Monday, April 24, 2017

The Warren-Van Nest Mansion - Bleecker and Charles Streets


The house as it appeared in 1854.  Valentine's Manual, from the collection of the New York Public Library
Although the Warren family was Irish, it was considered "in the pale," or highly favored by the British.  Peter Warren was  born in 1703 and by the time he was 14 years old was taken into the British Navy.  At the age of 20 he was a full captain with his first command.
Although Warren would become a British vice admiral, Knight of the Bath, Member of Parliament and would be buried in Westminster Abbey; it was his life in colonial New York City that is most often remembered.
Captain Warren was sent to New York in 1728.  The 25-year old naval officer came and went as cruises and battles called; each time garnering more glory.  The Common Council of the city bestowed on him “the freedom of the city” and he married perhaps the most sought after young woman in the colony, Susannah Delancey, daughter of Stephen Delancey.  Susannah was not only beautiful and cultured, she brought with her “a pretty fortune.”
The Warrens lived in a stately home "on the Bowling Green."  Wealthy New Yorkers were expected to maintain summer estates north of the city.  And so on June 18, 1731, the same year he married Susannah, Warren purchased land overlooking the Hudson River north of, according to the deed, the "Old Road to Grinedge."   For several years the couple used the former home of Captain Johannes Benson, built in 1700, which sat on the land as Warren enlarged his estate.
Four more parcels were added, including land granted by the corporation of the city of New York in recognition for Warren's role in the Siege of Louisbourg.  Eventually the estate encompassed 300 acres.
Thomas Hudson painted this portrait of Sir Peter Warren around the time the Greenwich House was constructed.
 In 1744 Warren started work on his permanent country manse.  A visitor, Thomas Janvier, described the house in his journal.  As recorded by New York historian Arthur Bartlett Maurice in his 1918 Fifth Avenue, he wrote:
The house stood about three hundred yards back from the river, on ground which fell away in a gentle slope towards the waterside.  The main entrance was from the east; and at the rear—on the level of the drawing-room and a dozen feet or so above the sloping hillside—was a broad veranda commanding the view westward to the Jersey Highlands and southward down the bay to the Staten Island Hills.
Historian Frederick Clifton Pierce explained in his 1901 Field Genealogy, "Originally the place extended to the Hudson river, and a double row of century-old buttonwoods formed an avenue all the way down the gentle slope to the water's edge.  The house at that time was approached from the west by a circular driveway which made an extensive sweep around the lawn.  This beautiful curve always remained defined, even when grass-grown.
"The house stood in a perfect forest of grand old trees, horse chestnuts, willows, poplars, sycamores and locusts forming in some places an impenetrable shade.  Besides these, were peach, apricot, and cherry trees, always laden i their season with delicious fruit, while a pear tree, standing guard at one corner of the house could almost thrust its giant branches into the upper windows."
Susannah Warren's gardens were sumptuous.  Planted with "a veritable fairyland of flowers," a profusion of varieties bloomed in flower beds and twined above bowers.  Pierce noted "During the month of June, the garden was literally pink with roses."  One visitor remarked that "when she left, she felt like Eve leaving Paradise."
The house was unexpectedly filled in 1748 when a devastating smallpox epidemic terrorized the city.  Sir Peter offered the colonial assembly the use of his country seat (variously referred to as The Greenwich House, The Mansion, or The Manse).   In Pierce's words the assembly "adjourned thither to escape the plague by being in the country."
Sir Peter Warren was in England in 1752 when he died.  His name survives in Tribeca's Warren Street.  He left three daughters, one of whom, Charlotte, was married to the Earl of Abingdon (the namesake of Abingdon Square).   Charlotte inherited the Greenwich Village house "with fifty-five acres of land around about it."

Charlotte sold the house and land to Abijah Hammond, who became highly visible in the local Colonial Government.   On February 5, 1790 he was appointed as a grand juror for the newly-formed District Court of New York.  In addressing his jury, Judge James Duane remarked on the task of upholding an entirely new set of laws.  "In a charge to the first Grand Inquest convened for this District, I tread an unbeaten path.  We are now become emphatically a nation."
Two years later, on October 6, 1792,  the Gazette of the United-States reported "On Monday last an election was held at Newark in New-Jersey, for Directors of the National Manufactory for the ensuing year."  Among the 14 directors were highly influential New Yorkers like John Bayard, Nicholas Low, Herman Le Roy and Abijah Hammond.
The area around the former Warren house was still rural and bucolic. But Hammond recognized foresaw the change just beyond the horizon.  He subdivided his 55 acres into blocks and lots.  The elegant country house now sat on a one-block parcel, facing Herring Street (renamed Bleecker in 1829) and bounded by West 4th Street, Charles Street, and the road that would later be named Perry.
The house was purchased in 1802 by Whitehead Fish.  He owned it until his death, after which his heirs sold it in 1819 to Abraham Van Nest for $15,000--about $288,000 today.   Van Nest was president of the Greenwich Savings Bank, was a prominent merchant and a leader in church and city affairs. 
Van Nest and his wife, the former Margaret Field, had been married on April 5 1800 and had 11 children.  They used the Greenwich Village house, initially, as their summer home.  It was about two miles north of their city house on William Street.  
Abraham and Margaret Field Van Nest -- Field Genealogy, 1901 (copyright expired)
The Van Nest house was the scene of warm entertainments  Rev. John Knox, the pastor of Reformed Dutch Church of which Van Nest was an elder, often stopped by for visits.  His granddaughter, Euphemia M. Olcott, recalled her many visits with her grandfather years later.  "It was a country residence of a gentleman, with flower and vegetable gardens, a stable, a cow, chickens, pigeons, and a peacock, all dear to childish hearts."
She wrote in Bruno's Weekly in 1919, "A large hall ran through the house and a large mahogany table stood there, and this was always furnished with a large silver cake-basket full of delicious spong-cake, a batch of which must have been made every morning, I am sure, by the colored cook.  And from this basket we were urged--no!  We never needed urging--we were permitted to help ourselves--and we did."
The Warrens' daughter Ann was married to John Schermerhorn Bussin in the house on August 20, 1833.  Bussing was a pioneer in the wholesale dry goods trade in New York, a partner in E. & J. Bussing.  Later he became head of the iron and nail firm John S. Bussing & Co.  The couple moved into the Greenwich Village mansion with Ann's parents.
Ann and John's daughter, Mary, created this charming primitive of the house in 1854.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Before mid-century the family was living in the house year-round.  "Notwithstanding the surging waves of aggressive progress which gradually blended the city with the rural districts and absorbed them, Mr. Van Nest made this beautiful spot his home...preserving every feature of its antiquity intact, in the midst of a densely populated district of the city," wrote Frederick Pierce.
The family received a fright on the night of February 1, 1858 when fire broke out.  The New York Times reported "The stately wooden mansion of Ex-Alderman Van Nest, in Bleecker-street, narrowly escaped destruction by fire yesterday forenoon.  A spark from one of the chimneys set fire to the roof, but fortunately it was discovered before it had made much headway, and speedily extinguished."
The journalist got the history of the estate woefully wrong.  "It was built nearly fifty year ago as a country residence by its present owner and occupant and at that time was considered a long distance out of town."
Grief visited the mansion twice in 1864.  On June 9 John Schermerhorn Bussing died; and just three months later, on the evening of September 14, Abraham Van Nest died at the age of 88.  His funeral was held in the house three days later at 3:00.
Frederick Clifton Pierce wrote that he had died "at his beautiful mansion on Bleecker Street, which had become one of the notable landmarks of the city, in 'Old Greenwich Village.'  It stood, surrounded by trees, in the enter of a city block of two and a half acres."
Shortly before the house was demolished, in 1865, Mary Bussing made one last sketch.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But the "refreshing oasis in the city of New York," as Pierce described it, was about to go.  "Shortly after it was sold, the trees felled, the house demolished, and the whole place, so filled with sacred associations, swept out of sight."
The former estate quickly filled with speculative buildings.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The 1903 Heyl & Noethen Bldg - No. 9 West 19th Street



In 1850 Livingston Satterlee constructed a three-story brick-faced home at No. 9 West 19th Street.  A mirror-image of No. 7, the 25-foot wide residence featured the elegant details expected of wealthy homeowners just steps from Fifth Avenue.

By the 1880s it was home to Theodore Houston, his wife, Charlotte, and their son, Theodore, Jr.  Houston was vice-president of the New-York, Ontario and Western Railroad.  By the time the family moved in a seamless fourth floor had been added.

By late 1887 Theodore and Charlotte had moved into the apartment house at No. 80 Madison Avenue; possibly discouraged by the gradual change of the neighborhood from residential to commercial.   Houston retained ownership of the 19th Street house, however.  The New York Times noted in January 1888, "Mr. Houston was reported to have a comfortable fortune, and owned the house 9 West Nineteenth-street."

The reason that the journalist used the past tense was explained by the first line of the article.  "Just before the close of business yesterday a painful sensation was caused upon the Street by the announcement that Theodore Houston, well known as a railroad man...had committed suicide."

During the next decade developer Henry Corn would be highly instrumental in transforming the Lower Fifth Avenue district from one of brick and brownstone mansions to modern loft buildings.  In 1902 he purchased the 19th Street house, along with the similar one directly behind, at No. 8 West 20th Street.  He had earlier purchased the property abutting the 20th Street house.  The Evening Post Record of Real Estate Sales announced "He will erect a twelve-story loft building on the entire plot."

Something derailed Corn's plans and the proposed L-shaped structure never came to pass.  Instead he entered negotiations with restaurant operators Charles J. S. Heyl and Joseph Noethen to erect a five-story loft building that included a two-story restaurant at street level.

On April 4, 1903 The Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Heyl & Noethen had leased "the entire building to be erected at 9 West 19th st."  The lease for "a term of years" totaled $50,000 (or about $1.5 million today).

Henry Corn commissioned architect Robert Maynicke, who was already responsible for several of the developer's projects, to design the structure.   Completed in 1904 the neo-Renaissance structure was faced in gray-buff brick and terra cotta.  Maynicke had reserved the ornamental interest to the restaurant section, framing it in terra cotta garlands that trailed from an elaborate central cartouche.  A projecting shop window was flanked by two entrances--one to the upper floors and the other to the restaurant. Diners on the second floor could gaze out the four handsome sets of French windows.


Decoration of the upper floors was limited mainly to the scrolled terra cotta keystones and the rather ornate cast metal cornice.

Included in the stipulations of Heyl & Noethen were living quarters for at least one of the families.  Soon after moving in the Heyl family would suffer a devastating tragedy.  Dora Heyl joined the cheery group which boarded the steamboat General Slocum on the morning of June 15, 1904 headed to a picnic upriver.  Members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the German group was composed mostly of women and children (it being a Wednesday and a workday).

Fire erupted on board and, in the worst loss of life in New York until the September 11, 2001 murders, the General Slocum rapidly burned to the waterline, killing an estimated 1,021.  Among the bodies identified was that of 18-year old Dora Heyl.

In 1906 Henry Corn sold the building to Stern Brothers, whose massive department store sat on West 23rd Street.  Heyl and Noethen still held the lease, subletting space on the upper floors to clothing manufacturers like Lion Infants Wear Co., on the fourth floor, and F. Hisch Co., makers of "cloaks and suits." 

In June 1911, with bankruptcy on the horizon, Heyl & Noethen took out a mortgage on their "restaurant, wine and liquor business" from another German restaurateur, the well-known August Luchow.    The influx of cash postponed the failure until April 1912.  Luchow was now legally justified in liquidating their fixtures and stock to repay his mortgage.  Instead, he magnanimously instructed the courts that the Heyl & Noethen remain in "quiet and peaceable possession...and free enjoyment of same."

At the time brothers Charles and John Seigel had lunch here every day.  They were partners in the Star Piece Dyeing and Finishing Corporation at block away at No. 139 West 19th Street.  Expected regulars every lunchtime, the men continued their routine for 20 years.  Then on April 7, 1932 40-year old Charles was found dead in the stairway of the restaurant.  He had swallowed poison.  No one could imagine the motive for his suicide.

The tragedy did not end with Charles's death.  Two years later, on April 8, 1934, The New York Times wrote that "Ever since Charles Siegel...committed suicide two years ago yesterday, his brother, John Siegel, 40 years old, who was secretary of the concern, had missed him."

John was unable to return to the restaurant where he and his brother had shared their daily lunches for two years. Then, as The Times reported, "Yesterday, the second anniversary of his brother's death, and within an hour of the time, John Siegel went to the restaurant and ate a large meal.   Then he walked out toward the street.  Taking a bottle of poison from his pocket, he drank a fatal dose."

By mid-century the garment district had moved north of 34th Street.  The former restaurant was the bookstore, Veterans Historical Book Service, by 1951.  The books dealt with military history, like the Pictorial History of the Korean War which sold for $4 that year.  The proceeds went to the rehabilitation funds for the National Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Upstairs was the Haberstroh Film Studio, Inc., headed by Alex Haberstrom.  He produced education films and was a science fiction special effects expert.   In the 1950s he pioneered low-budget space films and the popular Captain Video television series.  The Times noted in December 1973 that "In 1962, excerpts of his 'First Men Into Space' simulated for many TV viewers, the earth-orbiting space voyage of John Glenn, the astronaut.  Among Mr. Haberstroh's other films were 'Trip to the Planets' and 'Space Probes,' produced in cooperation with Encylopaedia Britannica Films, Inc."

The tradition of a bookstore in the former restaurant space was continued in August 1995 when Revolution Books moved in.  The not-for-profit store specialized in Communist and "leftist literature."  It remained here until about 2011.

Communist books gave way to decidedly capitalist enterprise when the store became home to Rafael Interiors (later Rafael Upholstery), specializing in "antique restoration, leather work, wall upholstery and custom built furniture."



In the meantime, Robert Maynicke's handsome building perseveres relatively intact.   Although the ground floor entrances have been replaced, the projecting 1904 show window (albeit with new plate glass) survives, as do the striking French windows of the restaurant's second floor.

photographs by the author

Friday, April 21, 2017

Albert Wagner's 134-136 Spring Street



In October 1894 architect and developer Albert Wagner purchased the "old buildings" at Nos. 134 and 136 Spring Street, and at Nos. 84 through 88 Wooster Street.  The properties, which formed an L, cost Wagner nearly $200,000; and the Real Estate Record & Guide predicted he "will improve the property at an early date by the erection of a seven or ten-story semi-fire-proof business structure."

Wagner wasted little time in designing his new loft and store building.  Plans were filed on January 19, 1895 with projected construction costs at $150,000--nearly $4.4 million today.  His aggressive Renaissance Revival design included massive two-story piers of chunky rough-cut stone at street level.  Above the second story, two vast four story arches were framed zipper-like by terra cotta blocks decorated with oak leaves.  Wagner's additional use of terra cotta included full relief rosettes, spandrel panels of wreaths and ribbons, and three massive immense growling lion heads below the sixth floor cornice.  A deeply overhanging cornice supported by ambitious brackets rose above the top floor arcade.

Oak leaves fill the terra cotta quoins.  The brackets of the overhanging cornice, restored in the late 20th century, are especially interesting.

The Wooster Street elevation was slightly less grand, with alternating brick and stone layers replacing the hefty base piers, and with the terra cotta embellishments pulled back to rosettes tracing the fifth and sixth floor openings, smaller versions of the lions' heads serving as brackets, and decorative cast iron masonry supports adding interest to the piers at the third floor.

Even as the building was being constructed tenants began lining up.  On June 14 Franklin & Mirsky leased the third, fourth and seventh floors at an annual rental of $10,000 (about $24,250 per month today).   The firm, which had been operating from nearby on Greene Street, manufactured wrappers and tea gowns--the ornate dressing gowns made to be worn over petticoats.  Tailor to fit like a dress, women arising in the morning might even wear them to the breakfast table without risking her respectability.


Decades earlier, in the 1850s, Godey's Magazine depicted a women in her wrapper (left).  Franklin & Mirsky's models would have been much less voluminous.  (copyright expired)
Within the week B. Doulton took the second floor and B. Steinberg & Co. rented the fifth and sixth.  That firm made ladies underwear.  The New York Times remarked "The building is now being erected by Albert Wagner, and is thoroughly rented months in advance of its completion."

By the time the building was completed on May 27, 1896 Wagner had sold it.   Its three tenants all manufactured apparel.   Franklin & Mirsky employed 15 men, 17 women and 8 girls under 21 years old.  The male and female workers most likely worked on separate floors.  The firm reported to the State that in 1896 its teen-aged employees worked a 60-hour work week.

It would not be long before Franklin & Mirsky felt the effects of the dawning laborer rights movement.  The Annual Report of the State's Mediation and Arbitration Board for 1899 noted "On February 10th, 15 garment cutters employed at the shop of Franklin & Mirsky, 134 Spring street, New York city, went on strike because of the discharge of one of their number for an infraction of the shop rules, which they considered too trivial to warrant the discharge."

The very concept of workers challenging the autocratic decisions of management would have been unthinkable a generation earlier.  Now the factory workers held sway.  "They remained out a week, when the matter was adjusted satisfactorily to all and they returned to work."



By the turn of the century M. L. Getten & Bros. was manufacturing its "Guarantee" brand skirts here.  The high-end "dress and walking skirts," sold at emporiums like Siegel-Cooper, retailed for up to $15 in 1905--more than $400 in today's dollars.  A description of a Voile Dress Skirt in January that year helped explain the high price.  "Silk lined and trimmed with tailor stitched taffeta and peau de soie strapping in new designs.  These skirts of taffeta silk drops finished with a dust ruffle."

Although also involved in the textile industry, William M. Poz was not involved in clothing.  Instead he focused on the rapidly emerging automobile industry.  Many of the vehicles required cloth roofs which could be folded down in good weather.  Poz acted as sales agent for fabrics designed specifically for that purpose.

In June 1908 the Automobile Trade Journal announced "Wm. M. Poz, 134-136 Spring street, New York, sole agent for the well-known 'Rubba-silk' is now offering a new fabric known as 'Lohengrin,' which is composed of all silk in the fabric, and is coated with the best Para gum.  It is a most serviceable fabric, and beings being rich in appearance as well as very strong and durable, it is also water repellent."

Vehicles like this 1907 touring car required water-proof fabrics like those offered by William Poz.  Automobile Trade Journal June 1908 (copyright expired)

Poz tantalized manufacturers by promising that in the Spring of 1909 he would be "getting out a new cloth, called the 'Cloth of Gold."  This fabric, he said, "is also silk [and] is water-proof and water repellent."

In the meantime, cloak makers Philip and Max Weinstein were also dealing with the labor problems.  A Weinstein Brothers employee, Harry Briskman, tried to unionize the factory in the spring of 1907; but one employee went to felonious lengths.

Thirteen factory workers were arrested and appeared before Magistrate Sweetser in Jefferson Market Court on March 28.  All but Philip Hanken were released "with warnings."  But Hanken had gone too far.  He was charged "with trying to cripple the firm's business by removing three clamps from machinery." He was held for trial on $1,000 bail.

The loft building that the Record & Guide had described as "semi-fire-proof" received a forward-thinking improvement in January 1909.  Two years before the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist fire that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, the New-York Tribune reported that plans had been filed "for equipping the seven story loft building at Nos. 134 and 136 Spring street with an auxiliary fire extinguisher sprinkler plant."

The sprinklers no doubt eased concerns of workers; but conditions in apparel shops continued to border on intolerable.  On November 23 that year The Sun reported that a general strike of 40,000 shirtwaist makers had been ordered by the union.  Among the first to walk off the job were the 200 employees of Joseph Rosenberg & Co. in the Spring Street building.

By the spring of 1910 things had returned to normal in Joseph Rosenberg & Co.'s shirt factory.  But tragedy occurred on May 20 when 17-year old Charles Kessler was ordered to repair several leaky fire buckets.  The teen was apparently not well-versed in soldering.  In an attempt to thin the molten lead he poured water into the crucible.  The explosive reaction sent boiling water and searing lead into the boy's face.

The New-York Tribune reported he "was severely burned about the face and hands.  His screams of pain frightened the two hundred girls in the factory, and they made a rush for the street."

Two years later, on April 27, 1912, Gertrude Huberman was carrying cash, possibly payroll, belonging to Joseph Rosenberg & Co.  Near the corner of Broadway and 12th Street, she was attacked by Henry Kirschner.  The 23-year old attempted to wrest the package containing $319 from her.

Gertrude's white knight did not charge in on a stallion, but in a delivery truck.  James Clinton saw the assault, jumped from his truck and, according to The Sun, "gave him a beating."  Kirschner was arrested and Gertrude filed a complaint of assault and robbery.  The Sun reported that when he appeared before Magistrate Barlow "a pair of black eyes and a pleas of not guilty adorned [his] face."

Kirschner's alibi was that he was simply trying to be a gentleman when he saw Gertrude drop the package.  He told the judge that "he saw the young woman stooping down with the bag some distance away from her."  Just then, he said, Clinton "pounced upon him" and beat him up.

The judge not only did not believe the defense, he found it highly amusing.  "Magistrate Barlow after laughing at his story held Kirschner without bail for the Grand Jury."

Weinstein Brothers was still in the building at the time, now described by one journal as "one of the largest manufacturers of cloaks and suits."  That year it employed 150 men, 50 women, and four office staff.

In 1916 the building's owners, Germania Life Insurance Co., hired architects George and Henry Boehm to design renovations.  The updating included new stairs and, possibly, the electric elevator.

A new elevator operator was hired on August 14.  Veteran operator Joseph Rossi started training the young man, and soon he was doing well enough to try it himself.  But the novice pushed the lever "so hard that the cable flew off the drum."  The elevator began shooting "upward at express speed," according to The Evening World.

Rossi timed his escape and when the runaway car reached the fifth floor he leaped through the open doors.  Panicked, the new employee tried to follow; but the elapsed seconds proved fatal.  His body was caught between the car roof and the fifth floor.  The Evening World reported "His cries caused a panic among the 200 girls in a waist factory and they broke for the exits, thinking a fire had started."

A doctor arrived only minutes after the accident.  He found the man alive, but pinned between the elevator and the wall of the fifth floor.  There was no way to extricate him.  Two hours later firemen were called.  The World reported "Hook and Ladder Company No. 20 cut out a section of the wall to rescue him, but the victim, whose name could not be learned, was dead."  The young man had been employed only two hours before he died.

Apparel companies were still in the building in 1920.  That year the textile firm of Weinberg & Halperin was burglarized.  The New York Times reported on March 28 that the thieves "cut their way into the rooms of Weinberg & Walperin...They avoided burglar alarm wires and stole $9000 worth of silk."

But the garment district was already migrating north of 34th Street.  By mid century a new type of tenant had filled the building.  Advertising specialists Dan Newman Company took space in 1956; and wholesale paper dealers Elkins Company, Inc. was here in the early 1960s.

As the Soho district transformed to an arts center, the Spring Street building became home to the Persicol Gallery in 1980, and within a few years Downtown, dealers in vintage American furniture from the 1930s, operated from street level.  Later in the decade Jaap Rietman, a specialty bookstore devoted to art books, opened here.

Albert Wagner's elaborate sheet metal cornice had, by now, suffered severe deterioration.  At one point it had to be wrapped to prevent pieces from falling to the sidewalk below.  Architect Shael Shapiro was commissioned to restore the cornice and make other repairs which cost the owners about $750,000.


Today the lofts where hundreds of young women worked over sewing machines in nearly insufferable conditions have been converted to modern office space and upscale shops operate from street level.  Wagner's aggressive and handsome design, however, is little changed other than expected modernization like the replacement windows.

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Marble Remnants - 1220-1224 Lexington Avenue



The British-born millionaire Joseph Richardson was listed as both architect and builder in 1880.  That year he began construction on three Italianate rowhouses at Nos, 1220 through 1224 Lexington Avenue, between 82nd and 83rd Streets.  The cost to erect the upscale homes was projected to be $20,000 each--more than $475,000 today.

Richardson designed the group to appear as a single, elegant mansion.  The concept was not new; as a matter of fact C. A. Pepoon had erected a similar trio nearly two decades earlier, at Nos. 178-180 Fifth Avenue.  What was strikingly unusual was the material Richardson used--marble.  At the time even the mansions of Manhattan's millionaires most often wore brownstone.   And even the William K. Vanderbilt chateau rising simultaneously on Fifth Avenue broke the brownstone tradition not with marble, but limestone.

Construction on the Lexington Avenue row began in April and was completed with dizzying speed just three months later.  Each house was 16.6 feet wide, with No. 1222 projecting slightly forward.  Stone quoins outlined each building.  Every element of the design was executed in marble--the bracketed sills and lintels, with their faceted keystones; and even the crisp cornice which rose to a central gable.  Here a charming arched opening surmounted a carved plaque that announced the construction date.

The date of construction was included on a marble plaque below the attic window.

Walter Hamilton purchased No. 1220.  The New York Times described him as a "well-known assayer and mineralogist of 20 years' standing."  He operated a substantial ore refinery on 15th Street near the Hudson River which the newspaper said was "complete in every minute particular for the treatment of rebellious gold and silver ores."

Well-to-do dry goods importer Arthur T. Watson and his family moved into No. 1222; while Spencer T. Pratt purchased No. 1224.   A broker, Pratt had moved to Brooklyn by 1889.  His and the other two residences were now being operated as boarding houses.

The quick change-over from elegant private homes to boarding houses may have had to do with the house next door to the house, stretching from No, 1210 to 1218 Lexington Avenue.  In 1882 developers Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner laid plans for an apartment building on the northwest corner of 82nd Street and Lexington.  The problem for them was that Joseph Richardson's wife had inherited the odd sliver of land that fronted Lexington.   When the men refused to pay the eccentric millionaire his $5,000 price, he constructed and moved into what became widely known as the Spite House--only five feet deep.

The marble houses can be seen to the right of the famous Spite House New York Tribune, photo by Van der Wyde, December 17, 1922 (copyright expired)

For the most part the boarders in the three marble houses were respectable and drew no unwanted attention.  For years Bertha Stadeker, a teacher in Primary School No. 42 on East 89th Street, lived in No. 1220.  By the time of her resignation in 1894 she was its principal.

On July 22, 1889 Police Headquarters directed officers city-wide to search for Edward S. Brown.  The wealthy 53-year old had been missing from No. 1224 Lexington Avenue more than a week earlier.  Two days after his family, who lived in Philadelphia, initiated the search, The Sun published a description.  It was astoundingly detailed: "5 feet, 3-1/2 inches high, weighing 138 pounds, with dark hair and eyes, heavy brown moustache, prominent nose, high forehead, and dressed in a mixed brown suit, Derby hat, and white shirt with black spots."

A former City employee, Brown had only recently been fired.  The New York Times, on July 24, noted "His disappearance is attributed to his becoming depressed in spirits over being dismissed from his position."  The newspaper also commented on the fact that the other boarders in the house were being uncooperative, saying "the inmates of his late residence refused to give any information concerning him."

The fate of Edward S. Brown remains unclear.

The two proprietresses of No. 1222 were duped by a female con artist in 1890.  Mrs. E. G. Hudson was originally from Baltimore where she had married a Methodist Minister, David Hudson, while still in her teens.  She loved to shop and spent more than her husband's salary could pay for.  The Times wrote "The couple lived beyond their means, and in 1874 they were estranged because he objected to his wife's extravagance and suspected that she often obtained money and goods by false pretenses.  He died in 1875 of a broken heart."

The widow set off on a career of swindling and stealing and, when she became well-known in Maryland and then Massachusetts, she moved to New York.   Her many aliases included Mrs. W. H. Heiser and Mrs. Irving, and she invented a string of personal biographies and references to get her into the homes of the wealthy--where she promptly made off with expensive items and apparel.

On June 18, 1890 The Times reported "Last October she induced two ladies to let her a room at 1,222 Lexington Avenue by representing that she was the daughter of Gen. Lee, and giving as reference Bishop Huntington of Syracuse, who repudiated her in a non-committal letter when the ladies wrote to him."

When her landladies discovered her ruse, she was evicted two days after moving in.  She found a job as housekeeper to Mrs. William Oppenheim at No. 19 East 67th Street.  But on June 8 "she was discharged for stealing apparel."

It all ended tragically for Mrs. Hudson.  Called a "'confidence' woman who had many pseudonyms" by The Times, she was found dead in a furnished room at No. 132 East 18th Street on June 17.  The newspaper deemed her "career of petty swindling and stealing" as the cause of her ruin and death.

What looked initially like an accident was more likely a case of suicide.  "She seemed to have fallen over a chair while preparing a glass of lemonade; but as there was a quantity of laudanum in the room and a bottle of the drug that had recently been emptied, it will require an autopsy."

Joseph Richardson died in his Spite House in 1897.  His daughter, Dellaripha Grace, known as Della, retained possession of the three marble houses.  With an eccentric personality equal to her father's, she rarely left her home and hoarded her vast wealth.   She leased each of the boarding houses to individual proprietors year after year--offering only a one-year lease at a time--until her death in 1918.  Her cousin, Anna Richardson (daughter of Joseph's brother, Benjamin), inherited the properties.

In the meantime, they had been marketed as reputable accommodations.  In 1905, for instance, an advertisement for No. 1224 offered "Private residence, elegant large heated rooms, $3 up; respectable gentlemen."

Still owned by Anna Richardson, in 1924 the first floors of the houses were converted to stores, and the second to "offices."  A new two-story brick front extended slightly beyond the facade. 


In 1932 the store in No. 1220 was home to Daniel Reeves's grocery store.  On the night of July 27 that year, just as manger John Scarpa was preparing to close, three pistol-wielding robbers burst into the store.  They herded Scarpa and the two clerks, Michael Little and John Sullivan, into a back room, tied them up and covered their mouths with adhesive tape.  They made off with $60 from Scarpa, $5 from Little, and $164 from the cash register.

A police car pursuing the gunmen was involved in a crash at Park Avenue and 76th Street, injuring two officers, and the occupants of the other automobile, Michael Arturi and his 21-year old son Frank.  The robbers got away.

Difficult to read in this photo, the sign above the awning at left reads Daniel Reeves

In 1977 the upper floors were converted to apartments, four per floor.  Today the 1924 storefront has been removed and the brick two-story facade replaced.  The upper floors, however, still surprise with their marble cladding--as unexpected today as it was in 1880.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The William K. Dick Mansion - 7 East 84th Street

A garage had been carved into the limestone base by the early 21st century photo via abovethelaw.com

In the first decade following the end of the Civil War, builder Philip Braender got into the speculative development frenzy on the Upper East Side.  By 1892 he would be responsible for more than 1,500 structures here and elsewhere in the city.

In 1884 construction began on No. 7 East 84th Street.  Designed by prolific architect John Brandt, the high-stoop, brownstone house was four stories tall above the English basement.  While its architecture was little different from scores of brownstones rising in the neighborhood, its 25-foot width and interior appointments made it an upscale residence.

Braender sold the completed house to Algernon Sydney Jarvis.  As was customary, the title was put in the name of his wife, Nathalie.  Born in 1810, at the age of 28 Jarvis had been employed by Nathaniel Pearce in his tobacco inspecting business.  Jarvis not only became partners with Pearce, he married his daughter.  The couple would have two daughters, Anna and Helen.

Before then, in 1834, the adventurous young man signed on as supercargo--the representative of a merchant ship's owner responsible for the cargo--on the brig Margaret Oakley.  During that voyage a small uncharted island was discovered off the coast of New South Wales.  It was named Jarvis Island.

By the time the family moved into the 84th Street house, Jarvis was wealthy.  He owned extensive properties, and was a director in the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary, and the American Agricultural Society.

The Jarvis summer estate was in White Plains, New York.  Nathalie and Algernon were there on June 31, 1895 when Algernon died.  The New York Times reported that the cause of the 85-year old's death was "general debility, due to his advanced age."

Nathalie remained in the East 84th Street house, her comings and goings reported in the society columns.  Her substantial fortune was reflected in the sale in 1902 of an entire block of property in Jersey City.  Known as the Old Inspection baseball grounds, she sold it for $60,000--more than $1.7 million today.

In 1906, after she had lived in the house more than two decades, Nathalie recognized that her brownstone house was architecturally outdated.  Like many of her neighbors she laid plans to update.


On November 3 architect Augustus N. Allen filed plans for "extensive alterations."   The renovations would not only strip off the brownstone front and remove the stoop; but add "electric wiring" and remodeled interiors.  The changes would cost Nathalie $35,000--more than $950,000 today.

With the entrance moved to sidewalk level, the mansion was now officially five stories tall.  While neo-Georgian style homes were appearing in the neighborhood--most notably the Andrew Carnegie mansion--Duncan's red brick and limestone design drew inspiration from English Regency structures.  The entrance was centered within the rusticated stone base.  The headers of the Flemish bond brickwork of the mid section were charred to give the illusion of age.


A projecting bay at the third floor rose from stone loggia below.  The bay was decorated with delicate Adam motifs--bowls of fruit, fluted pilasters and sunburst medallions.  The cornice of the bay supported an iron-railed balcony.  The large copper-clad dormer of the fifth floor sat behind a pierced stone railing.  It was supported by an exquisitely-carved and complex cornice.

The Regency style was carried into the staircase hall. photo via corcoran.com

In February 1909 Nathalie sold the house to Gustav Abraham Wertheim and his wife, the former Lucile Stern.  The couple had been married five years earlier.   Born in Amsterdam to a wealthy banker, he and his brother, Henri, came to America and entered the financial business. 

As the moneyed family traveled extensively, they leased the house--in 1913 to Olney B. Mairs, in 1916, to W. B. Duryea, and in 1919 to J. T. Thompson, for instance.   By now the family name had changed.  In 1914 Gustav and Henri petitioned the courts to legally their surnames to include their mother's--van Heukelom.  And so when Gustav sold the house late in July 1919 his name was listed as Gustav Wertheim van Heukelom.

The mansion became the home of its most socially-visible occupants, William K. Dick and his wife the former Madeleine Talmage Force and widow of John Jacob Astor.

Madeleine Talmadge Force Astor Dick - from the collection of the Library of Congress

Madeleine was five months pregnant when she and Astor headed home from their honeymoon on the RMS Titanic.  Astor and his valet died in the sinking; Madeleine, her maid and nurse survived.

When she married her childhood friend, millionaire William K. Dick, in June 1916 she necessarily relinquished ownership of the massive Astor mansion on Fifth avenue and income from a $5 million trust fund.

While the Dick family was living here, apartment buildings had encroached from the west.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The couple maintained a "country place' known as Allen Winden Farm in Islip, Long Island and traveled extensively.  Madeleine's son, John Jacob Astor, would be joined by two half-brothers, William Force Dick and John Henry Dick, in the house.

The year after the Dicks moved into the 84th Street house it was the scene of an out-of-the-ordinary event: the wedding of Madeleine's sister, Katherine, to Lorillard Spencer.  When and where the ceremony would take place had been the subject of rumors for some time.  It was held in the mansion on December 9, 1922 and The New York Herald pronounced it "one of the notable weddings of the season."  The article noted that Madeleine's "little sons, John Jacob Astor and William Dick, were pages."

William K. Dick - from the collection of the Library of Congress

After 17 years of marriage Madeleine seems to have gotten a wandering eye.  On Monday, June 5, 1933 The New York Times reported "Mrs. William K. Dick, widow of the late John Jacob Astor, who was lost in the Titanic disaster, left last night for Reno."  The article added "At her home at 7 East Eighty-fourth Street Mrs. Dick's secretary declined to discuss published reports that Mrs. Dick's departure was the first step in a plan to divorce her second husband."

Madeleine obtained her divorced on July 21, 1933 and four months later, on November 27 she married the Italian-born actor and boxer Enzo Fiermonte.  Four years later they divorced.

William remained in the 84th Street house.  It was the scene of the wedding of his brother, Adolph, to Polly Campbell on March 9, 1935.  The marriage did not last.  The couple was divorced in Reno in March 1937 "on the ground of cruelty." 

Before long Dick spent less time in the mansion.  In 1941 he leased it to Sir William Wiseman of the banking firm Kuhn, Loeb & Co.  In reporting on the lease The New York Times described the house as "containing twenty-five rooms and seven baths."  Three years later it was leased to Dr. Arthur Rodzinski, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

During World War II the New York Italian Consulate had, obviously, been closed.  On May 6, 1946 it reopened, now in the William Dick mansion.  It remained here until around 1950 when the house became the Hungarian Consulate.  The country paid $18,000 per year rent--equal to about $14,600 per month today.

In December 1951, however, the State Department ordered the closing of Hungarian consulates in response to the imprisonment of four United States pilots forced down over Hungarian territory by Soviet aircraft on November 19.   On December 28 the Hungarian Government, accused of violating the human and diplomatic rights of the American fliers, was given until midnight to close the East 84th Street facility.

The former mansion was subsequently purchased by the Asia Institute for $115,000.  Founded in 1928 to promote research and interest in Persian art and archaeology, it was here only until 1953, the same year that William Dick died.   The house was sold and altered as apartments--one each in lower two floors, and two on the upper stories.

In 2009 the Dick mansion was reconverted to a single family home.  When it was offered for sale in 2013 for $30 million, Robin Finn of The New York Times described it as "an actual mansion."  The house was resold in 2016; but disaster soon struck.

The opulence of the renovated mansion did justice to its history.  photos via corcoran.com
The new owner had filed plans to demolish the interiors and do a "full renovation" at an estimated cost of more than $3 million.  That construction was underway when at around 2:25 a.m. on March 13, 2017 fire broke out.   Three and a half hours later the inferno was under control; but the mansion had been gutted.

In April 2017 sunlight can be seen through the openings.

The dignified 1906 facade stands before a burned-out shell awaiting the next chapter to unfold.

non-credited photographs by the author

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Clarence True's Quaint Nos. 316-326 West 85th Street



By the dawn of the 20th century architect Clarence F. True had designed so many structures west of Central Park that he would later be called "the face of the Upper West Side."  His personal take on historic styles often resulted in hybrids--Elizabethan Revival mixed with Flemish Renaissance, for instance.  His designs were, above all, always handsome and frequently charming.

A self-promoter, True suggested that he initiated the American Basement plan, which did away with the high stone stoops in favor of low porches, or none at all.  In fact, he may not have been the first to break the 40-year English Basement trend; but he was assuredly an early promoter.

His first experiment with the American Basement plan came in 1892 when developer Richard G. Platt hired the 32-year old architect to design six narrow homes on West 85th Street, between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue.

Truly True, the completed three-story dwellings were picturesque.  A blend of Italian Renaissance Revival and Romanesque, their rusticated red sandstone parlor floors were accessed by three-step porches flanked by heavy stone wing walls with muscular, nubby-topped newels.  A carved Romanesque stone course, supported by beefy brackets, introduced the orange Roman brick-faced upper floors.


Each house in the A-B-A-A-B-A row had a projecting bay at the second floor, and arched openings on the third.  Most eye-catching, however, was True's addition of deeply overhanging roofs over the second floor bays of the "A" houses.  Their S-shaped tiles, or pantiles, evoked a Mediterranean feel.

The houses were purchased by well-to-do, but not overly wealthy homeowners.  No. 318 became home to the widow of Marcus G. Heilner, the former Sylvina Butler.  Marcus died in 1892, the year the house was completed.

The couple had been married in Philadelphia in May, 1839.  Later they moved to New York where Marcus established the coal and wood firm of Heilner & Son.  He was referred to by The New York Times as a "business man of prominence."  The Heilners had four sons and a daughter.

Sylvina could boast a distinguished Colonial and military ancestry.  She was descended from William Brewster, known as Elder Brewster, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.  Her grandfather, Colonel Zebulon Butler led the American troops against the English and Indian forces in the battle of Wyoming Valley on July 3, 1779.  It was a decidedly unsuccessful conflict, ending in a massacre of the Americans with only three surviving, Col. Butler among them.  Following the massacre, another ancestor, Rev. Jacob  Johnson, "first carried the Gospel as missionary among the Indians of Wyoming Valley," according to The Times later.

It appears Sylvina rented a room in the house.  In 1893 a carpenter, William Dick listed his address here.   He suffered a hand wound in April which threatened his livelihood, and his subsequent law suit drew the attention of the press.

The New York Times ran a sub-headline that read "Why Carpenter Dick is Suing Saloon Keeper Struever," and began the article saying "From all accounts Louis Struever has a most remarkably wicked dog."

Dick had gone into Struever's saloon at No. 281 Eighth Avenue to get a glass of "mixed ale."  The newspaper explained "When Dick had disposed of this beverage and had started to go out, the bad dog kept by Struever made a spring at Dick and began chewing his right hand, with the result that the carpenter, according to his own story, has not been able to handle a jackplane since."

Dick's $5,000 complaint accused "The defendant wrongfully kept a dog, well knowing him to be of a ferocious and malacious [sic] disposition and accustomed to attack and bite mankind, and suffered him to go at large."

The saloon keeper's defense was simple.  The dog did not belong to him.  The outcome of the court case is unclear.

Sylvina Butler Heilner's health began failing in 1896 and, after a long illness, she developed pneumonia around the first week of March 1897.  She died in the house on Saturday, March 27 and her private funeral services were held there two days later.  Her daughter, Laura, sold it to E. H. Laing in May 1900.

Three months later the row would gain another resident with an impressive military pedigree.  Lucy Adelina Sackett Hall lived at No. 326 with her 43-year old daughter, Elisa.  Lucy's husband, John Baley Hall, an "importer of novelties in French goods," had died in November 1886.

Now, catching society off guard, Elisa was married to Colonel William Whittlesey Badger in the 85th Street house on June 3, 1897.  The Sun reported "The marriage was a surprise to the friends of the bride and bridegroom, as no engagement had been announced prior to the wedding."

Badger, who was 62 at the time, was a grandson of prominent Revolutionary War General Joseph Badger; and a nephew of former New Hampshire Governor William Badger.   He earned his own military recognition during the Civil War.  In reporting on his marriage to Elisa, The Sun mentioned "He is a well-known practising lawyer of this city.  He fought through the war of the rebellion."

He not only fought during the war, in May 1862 he returned from duty in Washington to raise a volunteer regiment, which he did at his own expense.  That 105-man unit became the 145th Regiment, which fought in the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, among others.

When Badger called the Commander of the regiment at Chancellorsville a coward, he was court-martialed and discharged from service in September 1863.  But he met personally with Abraham Lincoln to plead his case.  Lincoln restored him to duty and he served through the remainder of the war, eventually serving judge advocate at Macon, Georgia.

Badger's impressive legal career in New York included high-profile cases, perhaps the best remembered being the 1888 libel suit against publisher James Gordon Bennett.  Badger won the case, securing for his client, Phoebe Robertson, the second largest verdict ever recovered for libel in New York State--$10,000 (about $257,000 today).

The middle-aged bride and her husband remained in the 85th Street house with Lucy.  Badger's law office was far downtown at No. 176 Broadway.  A year and a half after his wedding, on December 14, 1898, he was on the way to work.  As he reached the corner of 85th Street and Broadway, he began to falter. 

The New York Times reported "Two young women who were passing at the time helped him into a nearby store, where he expired a few minutes later.  His death was due to heart disease."

In reporting his death, the newspaper listed his notable legal and military successes.  Then closed with a humorous anecdote to illustrate his good nature.

"After Mayor Van Wyck's election Col. Badger paid an election bet by exchanging places with a rubber [i.e., a masseur] in a Turkish bath, and giving the rubber a rub-down and shampoo."

A little over a year later, on February 20, 1900, Lucy Hall died.  Surprisingly Elisa lost the house in foreclosure later that year.

Nos. 316 and 318 in 1922.  Cora Martin Scott, widow of John B. Scott, had died in No. 316 at the age of 81 four years earlier.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.

As owners and residents came and went during the first half of the 20th century, it was not a family, but an organization that purchased No. 316 in 1930.  In 1896 The Catholic Boys' Brigade was founded in England and Ireland.  A United States contingent was organized in October 1916 in the Church of the Holy Innocents on West 38th Street.  Now No. 316 West 85th Street became headquarters to the Catholic Boys' Brigade of the United States.

Three officials of the group moved into the house--its president, Rev. Kilian J. Hennrich, Michael J. Nolan, and Michael Lonergan.  The group took a $50,000 mortgage on the property, equal to $710,000 today.

The swirling forms in the complex stone carvings are somewhat mimicked in the under side of the cornice.

The goal of the Catholic Boys' Brigade was to steer boys away from idleness and crime by providing after-school activities and discipline.  Rev. F. Segesser described its work to The Tablet, saying "The Catholic Boys' Brigade makes use of military drill organization and discipline, which is found to attract the boys very readily, and by means of which it is possible to control large bodies of boys effectively and to practice them in physical exercises, in obedience and submission to lawfully constituted authority, and in esprit de corps, which benefits them immeasurably, bodily, mentally and spiritually."

The boys from the Brigade were a regular presence in the many parades up Fifth Avenue over the years.  They wore military-type uniforms, drilled in precision, and followed quasi-military protocols including a rank structure.

In 1935 the group recognized the influx of a new type of immigrant--the Mexicans.  On June 7 that year Rev. Kilian Hennrich announced the formation of a new division, the White Star Committee, "which will be devoted to the development and execution of an Americanization plan for American-Mexican youths in this country."

By the time a benefit supper dance was held in the roof garden of the Hotel Pierre on April 16, 1937, the Catholic Boys' Brigade of the United States had a membership of 40,000 men and boy members throughout the country.  In reporting on the benefit, The Times elaborated "The work, which is under the sponsorship of Cardinal Hayes, provides patriotic, social, recreational, educational and physical training for its members."

Clarence True's original hardware, including the bell escutcheon, survives along the row.

Just a week earlier, an honor had been given to Mrs. Thomas J. O'Neill at No. 316 West 85th Street.  Mrs. O'Neill, president of the ladies auxiliary of the Brigade, received the medal "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" from Pope Piux XI.  The Times reported "The honor was granted by an Apostolic brief and was transmitted by Cardinal Pacelli, Papal Secretary of State."

The organization sold the house in 1941 to a developer who announced plans to convert it to "apartments of one and two rooms."  That conversion, completed in 1942, was the first along Clarence True's row.

Perhaps because of the extremely narrow widths, the houses were slow to be broken up.  No. 318 was converted to a basement-parlor duplex, with two apartments on the second and third floors in 1949.  No. 320 remained a single family house, with an apartment conversion on the top floor in 1963; and in 1989 No. 322 was divided into two residences.  Nos. 324 and 326 remain single family homes.


Although somewhat grime-covered, the row is remarkably intact--an especially charming and unusual group.

photographs by the author

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Lost Blossom Mansion -- 844 Fifth Avenue

On May 30, 1891 the Record & Guide published a photo of the nearly-completed renovation. (copyright expired)


Howard Meyer and his wife, the former Minnie P. Cole Randall, and their daughter Ellen Rowena, lived comfortably at No. 844 Fifth Avenue in the late 1870s.  Their house, like most of the pioneering structures this far up the avenue, was brownstone-fronted.  But by 1891, shortly after Meyer’s death and as millionaires’ mansions began fronting Central Park, the house was out of style.

Minnie remodeled the home, bringing it up to date.  A “happy mix of styles,” it blended a hefty Romanesque Revival basement and parlor floor with a two-story bowed Beaux Arts bay and a Queen Anne style upper floor.  Minnie Meyer’s resultant home was a delightful 1890s rejection of stylistic purity in favor of architectural fun.

Minnie parents, Otis and Ellie Randall, also moved into the mansion.  But the arrangement came to a tragic end early 1895.  On March 17, Ellie died while visiting Egypt.  The shock was possibly too much for her husband.  Five days later Otis Webster Randall died in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  His funeral was held in the house two days later.

The following year a more joyous event was held at No. 844 Fifth Avenue.  Ellen was still a young girl when she and her little friend, Anna M. Jarvis, held white ribbons to form an aisle for her mother’s wedding in the house on the afternoon of November 1, 1898.  The New York Times reported “The ceremony was performed in the Louis XV drawing room by the Rev. Albert Erdman of Morristown, N. J., where the bride’s country home is situated.”

The widowed Minnie Cole Meyer became Mrs. Benjamin Blossom at 3:00 that day and her house fairly groaned under the weight of plants and flowers.  In true Victorian style, “Chrysanthemums were the flower in favor at the wedding.  They were placed in every available nook.  Southern smilax was used with them, and even the mirrors were almost concealed from view by the filmy green, garnished with the soft Autumn blooms.  Pink was the color chosen for the drawing room.  The hall was in yellow and the reception room in white.”

The newspaper noted “Mr. and Mrs. Blossom will give a large reception at their home, 844 Fifth Avenue, Jan 5, upon their return from the honeymoon trip.”

Minnie's remodeled house sat next door to the mammoth Astor palace.   photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWN5O8Q2&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=899

By now Minnie had as her next door neighbor the undisputed queen of New York society—Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.  Two years earlier the gargantuan double Astor chateau had been completed, rubbing its imperious shoulder against Minnie’s house.  On the other side, at No. 845 Fifth Avenue, was the mansion of stockbroker Grant B. Schley.

After the turn of the century Benjamin and Minnie spent less and less time on Fifth Avenue.  The New York Times mentioned they “of late have lived chiefly in Pasadena, where they have a beautiful place, called The Blossoms, on Orange Grove Boulevard.”

John Jacob Astor, who lived in the southern half of the Astor mansion, at the corner of 65th Street, recognized the threat to his property should No. 844 get in the wrong hands.  In 1902 a developer had purchased the house at No. 835 Fifth Avenue, just a block south of the Astor mansion.  The Times reported that he “promptly created a stir among the neighboring owners by the announcement that he would build a fifteen-story apartment hotel.”  The menace was taken care of after several panicked meetings among the homeowners resulted in a tidy profit for the speculator.  But a lesson had been learned.

And so in December 1905 Astor purchased the Blossom property.  It was assessed at $225,000, in the neighborhood of $6.25 million today.  Several weeks later, on January 7, 1906, The New York Times said “The purchase is said to have been made with a view to preventing any undesirable use being made of the property in the hands of some speculator.”

Now that he had another property to rent, John Jacob Astor quickly set to work to make the former Blossom house more marketable.  Minnie’s eclectic mix of styles was on the way out.  On May 23, 1906 architect Charles A. Platt filed plans for what the New-York Tribune called “extensive alterations.”  

In reporting on the $50,000 renovations, the newspaper said “A two story rear extension is to be built, the present south bay removed and the interior remodeled generally and refitted with floors reinforced with steel beams.  The present front will be taken down and replaced with a façade of Colonial design, with a cartouche of carved stone at the third story.  There will be a new central entrance at the ground floor.”

The renovations were completed by the beginning of summer 1907 and The Architectural Record was pleased.  In June it announced that Platt “has designed a building which is adapted in every respect to be the residence of a family of refinement and wealth.  It is both a more completely finished and better-looking dwelling than many private houses on Fifth avenue which have cost twice as much…Every detail of the building has an air of quiet but positive good taste.”

Architectural Record, June 1907 (copyright expired)

In sharp contrast to the Astor mansion, Platt’s design was reserved and understated.  The façade of gray limestone blocks was unadorned with the exception of the carved cartouche and three panels of festoons above the fourth floor openings.  Indeed, possibly the most elaborate feature was the grand iron fence with its lantern perched above a scrolled arch.  

The entrance was slightly below ground level.  This level was used only as a reception area; most of the first floor was taken up by the kitchen and servants’ quarters.  A delicate winding staircase took quests to the piano nobile where the drawing room was to the front and the dining room to the rear.  Platt designed the rooms with an 18th century feel—dark floor-to-ceiling paneling throughout most of the rooms.  The Architectural Record hoped the new residents would follow his lead.  “It will require equally careful furnishing in order to properly complete the effect.”


Platt made heavy use of wood to create an 18th century setting.  The Architectural Record June 1907 (copyright expired)
Off the dining room a set of glass doors led to a small smoking room.  “The architect is peculiarly happy in devices of this kind, which turn to excellent account some of the unfortunate practical conditions of an interior design,” noted The Record.  One floor above was the library which was also finished in dark wood.  “The effect of this apartment has been made much more gay by the rich though comparatively inexpensive subdued gilding of the architectural detail.”

The completed house was leased to Paul Morton.  In reporting on the deal, The New York Times reminded readers that the house was purchased “to protect the Astor property against any undesirable improvement.  Since then it has been almost entirely rebuilt, and is to-day a six-story American basement house of most modern design.”

Morton had recently served as Secretary of the Navy--between 1904 and 1905--but was forced to resign when it was revealed that the Santa Fe Railroad, of which he was vice president, was given illegal rebates under him.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported Morton, insisting that the millionaire never knew of the improprieties. 

Paul and Charlotte Morton --the New-York Tribune, August 20, 1905 (copyright expired)
Now President of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the affable Morton’s sense of humor was evident in a speech before a banquet of insurance men on May 8, 1909.  He mentioned a rival company which had suffered a bad deal.  When the Equitable offered its consolation for the firm’s bad luck, he said “they took our sympathy in ill part.  It was like the widow who called on us the other day.

“This widow called to collect a small policy due her on her husband’s death.  Our clerk, as he counted out her money, said sympathetically, ‘I am very sorry to hear of your sad misfortune, ma’am.’

“’Well, that’s just like you men!’ snapped the widow.  ‘You’re all the same—always sorry when a poor woman gets a chance at a little money.’”

Morton’s wife, the former Charlotte Goodridge, was not content with vacuous teas and society chatter.  She was an ardent “anti” during the early Suffragist Movement, allying herself with socialites against women’s rights to vote.  By the time she and her husband moved from Park Avenue into No. 844 Fifth Avenue, she was Honorary Vice-President of the National League for Civic Education; an organization that strove to snuff out the Suffragist Movement.

In December 1908, however, things changed.  The National League for Civic Education slated Congregationalist theologian Lyman Abbott to address the group on the subject.  Charlotte Morton listened to his address carefully.

Abbott could not have been clearer in his opinions.  “If woman attempts man’s function, she will prove herself but an inferior man.  Some masculine women there are; some feminine men there are.  These are the monstrosities of Nature.”  Abbott insisted that women do “not wish to assume the responsibility for protecting person and property.”  He pointed out that women’s natural work was in rearing children while men were intended to run countries and businesses.

A few weeks later, on January 12, 1909, The Evening World ran the headline “Mrs. Paul Morton Suffrage Convert.”  The newspaper said that Lymann Abbott’s “attack upon the vote seekers unintentionally made converts of some of those opposed,” and among them was Charlotte Morton.   She now worked as passionately for the Suffragist cause.  

But there was grave trouble developing closer to home; unseen by the public or even Charlotte.

In December 1910 the Equitable Life Assurance Company issued “Christmas policies” and Paul Morton signed up for one.  Shockingly, his medical examination revealed that he was “uninsurable.”  The Insurance Press later said “He had a few weeks’ notice that he was a doomed man.”

On January 19 Morton went to the Hotel Seymour to visit lawyer Paul L. Kiernan.  He was found dead in a corridor, the victim of a ruptured blood vessel in the brain.  The millionaire’s life had been relatively unassuming; his funeral in St. Thomas Church was anything but.  The church was crowded with dignitaries and newspapers were filled with paid tributes.

Astor (who was still busy buying up nearby properties as they became available) now leased No. 844 to former senator John Kean.  The politician, who lived in New Jersey, rented the house for his mother's use.  Lucy Kean moved in with her grown son, Julian, and daughter, Susan. 

A colorful character, Lucy was born in 1826; the daughter of the President of the Bank of Manhattan Company.  Married in 1846 to Colonel John Kean, she had eleven children.  Her son John served two terms in Washington and Lucy had tagged along, living with his family there.  “About public affairs she was very well informed,” The Sun later said, “and she included among her friends President Roosevelt, President Taft, some of the Justices of the Supreme Court and other prominent men.”

The sharp-minded woman was well-known for her deep knowledge of history and her ability to discuss matters of state with her guests.  The now-elderly Lucy Kean gave generously to charities; always with the stipulation that her bequests were kept anonymous.

The Keans got a major scare on December 10, 1911.  The New York Times reported “One man was probably mortally injured and two others were badly hurt last night at Fifth Avenue between Sixty-fifth and Sixty-sixth Streets when a high-powered open touring car shot up on the sidewalk in front of the residences of John Jacob Astor and Mrs. Lucy K. Kean.”

The car had been speeding south on Fifth Avenue when it “got beyond the control of its chauffeur.”  The newspaper said that it “rose high in the air, balancing itself on one front wheel, gyrated completely around, and finally turned over on its side, hurling its three occupants to the street.”

A witness said two women had exited Central Park right into the path of the car, causing it to careen.  He reported that the car was headed “for the black iron fence surrounding the sunken entrance” of No. 844.  “It didn’t get that far.  Instead, it stood right straight up in the air on its left front wheel, turned completely around, and then, fell over on its side so that its four wheels extended in the direction of the Kean house, while its top faced the street.”

The Times reported “The only ones who didn’t rush to help the injured men were the two women who caused the accident by getting in the car’s way.  They hurried off, according to Policeman Cunningham, without even stopping to find out how badly the men were hurt.”

Lucy Kean’s stay in the Fifth Avenue mansion was not long.  She died in the house on the morning of March 9, 1912 at the age of 86.  Her funeral was held in Grace Church.  Susan and Julian Kean remained in the house.

On April 6, 1924 New Yorkers were shocked when it was announced that Vincent Astor had filed plans to replace the double Astor mansion with a 12-story apartment house.  Astor, interestingly, had commissioned Charles A. Platt to design the $1.8 million structure.  “The building is to include the site of the adjoining house at 844 Fifth Avenue, which is also owned by Mr. Astor,” said The Times.

But something happened.  A year later, on July 3 when Susan Livington Kean died in the house, plans for the apartment building had been abandoned.  Instead of the Platt-designed structure, construction began in 1926 on Robert D. Kohn’s massive Temple Emanu-El.   And the 1870s house at No. 844 which had undergone two remarkable makeovers was no more.

The lower extension of the synagogue (left) sits on the site of No. 844 photo by Jim Henderson