and the other for mail fraud--both of which he was cleared of.  And his involvement in the "Soccer Wars" of 1929 which led to the disbanding of the American Soccer League also tainted his reputation among sports fans.

In the early 1930's Stoneham showed symptoms of Bright's Disease, a kidney disorder better known today as nephritis.  He went to Hot Springs, Arkansas in the winter of 1935-36 and died there on January 6.

Other residents were no doubt shocked when Harry H. Rein was arrested on November 18, 1937, charged with the theft of $119,000 in securities.  The stock trader, whose office was at No. 70 Pine Street, was accused of forging signatures to liquidate bonds.  Loudly protesting his innocence, Rein was released on $10,000 bail awaiting trial.  And he quickly found another money-making scheme.

Renting a desk in another security trader's office, he and securities dealer Clarence Woodruff Valentine and his office manager, Jack Sullivan, set up a betting operation.  They gathered thousands of dollars in bets on the Roosevelt-Wilkie election.  Then they disappeared.

On November 4, 1940 investigators for the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission started a search for the men, who made off with $16,800 in winnings they owed to Roosevelt supporters.

In the meantime, Louis Baumgold had serious servant troubles.  The wealthy jeweler was a partner in Baumgold Brothers, one of the leading diamond importing and cutting firms in the country.  Two of the family's live-in servants in 1937 were housemaid Josephine Kotva and chauffeur Joseph Gerschner.

On January 30, 1938 Baumgold called the police to report he had been burglarized.  Missing was $9,500 in silverware, jewelry and costly linens--a significant $165,000 haul today.   The investigation into the case did not take especially long.  On February 21 the 36-year old chauffeur and the 30 year old maid were arrested.

Interestingly, it was a jury member and not Gerschner's brazen crime which drew press coverage.  On May 14, 1938 the Indiana Recorder ran the headline "New York Has First Colored Woman Juror" and reported "A decided advance in the struggle for equal rights was registered here this week when Mrs. Virginia G. Pope, a Negro housewife, was chosen as a juror in the Court of General Sessions."  It was the first time in the 225-year old court history that a black woman had served.

When the nation was pulled into World War II with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, resident Rae Simon threw herself full-force into fund raising.  And she did not allow her age to get in the way of her efforts.  Three years later, on June 10, 1944 The Times reported "An advance campaign for the Fifth War Loan begun by Mrs. Rae Simon, who is 77 years old, and one of the city's most successful house-to-house canvassers in previous drives, already has resulted in the sale of $4,000 worth of war bonds."  So far she had collected more than $250,000 in bond sales.

The article added that during the current drive, "Mrs. Simon plans to solicit every tenant in the apartment building in which she lives at 55 Central Park West."  But, of course, the well-mannered widow did not knock on doors indiscriminately.  "She writes to all her prospects and arranges appointments before making her bond sales calls, she explains."

The crafty Mrs. Simon started her appeal telling each prospective donor, "Take your watch out.  I promise not to stay more than three minutes, five at the most.  If it is longer, you are detaining me."  One resident of the building purchased a $5,000 bond as a birthday present to her.  Her largest single sale was $10,000.

She told a reporter that bond selling was a privilege for senior citizens "because we older people want to take a part in the war and this is one of the few ways in which we can serve and feel that we aren't has-beens and really are accomplishing something."

Only a year later Mrs. Simon had topped the $1 million mark in sales.  In April she embarked on what she called "Spring training" for the Seventh War Loan, in which she served as a "Blue Star Brigadier."

Earlier that same year the owners of 55 Central Park West had commenced a conversion of about 26 apartments of the 115 apartments into "cooperative suites."   Prospective buyers paid around $381,00 for the spaces.   But tenants sued and a "controversial test case," as described by The Times, dragged on for months.  Finally, on September 2 the Office of Price Administration ruled.  The newspaper said it "has forbidden the owners of the fashionable apartment building...to evict a group of tenants and convert their suites into cooperatives units."  The ruling was based on OPA regulations that insisted to 80 percent of participants in any cooperative must be former tenants."

The cooperative conversation eventually went through, with some existing residents purchasing immediately and other apartments converting as tenants moved out.

When location scouts searched for a building to represent The Shandor, home of characters Dana Barrett and Louis Tully in the 1984 Ghostbusters, 55 Central Park West was a strong contender.  And, although Don Shay, in his Making Ghostbusters, admits it was "our second choice," it won out.

It was the building, not its celebrated residents, that was the star in the 1984 Ghostbustersimage via new.avclub.com
Also known in the film as "Spook Central," it lacked the upper section called for in the script, so eight additional stories and the temple were added through matte paintings.

By then well known residents included Donna Karen, Marsha Mason and screenwriter Ringgold "Ring" Lardner Jr.    Composer Jerry Herman purchased a top floor apartment in the 1970's and did major renovations, including removing walls.  He brought in his Mason & Hamlin grand piano on which he had written the score to Mame.  It would be the beginning of a somewhat bizarre period in the apartment's history.

Calvin Klein visited Herman in 1983 and was reportedly so enamored with the apartment he offered the composer $1 million at once.  Herman told a journalist "It sounded like an offer I couldn't refuse."  And he didn't.

Like his predecessor, Klein made changes, one of which got him into hot water--both literally and figuratively.  He installed a hot tub on the roof which drew the ire of the co-op board.

Then in 1989 Klein put his his beloved apartment on the market for $3.9 million.  Motion picture producer Keith Barish signed a contract and a check for the $390,000 deposit, then changed his mind.  Instead, Klein's close friend David Geffen bought it for even more money, $4.3 million.  He never moved in.

Almost unbelievably, he sold the space a year later for $4.6 to Keith Barish, who had changed his mind again.  And equally unbelievably, Barish never moved in either.  He purchased Marsha Mason's apartment next door, thinking he would combine the two.  But once again he changed his mind and sold both to...yes...Calvin Klein.

Klein removed all but the load-bearing walls to create a Soho-esque loft space.  The designer held on to the still gutted apartment until September 1998 when Diane Sawyer and her husband, Mike Nichols offered $7.5 million (plus another $1 million to the co-op board for the rooftop terrace rights.  But they lost out.

Instead another resident, Steve Gottlieb of TVT Records outbid them.  But fourteen years later, in 2012, the apartment was still vacant and Gottlieb had yet to finish renovations due to fights with the co-op board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.   He continued to live on the 18th floor and to use the penthouse for parties.   Finally, after putting more than $5 million into "infrastructure improvements," he placed it on the market in 2012 for $35 million.


Schwartz & Gross's 55 Central Park West is a handsome link in the chain of snazzy Art Deco apartment buildings that line the park--buildings that defined America's concept of wealthy New Yorkers' lives in the Depression era.


photographs by the author

Monday, April 23, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, April 21, 2018

The 1898 Cushman Building - 1 Maiden Lane


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

photographs by the author

Friday, April 20, 2018

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1891 Garfield Flats - 104 Forsyth Street


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photographs by the author