Friday, February 28, 2014

The Madison Ave Baptist Church Parish House -- 30 E 31st St.

On August 1, 1859, when Catharine Vanderpool sold the five plots of land at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 31st Street to the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, Murray Hill had already supplanted the Bond Street and St. James Park areas as a fashionable address.  The congregation built an imposing brick church on the plot which reflected the substantial wealth of its members.

The ivy-covered Madison Avenue Baptist Church at around the turn of the last century.  The structure directly behind the church (left) would become the site of the new parish house -- photograph by Byron Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Almost half a century later, on November 14, 1905, the church announced plans for a new parish house.  The house directly behind the church, at No. 30 East 31st Street, which was once the home of esteemed physician Joseph T. Evans, would be razed for the new building.  The New-York Tribune reported “It is to cost $150,000, and work on the structure is to begin this winter.”

The trustees remained arcane regarding the name of the architect.  “The trustees held a meeting recently, at which the plans for the new building were revised and turned over to expert draughtsmen,” said the New-York Tribune on November 14.  “The new building will be of brick and stone, conforming as nearly as possible to the design of the old church.  An entire floor of the building will be given up to a gymnasium and a hall for public entertainments.  The other floors will have boys’ and young men’s clubs, girls’ clubs, a library and reading room, besides all the features incident to institutional work as carried out on the upper East Side.”

It was proposed that construction, scheduled to start in December 1905, would be completed by the summer.  That proved to be an optimistic timeline and the building was not dedicated until January 6, 1907.  It came in right on budget, with the structure and its equipment costing about $150,000—or about $3.4 million today.

The promise that the parish house would conform “as nearly as possible to the design of the old church” resulted in a near-copy of the unusual entrance portico, a brick facade and arched openings.  Other than that, the purely Edwardian structure was a quaint asymmetrical five-story concoction of Romanesque Revival with a touch of Mediterranean.   Stained class filled the first floor openings, including a spectacular radiant half-round overlight above the entrance door.  Carved limestone panels beneath the three-story arched openings, intricately decorated spandrels, a deeply overhanging cornice supported by remarkable cast brackets and a roof garden with pergola gave the parish house an exotic air.  Three small limestone balconies with iron railings accentuated the fifth floor windows.

The entrance portico was a near-match to that of the church (the church building can be seen to the right).  The extensive pergola on the roof is seen in this photograph taken shortly after the building's completion -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Within the parish house was Saunder’s Hall where every Sunday morning Dr. W. W. White taught “Everybody’s Bible Class.”  Dr. White had no intentions of spoon feeding his students the lessons.  A week in advance they received their assignments for the following Sunday.  On January 12, 1908 the assignment read:

I.                     Glance through the Gospel by John with a view to anticipating the Outline to be given by the Teacher.  A diagram of the book will be drawn while the Outline is being given.

II.                  Taking John I:1-18, consider:
a.       What Progress in thought is apparent in this passage as a whole?
b.      What Propositions does this passage contain?
c.       What Parallelisms in though are here?
d.      What Purpose does this Prologue serve?
e.      What Problems do these verses present?

The cost to attend Everybody’s Bible Class was $3.00 in total—about double the average working man’s weekly wage.

Church women (and one man) pose inside the newly-completed parish house in 1907.  The building boasts electric lighting and to the left a handsome and clever folding wall with stained glass panels can be seen.  -- photograph by Byron Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1914 the parish house became central to the newly formed Vacation Bible School movement.  That year 40 schools opened after July 4.  “The growth of this line of Christian endeavor has been rapid,” said the New-York Tribune on June 27, 1914, “and this city has been a leader in it.” 

The newspaper noted “It has led in an important advance this year in having in the Madison Avenue Baptist Church parish house a training school for teachers in these schools.  Practically all other schools in the city profit by this training school, which has had forty scholars.”
Fabulous filigree brackets uphold the overhanging cornice

Saunder’s Hall was not relegated mere to Sunday and Bible School classes.  On February 23, 1916 The New York Times reported on Frederic Poole’s reading of “The Yellow Jacket” for the benefit of the missionary fund of the Woman’s Society of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church.  A year later, with the country’s entrance into World War I just two months away, a heated debate was held concerning compulsory military training.

A year later, with the nation embroiled in the conflict, Worth Marion Tippy published The Church and the Great War.  He described the Madison Avenue Baptist Church as “an example of a down-town congregation readjusting itself to changed conditions, with a modern parish house, and extensive neighbourhood work.”

Tippy was taken with Dr. Eaton, the pastor, who had been named Chairman of the National Service Section of the United States Shipping Board.  “Dr. Eaton was also influential in forming public opinion in New York before entering this specialized field, and was outspoken for the Allies before the Unit4ed States entered the war,” he noted.

The congregation, he wrote, “is also active in war causes, Liberty Loans, War Savings, Red Cross, etc.  Dinner is served to enlisted men on Tuesday evenings and the club rooms of the parish house are thrown open to them.”  In addition, the women of the church met in the parish house on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as a unit of the Red Cross auxiliary.

Somewhat surprisingly, the hall was also used by the National Indian Association’s annual meetings.  The 14th such meeting was held here on December 4, 1919 and The Indian’s Friend remarked that “The afternoon session was interspersed with two vocal solos by Louise Maitland of the Royal Albert Hall and Queen’s Hall Concerts, London.  Mrs. Maitland rendered most impressively and in a voice of remarkable range and sweetness Gounod’s ‘O Divine Redeemer’ and ‘Ave Maria.’”

In December 1921 the Board of the American Baptist Home Mission Society held an all-day meeting at the church, following by a dinner in the parish house.  One hundred and fifty guests were served dinner prepared by the church women.  “In the evening stereopticon views were given of the Architectural Department and of the proposed boys’ camp work,” said the Convention report.

As more and more of the refined homes between Fifth and Park Avenues were demolished, the Madison Avenue Baptist Church suffered.  But in mid-century residents began returning—not to private houses but to modern apartment buildings.  On May 20, 1955 The New York Times noted “Older churches have experienced a rebirth, such as the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, 30 East Thirty-first Street, New York City, which has been revived by a new apartment building in its neighborhood.”

By now the grand church structure had been gone for nearly a quarter of a century.  The parish house survived and in the 1950s began a “Friday Film Festival,” described in 1962 by pastor Rev. John S. Bone as “an experiment in the use of prize-winning secular art films and carefully chosen shorts to delineate basic human values.”

Among the films screened that year were “The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra," “Weegee’s New York,” and “On the Waterfront.”

The church’s focus towards the arts was evident when in 1971 the first performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was staged here and in 1978 when the Bel Canto Opera Company made the old parish house its home.

Then in July 2013 the Madison Avenue Baptist Church put its architecturally-unique and consummately charming parish house on the market.  Trustee Faith Grill, in a letter to parishioners, cited “exorbitant upkeep cost.”  By now the New York Theatre Ballet leased the fifth floor, and the Dokoudovsky New York Conservatory of Dance used the second.

The building is not landmarked and the realtor notes in its listing that the site “is zoned for ground-up construction of a residential or hotel property.”   Once again preservationist and New Yorkers in general hold their breath to see what is to come.

non-historic photographs taken by the author

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The 1902 Canavan Mansion -- No. 333 Riverside Drive

photo by Alice Lum

The son of Terence Farley, a well-known builder, Joseph Farley started his own business around 1895.  He focused on the rapidly developing mansion districts of Riverside Drive and upper Fifth Avenue, sparing no expense on the opulence his customers would not only expect, but demand.

On October 4, 1902 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported “Joseph A. Farley has recently completed four fine residences on the north corner of Riverside Drive and 105th st…These houses, known as Nos. 330, 331, 332 and 333 Riverside Drive, represent all that is latest in fashionable dwelling construction, and are furnished with all the devices for insuring the convenience and comfort of their occupants, besides being designed with artistic correctness and finished with taste.”

The Guide complimented Farley on his forethought in design.  “An instance may be cited in the placing of handsome billiard rooms in the front of the sub-basements of the inner houses.” 

The publication also praised the developer’s building site, “on the summit of a hill, from which the Drive slopes away both north and south.  It commands magnificent view of the Hudson River
and the Riverside Drive, and is, therefore, airy, cheerful and salubrious.”

Elegant mansions stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the block.  No. 333 is hiding behind the tree -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

About seven months after the row was completed, Moritz Falkenau, a principal of real estate dealers Falkenau & Hamershlag, purchased Nos. 332, 333 and 335 Riverside Drive for a total of $240,500—about $2 million apiece today.  No. 333 would become home to the wealthy Alfred W. Hoyt.

Sitting on a rusticated limestone base, the upper floors of five-story Beaux Arts beauty were clad in buff brick.  The residence was frosted in carved limestone and ornamental French ironwork.  High above the sidewalk a stone balcony with elaborate iron railings stretched the width of the fifth floor.  There were fifteen rooms and five baths.
photo by Alice Lum

Hoyt was the head of the banking firm A. M. Hoyt & Co. and a Director of the Fidelity and Casualty Company.  While living here the moneyed bachelor would be a founder of the Belnord Realty Company; the firm that erected the massive, block-engulfing Belnord Apartments at 86th Street and Broadway.

A “clubman,” the wealthy bachelor was a member of the Union Club, University Club, Racquet and Tennis Club and the Brook Club.  In April 1910 he sold the Riverside Drive house to David Canavan.

The 43-year old Canavan and his wife, Catherine, had four sons and three daughters.  The president of Canavan Bros., one of the oldest excavating firms in the city, he was well known on the Upper West Side for his active involvement in politics and religious organizations.

In 1903 he had organized The David P. Canavan Association and opened a $6,000 clubhouse.  The Evening World reported at the time that “while it will probably fulfill its mission to more than generous measure socially, it will play an important part in the politics of the west side as well.”  The newspaper noted that Canavan “has a budding reputation as a bon vivant.”

The Evening World poked innocent fun at David Canavan on May 23, 1903 (copyright expired)

The Bulletin of the General Contractors Association said of him “His forceful character and extraordinary personality left a most favorable impression upon all those with whom he came in contact, whether in business or social connections.  Failure was a word that was not in his dictionary, and his business success was in great measure due to his determination and ability to grasp and handle the most difficult situation with apparent ease.”

The charismatic Canavan was a member of the Colonial, Manhattan, New York Athletic, Tilden and Democratic Clubs and had run for assemblyman in 1904.  Interestingly, it was Canavan’s firm that would excavate the foundation for Hoyt’s Belnord Apartment building. 

David P. Canahan was educated in public schools until the age of 14, when he joined his father's company as a timekeeper -- The Bulletin of the General Contractors' Assoc. December 1914 (copyright expired)

An avid automobile enthusiast, Canavan appears to have had several motorcars by the time the family moved into No. 333 Riverside Drive.  In the summer of 1914, The Sun reported that the Canavan family had arrived at the Equinox House in Manchester, Vermont in their Peerless automobile.

Earlier that year, in January, Canavan Bros. started work on the Seventh Avenue subway.  It was about this time that David Canavan first showed symptoms of neuritis.  The discomfort did not prevent him from motoring with his family to Vermont, however.

Shortly after their return to New York, Canavan’s illness worsened.  On September 21, 1914 he died in the Riverside Drive mansion.  His funeral was held in the house on Thursday, September 24, followed by a Solemn Requiem Mass at the Church of the Ascension on West 117th Street.
photo by Alice Lum

The family remained in the house and one-by-one the children married.  On November 19, 1925 Catherine hosted “a bridge and tea” to announce the engagement of daughter Estelle.  Like the rest of the family, Estelle was a devout Catholic.  She had attended Marymount and was active in Catholic charities. 

Catherine’s sons went into the family business.  William and David were both living in the house with their mother in 1927, as was at least one sister.  Thirty-two year old William, described by The New York Times as “a wealthy contractor,” was shot in the right leg on March 11 of that year.  The police and the family gave reporters differing versions of the incident.

What they did agree on was that William was driving the car of Anna M. Sheridan.  The pair had driven up Riverside Drive and at 177th Street William got out of the car to check the tires.  According to police, two men appeared and one “made a remark which Canavan regarded as insulting.  Canavan swung at the speaker and the latter drew a pistol and fired.”  The men then disappeared into the bushes.

Patrolman Thomas Meehan heard the gunshot and found the wounded Canavan.  Although he was bleeding from the leg, he helped the officer tour the neighborhood looking for the assailants before being taken to Columbus Hospital.

The story told by William’s sister at the house was slightly different.  She told reporters that her brother had been the victim of a failed robbery and ”had been shot when he refused to put up his hands.”  In the end the only thing seriously injured was William’s date night.  He was sent home from the hospital after a day or two.

On January 5, 1940 Catherine transferred the title of the mansion to her son David, who still lived in the house along with his family.  Later that year another engagement would be announced—this time it would be Catherine’s granddaughter.  On May 23 The New York Times reported that David Paul Canavan’s daughter, May, would marry Alexander Henderson Laidlaw.  In true Canavan tradition, May had graduated from the Blessed Sacrament Convent School and was governor of the New York State Chapter of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.

Five years later, on January 5, 1945, David sold the family home.  The Times reported “The sale of the property was the first in forty-five years”—a miscalculation of a decade.  A photograph printed in the newspaper showed the windows tightly shuttered and the house now apparently vacant.

After nearly half a century as a private home, the mansion was quickly dissected into lavish apartments—one on the first floor, a duplex engulfing the second and third, and one each above.  Among the first tenants was writer Saul Bellow.  Among the works he wrote while living here were The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day.

Before long Duke Ellington purchased the house as headquarters for his Tempo Music, and home for his sister, Ruth.  Simultaneously, the mansion next door, No. 333, was home to Mercer Ellington.  Ruth had been appointed president of Tempo Music by her brother in 1941. 

From 1961 until his death on May 24, 1974, Duke Ellington lived with his sister at No. 333 Riverside Drive.  Two years later, on April 30, 1976 a near-memorial concert was held in the house. 

“Bea Benjamin’s approach to the songs of Duke Ellington, which made up most of her performance yesterday afternoon at Tempo Music, 333 Riverside Drive, put some of Mr. Ellington’s most familiar pieces in fresh and imaginative light,” reported The New York Times on March 1.

Not long after Bea Benjamin’s performance, the aging Ruth Ellington closed the Riverside Drive house and moved to a small Park Avenue apartment.
photo by Alice Lum

More than a century after its completion, the imposing Riverside Drive mansion is meticulously cared for and its exterior essentially unaltered

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The 1912 Remodeling of No. 222 Fifth Avenue

In 1858 the neighborhood around merchant William B. Putnam’s fine brownstone-fronted home at No. 222 Fifth Avenue was quietly residential.  Madison Square park had been completed over a decade earlier and Putnam’s neighbors were among Manhattan’s wealthiest and most respectable.  The house next door, at No. 220, had been built simultaneously and, while slightly narrower, was a near match.

Change soon came to Fifth Avenue above 23rd Street; and William Putnam’s residence would be a major part of it.  Little by little hotels, restaurants and clubs would wedge themselves into the elite neighborhood; one of the first being the Traveller’s Club.

Based on the London club of the same name, the Traveller’s was intended for the convenience of visiting foreigners as well as New Yorkers who frequently traveled.  Founded in 1865, it occupied a house at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street.  Then, three years later, it moved into the former Putnam residence.  According to James Grant Wilson in his 1893 The Memorial History of the City of New-York, “To enter the Travelers’ [sic] a member must have traveled extensively outside of the United States…It was in the days of its power a great resort for foreigners.  In the early years of the club the leading feature was a series of lectures given by eminent travelers, many of whose names were to be found in the list of honorary members; and when at No. 222 Fifth Avenue the club gave a brilliant entertainment to the Japanese Embassy, which attracted great attention at the time.”

Francis Gerry Fairfield focused on English members in his 1873 The Clubs of New York.  He described the clubhouse as “a leading resort for America-examining Englishmen, and the headquarters of an English coterie of considerable social importance.”  He admitted that the club had hosted impressive receptions and social functions but by 1873 “they have made an end of all that, having settled into a body as quiet as Mr. Mantilini expected to be after taking a bath in the Thames.”

The Traveller’s Club left in 1873 and the mansion was converted for business purposes.  The upper floors were retained as residential space, while the former parlor floor became home to Howard & Co. jewelers.  The invasion of a retail store, no matter how upscale, was cause for disgruntlement among the wealthy neighbors.  Decades later The Evening Post Record would recall (although getting the original retail tenant wrong) that “No. 222 is said to have been the first of the Fifth Avenue houses above Twenty-third Street leased for business purposes, having taken in the seventies by Annidown, the hatter, greatly to the annoyance of near-by residents.”

In fact, James Rufus Amidon lived upstairs at No. 222 and his hat store would open next door in No. 220 later on.  It was the jeweler Howard & Co. who upset the strictly-residential applecart.
Like all jewelers at the time, Joseph P. Howard’s elegant store offered more than merely jewelry.  Here ladies could shop for “real bronzes,” china and “fancy goods.”  A year after opening, the store offered a new and “beautiful assortment of Rich Dress Fans;” and just before Christmas in 1875 it advertised that the store would remain open “late Saturday Night” and that “we opened a beautiful assortment of Worcester and Copeland’s Porcelain, just arrived per steamer Russia.”

On announcing that it was moving to No. 222 in 1873, the jeweler cleverly included a map for customers -- the New-York Tribune May 5, 1873 (copyright expired)

Howard & Co. left No. 222 by 1883 when Wood Gibson moved in.  Before doing so, however, changes were made for the high-end harness maker.  On September 1, 1883 The American Architect and Building News reported on “internal alterations” to Nos. 220 and 222 costing $4,000 for lessee Wood Gibson.

Wood Gibson’s grandfather, also named Wood Gibson, had established the firm in 1818.  By now it not only manufactured quality harnesses, saddles and other carriage and riding gear; it made high grade traveling trunks.  When the two houses were internally connected for Wood Gibson, a three-story factory was added in the rear.

In 1885 New York’s Great Industries said of Wood Gibson “The premises occupied are very commodious, and comprise a splendid salesroom…He makes a specialty of harness and travelling trunks, and in these lines his goods are unexcelled by those of any similar concern.”  Gibson not only manufactured his own goods, but heavily imported “fine London saddles, bridles, holly whips, bits, spurs, etc., which are offered at the lowest prices, compatible with good workmanship and materials.”

By now James Rufus Amidon’s hat store was sharing space with Gibson, and would do business from No 220 until at least 1888. 

Among the moneyed residents in the upper floors at No. 222 at the time was Warren B. Smith.  The bachelor was a member of the exclusive Manhattan, New York, Riding, and Lawyers’ Clubs.  But in 1891 Smith got himself into trouble with Customs officials when he attempted to smuggle expensive goods into the country.  On June 2, 1891 under a headline reading “It Was Warren B. Smith,” The Sun reported “It was discovered yesterday that the $5,000 worth of gold tableware, diamond and other jewelry, and silk underclothing that was found in the trunk of a passenger on the Bremen steamer Lahn last Friday was the property of Warren B. Smith of 222 Fifth avenue.”

Smith had sloppily attempted to conceal the loot “in trousers’ legs and in the bottom of a trunk.”  His indefensible excuse was that he would have declared the articles (valued at about $125,000 in today’s money), but he “didn’t think the examination would be so strict.”

Sadly for Smith, the following week the United States Marshal auctioned off the long list of seized goods.

Fifteen years after opening his store here, Wood Gibson died in his summer home at Glen Ridge, New Jersey in August 1898 at the age of 67.  His obituary noted that “among his customers were many wealthy persons of this country and of Europe”

 In 1876 well-known photographer Silas A. Holmes took the above photograph of Nos. 220 (left) and 222.  Three men can be seen in the doorway of No. 220.  The buildings still retain their residential appearance - photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Upstairs the commodious apartments continued to be leased by well-to-do tenants, many of them bachelors.  On June 24 1900 The New York Times mentioned that “W. Marshall Fuller of 222 Fifth Avenue gave a musicale in his apartments on Monday evening.  Among the artists were Mrs. Horn, Lily d’Angelo-Berg, Mary Erver, and Ross David.  The apartment was decorated with white and pink carnations.”

In the meantime the Standard Art Galleries had moved into the retail space.  The firm advertised “household furniture, rare works of art and bric-a-brac.”  It would not stay long, however.  In January 1902 The Evening Post Record of Real Estate Sales reported that “The estate of Joseph C. Baldwin has leased No. 222 Fifth Avenue, a four-story dwelling.”

The new lessee was Joseph Fleischman, who also rented No. 220 on a separate lease.  The annual rent on the 21-year lease for No. 222 was a hefty $12,000.  It was announced that Fleischman “intends to combine the two buildings by making extensive alterations.” 

Fleischman commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to renovate the combined store space at Nos. 220 and 222 Fifth Avenue.  The architects replaced the rear addition of Gibson Wood and added an elevator.

As the alterations commenced, wealthy bachelor Stanton Guion was living upstairs.  The son of one of the owners of the Guion Steamship Line, Guion was an invalid and had been under the treatment of Dr. W. B. Clark, the family physician, for several years.

On the morning of April 21, 1902 the 45-year old was already intoxicated.  He picked up his razor and sliced his throat and wrist.  Oddly enough, he then “rang his bell for a negro attendant, whom he directed to send for a messenger,” The Times reported the following day.  When the servant saw the blood, he instead sent for Dr. Clark.

As he dressed the man’s wounds, Clark called for an ambulance from the New York Hospital.  However when Policeman Duffy saw the ambulance arrive and checked into the problem, he promptly arrested Guion for attempted suicide.

J. F. Douthitt, “a decorator and art dealer,” took the newly renovated first floor space and the rear extension.  The upper apartments were now leased by J. Ensign Fuller (most likely a relative of W. Marshall Fuller) and his sister; Mrs. Upperman and her daughter; an actress, Florence Lloyd; and three young artists; all on the second floor of the combined buildings.  On the third floor lived Mrs. Huntington and her sister (The Times pointed out that “Miss Huntington is a relative of the late Collis P. Huntington); and two unmarried women, Misses Penfield and Leiter (“Miss Leiter is a member of the Chicago family of that name,” said The Times).  Among the tenants on the top floor was Captain E. L. Zalinski, “inventor of the dynamite gun” and his nephew, S. L. Adler.”

Around 3:00 in the morning on April 10, 1903 a fire broke out in the rear extension.  Joseph Rodriguez, the elevator boy, first saw the flames and roused the janitor, William H. Harris.  By the time the firemen arrived, Harris had directed most of the tenants out of the building; but others were still inside.

On the top floor, Mrs. Higginson and her daughter were trying to capture their two Angora cats in a basket.  Policeman Duffy ordered them out; but the women refused to leave their pets.  The standoff ended with Duffy and two firemen corralling the animals.  At the same time Captain Zalinski refused to leave some of his gun models in the burning building.  Captain Farley of the fire department ended the argument by removing the inventory down the stairs.

Several of the female tenants swooned and had to be carried out by firemen.  When it was all over no one was seriously injured; however there was $70,000 damage to the recently renovated structure, most of which was in Douthitt’s gallery.  In addition to valuable paintings, he lost “many engravings, draperies, and tapestries.”

Douthitt left No. 222.  The combined buildings were now converted to retail space throughout.  L. P. Hollander & Co. moved in.  The firm offered women’s and children’s clothing to the carriage trade.  The store would stay only five years.  On February 10, 1909 it announced it would relocate to Nos. 550 and 552 Fifth Avenue where it planned a new 8-story building.

Hollander & Co spread its store through three full floors -- the New-York Tribune, September 25, 1904 (copyright expired)

In 1911 Charles Josephson leased the store and basement here; but the Joseph C. Baldwin estate which still owned the building soon had larger plans.  The outdated brownstone front was obviously a remodeled home.  To attract new commercial tenants, a modern-looking structure was called for.

Architect John C. Westervelt stripped off the old façade and created an up-to-date limestone and cast iron façade.  The make-over was completed in 1912.  No longer connected to its neighbor, the resulting structure, was tasteful and inviting to modern commercial tenants.

Throughout the first three decades of the century the building would house various tenants.  In 1936 it was called “Music Box Hall” and was headquarters to trade unions and labor organizations.  Later that year the entire building was leased by the Book Mart and the following year on January 15 Benjamin Duckman, “retailer of books, lamps, pictures and art goods,” leased the building.

Duckman apparently had a change of mind and two weeks later the building was leased to the Shapiro & Son company, manufacturers of curtains and bedspreads.  Only a week after Shapiro & Son moved in, the building was heavily damaged by fire.  On February 3, 1937 The New York Times reported “Four firemen were plunged into four feet of water when a section of flooring collapsed beneath them in a fire in the five-story loft building at 222 Fifth Avenue.”  The newspaper said “Firemen poured tons of water into the basement, after breaking through sidewalk lights with sledge hammers.”

Despite the catastrophe, Shapiro & Sons would still be in the building in 1966 when its president, Charles Shapiro, died at the age of 76.

In 1946, after owning the building for 88 years, the Joseph C. Baldwin Estate sold No. 222 for $110,000 to the Elk Supply Company.  The new owners immediately began a conversation which resulted in offices on each floor above the store level.  Along with Shapiro & Sons, the building would be home to a diverse mix of tenants including the Posner Advertising Agency in 1947; the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in 1962; and, a start-up internet company in 2000.

Today No. 222 Fifth Avenue enjoys compassionate maintenance by its owners.  An architecturally-sympathetic street level renovation and few alterations above the first floor preserve John C. Westervelt’s handsome Edwardian design.

photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Scandal and Tragedy -- No. 62 Bank St.

In 1822 a flood of new residents began settling in the rural village of Greenwich, fleeing the yellow fever epidemic to the south in New York City.  When they arrived, they would find that the Bank of New York, with astonishing forethought, had bought eight plots of land in 1798 and established a branch in the village.  The lane on which it stood became known as Bank Street.

The building boom in Greenwich Village would continue through the 1840s.  Brick and frame houses ranging from tiny working class homes to fine mansions quickly lined the winding streets.  Claiming a spot directly between the two classifications were handsome merchant-class homes like the one at No. 62 Bank Street.

Clad in Flemish bond red brick, it was built around 1836 for the dry goods merchant Leonard Kirby whose store was at No. 47 Cedar Street.  The vernacular architectural style reflected simple Federal elements like the paneled brownstone lintels that adorned the windows and doorway.  Styles were changing, however, and the dormered roof of the Federal style gave way here to a full third story.

The house became home to C. S. Fisk, his wife and children by 1841.  Fisk’s three little girls—aged 11, 13 and 14 years—were from a previous marriage.  On Monday August 10 of that year the three girls went on what was reported as “their usual walk” around 4:00.  They never returned.

On August 12 the New-York Tribune reported “For two days past, great excitement has existed in the neighborhood of No. 62 Bank street, owing to the sudden disappearance of three little girls…Reports were rife that they also had been kidnapped, violated and murdered.”

Alarmed locals demanded an investigation and acting Mayor Elijah F. Purdy ordered Justice Matsell  “to detail some officers to find the children, or arrest their abductors.”  The judge sent officers Prince, John Davis, and Cockefair into the city “with orders not to return until they had accomplished their errand.”

After interviewing several people in the Village area, the officers discovered that the three girls were seen with a lady in a Bleecker Street shoe store.  The woman purchased each girl new shoes and left with them.

The Tribune detailed the rather amazing detective work.  “The officers, from the description of this lady, looked for her on [the New Jersey] side, and then proceeded to Jersey City, where they found the lady in question and took her to the Police Office, all in one and a half hours after they set out.”

In a decision that astonishes the 21st century reader, the kidnapping was deemed appropriate and excusable when further facts were gleaned.   “This lady was the aunt of the children, and she stated that their step-mother, the wife of their father, Mr. Fisk, treated the children very badly, and that, with their consent, she had fitted them out and sent them to another of their aunts in Boston, where they had safely arrived.”

The New-York Tribune set readers’ minds at ease now that the girls were out of the hands of their wicked step-mother.  “She was then discharged, and the excitement will doubtless be allayed.”

Within three years the house would be home to A. L. McDonald, a Vice President of the Ninth Ward Whig Party.  Here on Saturday afternoon April 13, 1844 at 4:00 the funeral of McDonald’s 31-year old son, Pierre, was held.

Within the next decade or so there would be a relatively-quick turnover in residents.  The year after Pierre E. F. McDonald’s funeral, John DePew was living here.  The family was no doubt mortified when newspapers reported that he owed the city $2.65 in unpaid personal tax.

Another funeral would be held in the parlor on Monday afternoon, May 17, 1858, for Alexander, the 6-year old son of Alexander and Ellen Dalrymple.

One of the most colorful owners of No. 62 Bank Street was George W. Wiley who moved in around 1883.  Born at No. 27 Washington Street on April 15, 1825, he was one of the first of Greenwich Village’s volunteer firefighters.  Then, in 1849, when the nation was hit with gold fever and thousands of young men headed to California to strike it rich, Wiley had a better idea.

The 24-year old pooled his money with five other enterprising men and loaded a small schooner with groceries and general supplies that would be needed by prospectors arriving in California.  The New York Times later remembered that he “sailed around the Horn to San Francisco, where, during the gold fever, the greater part of the cargo was disposed of with wonderful profits, realizing easily for common sulphur matches $1 per box.”

The men established a store in Sacramento and used the schooner to transport goods from San Francisco to Sacramento.  “Frequently the money received for the freights on single trips would be more than the entire value of the schooner,” said The Times.

With his substantial profits, Wiley returned to New York after a few years and opened a cooperage business named McLaughlin & Wiley on Old Slip.  Now retired, Wiley lived quietly in the Bank Street house until he contracted “congestion of the brain” in May, 1888.  After an illness of three days, he died in the house on May 10.  In his obituary it was noted that George W. Wiley was “one of the oldest residents of the city who had lived through many of its changing phases.”

The house was sold to Edward Gorman, a truckman.  The Gorman family lived on the basement level and Sarah F. Gorman ran the upper floors as a boarding house.  Edward and Sarah may have regretted their decision to rent rooms when portrait artist Samuel J. Cowley turned a scandalous spotlight on the house.

Cowley’s studio was at No. 34 West 14th Street.  His estranged wife, Minnie, was among Mrs. Gorman’s first boarders.  On February 26, 1889 Cowley placed an advertisement in The Evening World offering a $6,000 reward for the return of a diamond necklace purloined from his studio.

Cowley told investigators that he was painting the portrait of a wealthy Philadelphia socialite who had left her $15,000 necklace in his studio.  The jewels were missing after a visit, he said, by a friend of the family.

It soon became apparent, as Cowley’s story fell apart, that it was all a publicity hoax.  Making matters worse for the artist was that his bid for attention drew some unwanted press as well.  On the day the advertisement was printed, he slipped up in an interview with a World reporter, saying that his wife and children lived in Cleveland, Ohio.

Another reporter, the following day, questioned him about the “lady living at 62 Bank street.”  On February 27 the Evening World reported “Later he admitted to the reporter that he had made a mistake when he said he had a wife and children living in Cleveland.”

The reporter asked if Minnie Crowley, then, was his true wife. “That I would not care to say either,” Crowley replied and the reporter said that “no further questioning would induce him to say whether she was or not.”

Undaunted the reporter pushed on to Mrs. Gorman’s boarding house at No. 62 Bank Street.  “The lady there, who claims to be Mrs. Cowley, lives on the top floor, front, in a small room, plainly furnished.  She is a dark-haired, plain-looking woman, but rather a prepossessing conversationalist,” reported The World.

To prove her marriage to the artist, Minnie presented a marriage certified dated July 12, 1879.  She admitted he was a philanderer; but insisted she was his only wife.  “I know that he was never married before he met me, and no matter how many women he has had dealings with since then I am his legal wife.”

The reporter discovered that Cowley was living with another woman named Hansen.  Minnie explained “He began to tire of me about two years ago, and gradually remained away from me, for longer periods each time, until last Christmas, when he left me, and we have not lived together since.  He has contributed to my support right along, though.”

She added “she passed herself off as Mrs. Cowley, but I never bothered my head about her.  My husband has been in innumerable scrapes with women.”

In the meantime Sarah Gorman was getting nervous because Cowley was in arrears for Minnie’s board.

Within two days of placing his phony advertisement, Samuel J. Cowley’s story was “the sensation of the town,” according to the newspaper; but it was definitely not the sort of publicity the artist had envisioned.

On March 7, 1889 The Evening World ran a headline “Cowley’s Fall—His Diamond Robbery Advertising Scheme Ruined Him—It Brings to Light the Fact that He Is Guilty of Bigamy.”  On the same day the Pittsburgh Dispatch reported “Mrs. Minnie Cowley, of 62 Bank street, wife of Artist Samuel J. Cowley, who advertised on February 26 a reward of $6,000 for the return of a diamond necklace alleged to have been stolen from his safe, secured warrants at the Jefferson Market Police Court on Tuesday for the arrest of her husband for abandonment and non-support, and also for bigamy.  She was accompanied to court by another woman, who, it is alleged, also claims to be the wife of the artist.”

Sarah Gorman got into the act by securing attachments against Cowley’s studio pictures for the $53 in back board and rent bills.  The Pittsburgh Dispatch said “She says in her complaint that Cowley has left the State with the intent to defraud his creditors.”

The Evening World was blatant in its censure.  “He is in hiding, and his business, instead of being increased, as he fondly hoped it would, has gone to smash…He was shown by The Evening World to be a most phenomenal perverter of the truth, and other things have since been discovered which make his history an interesting one.

“Mr. Cowley is a bigamist.”

Minnie Cowley was close to being evicted.  Sarah Gorman, whom The Evening World described as “the good-looking owner of the house where Mrs. Cowley lives,” put an advertisement in the newspapers around March 1 to rent the rooms.  Over 100 people answered the ads, “but no one wanted rooms,” reported The Evening World a week later.  “They only wanted to see Mrs. Cowley.”

The house at No. 62 Bank Street would be involved in another case of missing girls in September 1891.  Mrs. Spencer and her two daughters, Nettie and Gertrude, boarded with Mrs. Gorman for a period, as well as with Mrs. Rudd who ran a boarding house nearby at No. 79 Bank Street.

In actuality, “Mrs. Spencer” was probably an unwed mother.  On September 26, 1891 The New York Times said “The Gorman and Rudd women say that the mother of Nettie and Gertrude lived with both of them at various times.  They never saw Spencer.  The police look on Spencer as a myth.”

Little Gertrude and Netti were put in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac W. Purinton in Brooklyn.  According to Mrs. Purinton she “knew the mother of the children before her family had repudiated her.”

Then, around 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon, September 23, 1891, the girls showed up at No. 62 Bank Street.  Sarah Gorman allowed them to stay overnight, then took them to the Rudd boarding house the next day.

On Friday, Mrs. Rudd read a newspaper account of the children’s disappearance and called an officer.  Little Nettie told officials “that she had run away from the Purinton flat because of ill treatment in the hands of Mrs. Purinton.”  After Mrs. Purinton left the girls alone around 8:00 that Wednesday, Nettie broke a chair while carrying it from one room to another.

The New York Times recounted “Fearing a beating when Mrs. Purinton returned, Nettie determined to escape to New-York.  She dressed three-year old Gertrude, and they boarded an elevated railroad train at Greene and Grand Avenues, crossed over the bridge, and took a Bleecker Street car to Bank Street.”

Nettie told the police that Mrs. Purinton frequently beat her and made her do all the housework.  Although the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was called to investigate the case; in the meantime Detective Delehanty took the girls back to the Purinton apartment.

Mrs. Purinton was not pleased.  She “said that she would keep Gertrude and place Nettie in some institution,” reported The Times.

Two years later unspeakable tragedy and horror would play out in the Gorman house.  In one of the first floor rooms with a window onto Bank Street was a folding bed.  The Evening World described “The bed had heavy weights at the base of the headboard, the slightest pressure on either end causing it to close in a jiffy.”

On August 9, 1893, at around 3:00 in the afternoon Sarah Gorman “was alone, engaged in housecleaning, and had removed part of the bed-clothing from the bed to facilitate the cleaning process.”   To clean the mattress she used naptha—it was a fatal decision.

The Evening World said the following day “No more terrible accident has ever been recorded than that which caused the death yesterday of Mrs. Edward Gorman of Bank Street.”  An earlier edition of the same newspaper explained the gruesome mishap.   As she “was pouring naphtha on the folding-bed yesterday, at the same time holding a lighted lamp in one hand, the bed closed upward, imprisoning her, together with the lamp and the can of inflammable fluid.”

“She must have touched the bed as she bent over it, at a point where the pillows lie, and before she could draw back the treacherous mechanism had caught her as in a trap.  The indications are that the lamp exploded, enveloping her in flames.  Owing to the fact that her head was pressed tightly in the bed whatever cries she may have uttered were not heard by the lodgers above.”

Two little children discovered the fire separately.  The small child of Mrs. Catherine (Kate) Collins, a boarder on the top floor, was playing with a ball in the hallway and entered the bedroom “to see the bed burning fiercely and the victim’s hands extending out of the fire and smoke.”  The little girl ran upstairs to tell her mother. 

In the meantime, Joseph Devine, a small boy living across the street, saw the flames and turned in a fire alarm.  A second-floor tenant, Mrs. Schultz, saw clouds of smoke swirling outside her window and, she too, called in an alarm.

When fire fighters arrived, all the tenants were accounted for except Kate Collins and her nine-month old baby, Helen.  They found the woman and child in a rear room “gasping for breath,” according to The Sun and were taken town a ladder to the street.  “It is thought that Mrs. Collins will recover, but the child’s case is doubtful,” said the newspaper.

Sarah Gorman was burned beyond recognition.  Only her hands and feet, which protruded from the mattress, were unburned.  The Evening World remarked “The house belonged to Mrs. Gorman.  The damage to it is great.  The other lodgers, of whom there were a dozen, lost nothing.”

The newspaper took the opportunity to warn its readers about being careless.  “This is certainly a horrible affair.  But what a lesson it teaches of the insane folly and recklessness of using explosive fluids carelessly!”

On September 11, 1895 the house was sold to William T. Ericson for $8,500—about $230,000 today.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Greenwich Village had become New York’s Bohemia; attracting writers and musicians and painters.  Quaint brick homes like No. 62 Bank Street also attracted financially successful New Yorkers who sought the charm of the vintage structures.

In the 1930s the house was home to the family of George N. White and his family.  White was an investment banker and authority on public utility finance.  The Whites had a summer home in Orleans, Massachusetts and George was what would have been called “a club man” a generation earlier.  He held memberships in the Bond Club and the Lunch Club of New York.

While at the Orleans house on August 1, 1938, White suffered a fatal heart attack.  His widow, Marjorie, lived on in the Bank Street home for some time.

In the spring of 2002 The New York Times listed the desirable property for sale for $3.5 million.  The listing detailed four bedrooms, three baths, three fireplaces, “wide-plank floors, original moldings and detail” and a rear garden 22 by 75 feet.

No. 62 Bank was purchased by Robert Duffy, president and co-founder of Marc Jacobs.  Following extensive restoration and decorating, it was included in Ingrid Abramovitch’s 2009 book Restoring A House in the City.  Nine years after purchasing the house, Duffy sold it for $7.05 million.

The pristinely-maintained house quietly hides its secrets of 19th century scandal and unspeakable tragedy.

photographs taken by the author