Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Foster Kennedy House -- No. 14 Sutton Square

On July 16, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported that Sutton Square, Inc. had sold the “three-story dwelling at 512 East Fifth-Eighth Street to Dr. Foster Kennedy.”  The news was somewhat unexpected.

A group of wealthy urban pioneers that year had struck out on a social experiment many thought preposterous.  The remote neighborhood in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge included a brewery, tenement buildings and neglected brownstones of the 1870s.  Now millionaires like W. Seward Webb, Jr. (whose mother was Lila Osgood Vanderbilt and who was married to the daughter of Mayor Gaynor) and Eliot Cross (of the architectural firm Cross & Cross) had formed Sutton Square, Inc. and, for $100,000, purchased the 18 homes enclosing a common garden—the east side of Sutton Place from 57th to 58th Street, and the southern block of 58th Street from Sutton Place to the River.

The establishment of an exclusive residential “colony” in what The New York Times referred to as “a slum” was shocking to many.  But within months Dr. Robert Foster Kennedy (he rarely used his first name) would be joined by buyers like Anne Vanderbilt, widow of William K.  Vanderbilt; Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan; and conductor Walter Damrosch.  As reflected in the corporation’s name, the group intended the enclave to be called Sutton Square, as it was for a short time.  Eventually only the one-block section of 58th Street would keep the name.

The New-York Tribune published a sketch of the houses that wrapped around the common garden.  A steep embankment dropped to the East River in the foreground -- December 26, 1920 (copyright expired)

The restraints on remodeling the Victorian homes were made clear in the Sutton Square, Inc. deeds.  “The group is not to be razed, but entirely rebuilt.  Nothing will be left standing but the walls of the houses,” reported the New-York Tribune on December 26, 1920.  “The brownstone stoops, the window ledges and other protrusions are to be cleaved off, leaving a straight front to the outside world.”

The house Dr. Kennedy purchased had become operated as a boarding house.  In August 1900 Ashcan School artist Robert Henri moved in.  Bruce Weber, in his Paintings of New York 1800-1950, describes the Sutton Square neighborhood at the time.

“The artist’s flat overlooked the East River, was one block from coal-loading piers, and was not far from the riverfront’s many slaughterhouses as well as the city’s main garbage dump.”

When Dr. Kennedy purchased his brownstone, it retained its 58th Street address; but that would change before his renovations were complete.  The doctor commissioned H. O. Milliken to transform the vintage structure.   The young architect had graduated from Princeton University in 1905, then immediately traveled to Paris to study.  He now, like most of the architects working on the Sutton Square houses, would turn to the American colonial period for inspiration.

Three months after the purchase, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on the scope of the renovations.  “Remove stoop, entrance, new plumbing, heating, electrical work, walls, vent shafts, flooring, fireplaces, window, steps, openings in 3-story brick dwelling.”  Milliken estimated the cost of the project at $15,000—around $175,000 today.

The transformation, as with all the Sutton Place homes, was remarkable.  Milliken moved the entrance to just below street level, originally the English basement.  As a result the three-story house became four.  Renumbered No. 14 Sutton Square, it was faced in variously-colored brick laid in Flemish bond.  Trimmed in white marble and limestone, the neo-Federal townhouse featured splayed keystones; a row of arched openings, each enclosing a blind tympanum, at the second floor; and a dormered mansard behind a stone parapet.

The Irish-born doctor as he appeared around the time he purchased the home -- Leaders of the Twentieth Century, 1918 (copyright expired)

Dr. Foster Fletcher moved into his new home from No. 20 West 50th Street with his wife, the former Katherine Caragol de la Terga and their daughter Hessie Juana.  The 35-year old neurologist was already internationally-known.  Chief of Neurological Services at Bellevue Hospital, he had recently worked with shell-shocked soldiers on the front of World War I.  During the conflict he served as physician-in-chief of a French military hospital and later as a Major of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

His 1918 study The Nature of Nervousness in Soldiers directly contradicted the theories Sigmund Freud.  While Freud felt that shell shock was psychosomatic; Kennedy called it a manifestation of hysteria—the internal conflict between instinct for self-preservation and his herd instinct.  He was a pioneer in the use of electroconvulsive therapy in cases of psychosis, a leader in the study of addictions, and lent his name to the Foster Kennedy Syndrome.

Foster and Katherine Kennedy would live in the Sutton Square residence for decades.  The doctor’s prominence led to his name being publicized for the most minor issues—like the newspaper article on March 17, 1937 that informed readers that Kennedy “was found not guilty yesterday at a hearing before Magistrate Thomas A. Aurelio in Traffic Court on a charge of having passed a red light on Jan. 18.”

The Kennedys were socially visible, rubbing shoulders with Manhattan’s elite at concerts, summer resorts and dances.  Katherine threw herself into war relief efforts as World War II erupted in Europe.  Violinist Efrem Zimbalist gave a Carnegie Hall recital in December 1940 for the cause; and on December 19 The Times noted “in the interest of the Zimbalist concert, Mrs. R. Foster Kennedy will give a tea Friday at her home.”  On the night of the recital, the Kennedys gave a dinner, “taking their guests later to the concert by Efrem Zimbalist, violinist, at Carnegie Hall.”

Katherine’s polite entertainments included participation in the East Side Garden Tours.  In 1942 she teamed up with next door neighbor Mrs. Kenneth Taylor, who lived at No. 12, to serve tea in the gardens for the ladies on the tour.

At the time, however, the Kennedy name carried with it a taint; at least for some.  Dr. Kennedy was President of the Euthanasia Society of America and his theories regarding mercy killings were considered radical and shocking to many Americans.  Especially after the revelation of the horrors of Nazi Germany, public favor for the practice had diminished.  Dr. Foster Kennedy was unmoved by the war atrocities, which he found unrelated.

He argued that the lives of persons “born defective” should be ended, saying this was the most humane treatment they could receive.  In 1942 he published an article in the journal of the American Psychiatric Association supporting the killing of retarded children over five years old.  He referred to them as “those hopeless ones who should never have been born—Nature’s mistakes.”

Nevertheless, Kennedy’s fame among the medical community and his expert speaking skills outweighed the his questionable stance on the issue.  The New York Times called him “a scholar and a wit, connoisseur and philosopher, an accomplished orator and raconteur.”  The newspaper said “The medical fraternity came to regard him as a modern version of a Delphic oracle who always could be counted upon to highlight the essence of a subject with a trenchant quotable phrase.”

On December 30, 1952 Kennedy “was stricken at his home, 14 Sutton Square,” according to The Times, and taken to Bellevue Hospital.   He died there on January 7, exactly one month before his 58th birthday.  In October Katherine leased the furnished mansion to John R. Riley, Jr.

By 1956 it had become home to attorney Walter D. Fletcher.  His wife, Eleanor Langley Fletcher, was the former wife of James H. Van Alen—a well-known figure in Newport society.  As it had been when the Kennedys lived here, No. 14 was the scene of brilliant entertainments, often for the benefit of organizations like the United Fund Committee.

When No. was placed on the market in 1991 for just under $3 million, realtors listed five bedrooms, a wine cellar and library among its features.  A gem tucked away on a nearly unknown block, it recalls the description of Sutton Place anticipated by a New-York Tribune writer in 1920 “old-fashioned brick and other materials will make a picture such as artists paint of corners of ancient cities of the world.”

photographs by the author

Friday, January 23, 2015

Saint-Gaudens' 1903 Gen'l Wm. Tecumseh Sherman Statue

Like the statue, the bronze laurel wreaths applied to the red granite base are gold-leafed.  photograph New York City Parks Department

In 1887 the 40-year old sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens completed his powerful bust of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Although the artist would later complain that Sherman insisted on looking directly at him, making a good profile impossible; the several sittings resulted in a friendship.

Saint-Gaudens’s sitter was a complex character.  Still generally reviled in the South, Sherman was considered a hero in the North for bringing about the surrender of the Confederate armies.   His March to the Sea was considered needlessly heartless by many, and his refusal to embrace “Negro equality” bothered others.  But overall, at least in the North, he was a monumental figure.

Sherman died in New York City on February 14, 1891 and within two weeks plans were underway to honor him with a suitable monument.  On March 3, 1891 The New York Times reported on a meeting in the Chamber of Commerce building.  “President Smith of the Chamber presided, and Cornelius N. Bliss presented a resolution providing for the appointment of a committee of ten, to have full power to secure the erection of an equestrian statue of heroic size.”

Before the adjournment of the meeting the committee had grown to 12; including well-known names like Depew, Schiff, Sloane and Dodge.  The group proposed that the statue should be unveiled on the anniversary of the General’s death—11 months away.  John H. Starin estimated the cost would be about $35,000; however Abram S. Hewitt was more realistic.

“Mr. Hewitt believed that any leading artist would need three years for the work, and that $50,000 would be none too much.”  Before the men left the room they had pledged $5,750 among them, deemed by The Times “a substantial start.”

The Sherman Statue Committee adopted a resolution that any surplus funds would be donated to the Sherman family.  It was a kind hearted thought; but seems to have embarrassed and, perhaps, offended the family.  On March 11, 1891 newspapers published an open letter from P. T. Sherman that said in part, “This letter being in the nature of an appeal to the public in our behalf, we wish to have it understood that my father left us well provided for, and therefore we must beg of you to rescind your resolution of Friday, March 6, that ‘the committee shall announce to the public that any surplus subscription to the statue shall be given to the family of Gen. Sherman.’”

By the time P. T. Sherman wrote his polite letter of refusal the amount pledged to the monument fund had reached $25,235—more than half of the required amount in only a week.  The family did have one request, however.  General Sherman had been highly pleased with the bust executed by Saint-Gaudens.  According to American National Biography Online, “As a result the family specifically requested that Saint-Gaudens be chosen to execute the memorial, as that was the general’s wish.”

Augustus Saint-Gaudens received the commission in 1892.  It would result in a superb piece of artwork and an aggravatingly-long process.   The unveiling that John Starin thought would take place in a year, and Abram Hewitt gave three years would drag on past the turn of the century.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens poses with his work-in-process.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saint-Gaudens had grander visions than an ordinary equestrian statue to a war hero.   Starting his work in Paris, he seemed never to be satisfied.  He worked, then reworked, then refined, then changed, then reworked his model.  Finally a plaster casting was completed.  It included an allegorical figure of the Angel of Victory.  By creating a grouping rather than a solitary statue Saint-Gaudens related a story rather than simply depicting another horse-riding hero.

In 1900, nine years after the project began, the plaster casting was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition, winning the Medal of Honor, its highest honor.  But still the artist was not content.  As art critic Helen Henderson related in her 1917 A Loiterer in New York, “Though he had exhibited it, Saint Gaudens did not consider it finished and revised it critically and changed it before it was shown again, for the first time in this country, at the Pan-American Exposition, of Buffalo.”
Saint-Gaudens (third from left) poses with his assistants before the completed plaster casting -- photograph reproduced by Life magazine March 15, 1948.
Now cast in bronze, the grouping received critical acclaim--not enough acclaim, however, to satisfy the artist.  He continued to obsess over details, changing and refining even as the Statue Committee and the city prepared for its placement.  The Outlook remarked “he designed, studied, modeled, altered, remodeled, and altered yet again, until it seemed to those who were waiting for the work to be finished that the sculptor would never be content.”

On March 18, 1902 the New-York Tribune reported that the site had been chosen.  “The statue will be put at the southeast entrance to Central Park, in the circle north of Fifty-ninth-st.  The exact spot is that occupied by the tulip bed.”

Park Commissioner Wilcox told reporters “It’s the very best site in all the city and right at the beginning of the park system, just as the Grant monument is at the other end.  There was a good deal of opposition to placing the statue away up on [Riverside Drive].”

The commissioner answered a question “as to whether there was likely to be any further delay.”  He suggested that the statue would be in place in May.”  The commissioner was being optimistic.

In announcing the chosen site, the newspaper mentioned that “The pedestal will be furnished by McKim, Mead & White.”  Like the public and the committee, Charles McKim, who was a friend of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, would suffer frustration.

Glenn Brown, writing in the Architectural Record, would later recall having lunch with McKim at the Cosmos Club.  “He opened the conversation by saying, ‘I am thankful Saint Gaudens and I have settled on the design of the base for the Sherman Statue.  My first idea was a high base something on the order of Colleoni, while Saint Gaudens wanted the figure only a few feet from the ground.  We have compromised, making it higher than he first wanted it and lower than my first idea.  I have made about fifteen hundred studies for this base and I am thankful that it has been settled.”

Brown said that the two had been at the table only about 30 minutes when McKim received a telegram.  “A curious expression crept over his face as he read the telegram to me: ‘Charles, that base is all wrong, Gus.’”

Nearly to the last minute Saint-Gaudens fretted over the details of his monument.  According to Glenn Brown, he joined the sculptor and Charles McKim “just before the Sherman Statue was unveiled,” spending three hours while the architect and artist “were discussing pro and con the minor details of the tone for bronze in the ornaments on the base to make it harmonize with the gilded statue and red granite base, and the question of leaving the sculptured earth on which the figures stood, as it was cut of red granite, or gilding it to go with the statue.”

Finally, as Memorial Day 1903 approached, plans for the unveiling were begun.   But even this caused controversy.  An expansive wooden grandstand was to be erected for dignitaries and others attending the unveiling.  In order to make room for the stands, two trees had to be removed.  Reaction from some was swift and harsh. 

An editorial in The New York Times on May 30, 1903 complained “Yesterday morning those who chanced to be in the neighborhood of the Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park might have witnessed a very sad sight.   Because they were in the way of the hideous pine grand stand in front of the Sherman Statue, and lest they might detract from the assertiveness of that piece of sculpture, the Municipal Art Commission ordered two beautiful and vigorous young elms cut down, and cut down there were.”

A reader wrote a letter to The Times editor that opened “I hope to heaven that there will never be another memento or statue erected in New York if it involves the destruction of trees…It is a crying disgrace that such things can be.”

The grandstands for the unveiling wrapped around three sides of the monument.  In the background is the old Plaza Hotel.  photograph The Mail and Express Illustrated Saturday Magazine, June 6, 1903 (copyright expired)

The unveiling ceremony was appropriately lavish.  A parade of troops filed up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to the plaza where a band greeted them with “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Among the dignitaries present were Governor Odell, Secretary of War Elihu Root, Archbishop Farley, and Mayor Seth Low.

The New-York Tribune reported “Just before the head of the column arrived at the statue the monument was unveiled, the flags which formed the drapery being removed by Master William T. Sherman Thackara, a grandson of the general.”

Kenyon Cox summed up the completed work succinctly:  “Saint Gaudens is one of those artists for whom it is worth while to wait.”

Indeed, the never-contented Saint-Gaudens had produced a distinctive and powerful sculptural group.  He gave Sherman an aura of nobility astride his steed, his cape lightly blowing behind him.  Just ahead of him strode Victory with an outstretched arm.  In her other hand she carried a palm frond.  The entire statue was brilliantly gilded. 

Henry James praised the statue despite the "vulgarity of its environment."  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Perhaps only one among the crowd of applauding onlookers was unmoved.  A Southerner took in the statue and then sniffed, “Just like a Yankee, letting the lady walk.”

As with all public artwork, the draping had barely touched the ground before the critics made themselves known.   Outlook said it was “to be ranked among the half-dozen great equestrian statues of the world.”   The New York Times opined “Approached from any direction the monument catches the eye and stamps itself as a work of art out of the common” and agreed with Cox, saying “The delay in the erection of the statue caused by these later years of study has been vindicated.”

Helen Henderson judged it in 1917 saying that “In the Sherman equestrian group…St. Gaudens reached the high-water mark of his genius” and Henry James called it “splendid in its golden elegance.”

What Henderson appreciated in the art, she deprecated in its original setting, saying it stood “on the outskirts of the rather paradoxical, conglomerate apology for a square.”   But by the time she wrote the words, the “apology for a square” was a non-issue.

The will of millionaire publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who died in 1911, provided $50,000 for the erection of a fountain, a gift to the city “in a suitable place in Central Park, preferably near the Plaza entrance, the fountain to be as far as practicable like those in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.”  In 1913 plans were underway for the fountain and a remodeled square.

The firm of Carrere & Hastings was given the task of creating a European-style plaza that would encompass the Pulitzer Fountain to the south and the General Sherman Statue to the north.  To accomplish the formal alignment, the Sherman Statue was moved 16 feet to the west.  The completed plaza included stone balustrades, garden plots and “Oriental plane trees.”

Two vintage postcards show the statue in the Carrere & Hastings plaza.  The Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion is beyond the Pulitzer Fountain in the lower image.
A year after General Sherman was moved, it was time to move him again.   The proposed extension of the Broadway-Seventh Avenue subway line, which curved eastward toward the Queensboro Bridge, ran directly under the monument and Carrere & Hastings’s magnificent new plaza.  On June 28, 1914 The Sun reported “Saint Gaudens’s statue of Gen. Sherman at the Fifth avenue plaza entrance to Central Park probably will be missing from that spot for more than two years while the crosstown section of the Broadway-Seventh avenue subway is being constructed.”

“Probably” became “actually” and a year later large construction sheds sat on the site of the Sherman statue.   Although the contractor was given 29 months to finish the work, it would be years before the statue was reinstalled—the delays possibly caused by World War I.  When it did return, the beautiful plaza was wrecked and the statue was in less-than-pristine shape.

A letter to the editor of The New York Times from E. Andrews Lloyd on July 1, 1920 complained “All during the war this statue was hidden, and now that the temporary buildings around it have been removed it is still left with a broken down iron rail fence and the plot strewn with old cinders.

“This really magnificent statue is so grimed with smoke and dirt as to be almost recognizable, and its prominent location at the gateway of Central Park on Fifth Avenue makes it all the more conspicuous as a disgraceful exhibition of New York’s administration neglect.”

Within a year of Lloyd’s letter the area around the statue was re-landscaped, and then in 1923 the National Bulb Grower’s Association donated 40,000 flower bulbs for the Plaza Park.   It would be another 43 years, however, before the statue itself was given attention. 

In 1966 the figures and base were restored; and in 1989 the statue was regilded.   The latter process enraged art lovers and Central Park Conservancy members when the gilding was so flashy it prompted the publisher of Lear’s magazine to call it a “horror.”  When the glitzy brightness had not dimmed by 1996, a lightly-colored layer of wax was applied to soften it.  But by the 21st century pigeon droppings and weathering had seriously eroded the gold leaf. 

The statues were in deplorable shape before the 2011 restoration.  photo

In 2011 a restoration of the monument and the plaza was initiated.    The multi-year project included new pavement, benches, lighting and replacement of trees.   Art lovers held their breaths as the scaffolding came down from around the regilded Sherman Statue.

But the Central Park Conservancy had learned its lesson.   The Gilders’ Studio of Olney, Maryland used 23.75-karat gold leaf tinted with burnt umber and lampblack.  Repeated testing brought the tone as close as possible to that which Augustus Saint-Gaudens originally applied.  The entire project, completed in 2013, cost $2 million.
Today General Sherman has regained his 1903 nobility and, just like a Yankee, still makes the lady walk

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Madame Bergier's School for Young Ladies -- No. 132 Madison Avenue

photograph by the author

By 1855 what had been Manhattan’s most exclusive residential areas—St. John’s Park and the Bond Street section—were being abandoned for new upscale neighborhoods.  Wealthy residents erected fine mansions around Washington Square, lower Fifth Avenue and Murray Hill.   Upscale businesses followed the migration.

One of these was Madame Bergier’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies.  The daughters of the city’s social aristocracy were instructed in private schools.  Successful entry into society would require a command of French, knowledge of music and literature; and, equally important, a thorough education in deportment, etiquette, and poise.  The schools were run in a domestic rather than school-house setting.  The women who ran them—most often martinets with no patience for giggling and nonsense—frequently purchased or leased large mansions for the purpose.

Madame Bergier’s was located at No. 300 Second Avenue in 1855.  But following the close of that year’s term she moved to No. 132 Madison Avenue—one block east of Fifth Avenue and near the lavish Madison Avenue mansions of millionaires with names like Phelps, Dodge, and Havemeyer.

The impressive Italianate style mansion featured elliptical arched openings and wide stone stoop.  A rusticated brownstone English basement provided a base for the brick-faced residence.  It was the type of home over which Madame Bergier’s young pupils would one day hold sway.

Classes opened on Monday May 5, 1856.  Young ladies were not expected to be inconvenienced, and the school owned its own coach for their transportation.  “A stage is attached to the institution for pupils at a distance,” mentioned an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on May 3.

The girls enrolled here could receive instruction in French, English and Spanish.  Madame Bergier realized that parents would be wary and on September 16, 1857 let prospective clients know “Madame Bergier will be at home to receive Parents and Guardians who may wish to confer with her, on and after Aug. 20.”

Young women who had already been introduced to society were also welcome here for a sort of brush-up.  For $15 per quarter there was a “French Class for grown-up Young Ladies” that met from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m.  That fee would translate to a rather reasonable $450 today.

By the time the first shots were fired in the Civil War, Madame Bergier’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies was gone.  The large mansion seems to have been operated as a high-class boarding house in August 1863 when resident R. S. Walter was drafted into the Union Army.

Residents moving into No. 132 may have paid more than those in average boarding houses; but an advertisement in 1888 reflects the luxurious accommodations they received.  “Suite of apartments, with excellent table, in a handsomely furnished house.”

Among these was Cuban-born Aurelio Arango who lived here with his wife and son by 1892.  The New York Times said he was “well known in business circles, particularly by those engaged in Cuban and Spanish-American enterprises.”   When the Edison Spanish Colonial Light Company was organized around 1887, Arango was appointed Treasurer and general manager.

On the morning of December 22 he “left his home at the usual hour and apparently in his usual good health, and rode down town on the elevated railroad en route to the office of the company in the Edison Building, 44 Broad Street,” reported The Times the following day.  As the train reached the station at Rector and Church Streets, Arango was suddenly taken ill and lost consciousness.

The 60-year old Navarro would never return to No. 132 Madison Avenue.  “He was carried into the waiting room at the station, an ambulance was summoned, and the suffering man was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital,” said the newspaper.  “He died soon after reaching there.”

Also living in the house at the time were Dr. Gideon E. Moore and his wife, Marie, and James T. Kilbreth.  Kilbreth was well-known in New York as a judge in the Court of Special Sessions who had “introduced immediate and radical reforms” upon his appointment.   He retired from the court in January 1893.

In July that year, Marie L. Moore endured insufferable public humiliation.  The doctor’s wife, described by The New York Times as “a woman of medium height and slender build,” left No. 132 Madison Avenue on Tuesday, July 18, 1893.  It was her first time out of the house following an illness of nine weeks that had kept her in bed.  Along with Marie came her little 21-ounce Dandy Dinmont terrier.

Before the day was out, both Mrs. Moore and the dog would be in trouble.

Having finished her errands, Marie Moore boarded the Madison Avenue street car.  When the conductor, John Hodgkins, noticed the pet, things quickly got out of control.

“I was bringing home this tiny dog in my pompadour bag,” Marie later recounted.  “It was concealed until the conductor came to get my fare.  Then it pushed its nose out and the conductor saw it.  ‘Get off this car,’ he said in a gruff, brutal way.  ‘You and your dog get out of here.’

“I remonstrated with him, and being excited, I declined to go.  He had no more right to interfere with the dog in the bag than he had to open my purse and see what was in it, and I told him so.”

According to Mrs. Moore, Hodgkins he “savagely” grabbed her dress and began to drag her to the door.  She said passengers protested, but he ignored them.  Once he had her off the streetcar, Hodgkins turned her over to a nearby policeman.

“This man was even worse than the conductor,” exclaimed Moore.  “He seized my arm and dragged me a black and a half.  I was crying and almost hysterical.”

According to her version of the story, when she asked the policeman to allow her to get a cab, he responded “No, you can’t have a cab; you’re no better than anybody else, you and your dog.  You’ve got to walk, so none of your nonsense.”  Her melodramatic rendition continued.  “My right arm is black and blue and terribly sore, and my body is racked with pain from the terrible ill-treatment he gave me.  I fell to the ground, and still the policeman refused to let me get a cab, and grabbing me around the waist hurried me along.”

The conductor and the police officer had a different version of things.  “Conductor Hodgkins says that Mrs. Moore struck him on the head with an umbrella and used violent language when he ordered her to leave his car Tuesday afternoon,” reported The Times.  The policeman told the judge that he witnessed the assault and that Moore called the conductor “a brute and used violent language.”

The judge was no less harsh on Marie Moore.  When she complained that she had been roughly-handled, the judge responded “You didn’t expect to be handled with gloves, did you, you and your dog?  You had no right to carry a dog in a street car.”

She was scheduled to appear in the Yorkville Police Court on charges of disorderly conduct on July 19, 1893; but was too shaken to show up.  A reporter from The New York Times went to the Madison Avenue house and “found her in great pain, and distress of mind bordering on hysteria.”

Marie L. Moore pleaded “I want to see if there is any justice in this city to protect a poor, weak woman from the savagery of such men as these.”

Ten days later Judge James T. Kilbreth was reportedly greatly surprised when President Grover Cleveland appointed him Collector of the Port of New York.  The appointment was not well received by Kilbreth’s former Tammany adversaries.

“Some of the politicians were not too well pleased,” noted The Times, “but they all admitted the excellence of the appointment, and none of them questioned Mr. Kilbreth’s ability to administer the important office.”

Kilberth and his wife endured some public humiliation of their own in August 1894 when the Collector’s 18-year old niece, Caroline McLean, arrived in the city from Cincinnati.  The Evening World reported that “the young woman is stopping in this city at the home of her uncle, Collector Kilbreth.”

There would be little reason for newspapers to be interested in a niece visiting her uncle normally; but Caroline McLean had announced to the world that she intended to be an actress.  The Evening World said she was “beautiful and the possessor of a rare and highly trained voice.  It is added that she became fascinated with the stage and had secured the promise of an engagement with Seabrooke’s company.”

James Kilbreth had no intention of being associated with an actress.

“Mr. Kilbreth lives at 132 Madison avenue, and the French servant who answered the door at ‘The Evening World reporter’s call this morning had evidently been instructed to know nothing.”

The dogged reporter tracked Kilbreth down at his office.  The exasperated Collector made his thoughts perfectly clear.  “I know little about this girl and care nothing about her venture.  She may go on the stage if she wants to for all I care.  I did not meet her at the train; she is not at my house, and I do not know where she is.”

While well-to-do residents like the Moores and Kilbreths remained for years, vacancies prompted advertisements for the “handsomely furnished” rooms (with or without board) in the “splendid location.”

As they did every year, in 1897 James Kilbreth and his wife left Madison Avenue to summer at their country home in Southampton, Long Island.   Around the middle of June Kilbreth contracted pneumonia.  “To this was added stomach and liver trouble,” said The New York Times.

On June 22 he “passed a poor night,” but seemed to rally in the morning.  The Times reported “He then began to sink again, and at 6 o’clock hope was abandoned.”  James T. Gilbreth, called “one of the ablest judges on the bench,” died thirty minutes later.

Although at the turn of the century the grand old mansion was still being operated as an upscale boarding house (a 1901 advertisement offered “handsomely furnished, sunny front and hall rooms, every convenience, superior table); that would all come to an end very soon.

Mrs. Russell Sage, the wife of millionaire financier and railroad tycoon, was frustrated with “the servant girl question.”  The problem of finding good domestic help in the first years of the 20th century was coupled with the rising cost of staff.  “The wages of servants are steadily rising, while the efficiency of service, if not actually declining on the whole, is at least not advancing at the same rate with the pay,” noted The Times on October 11, 1903.  The newspaper felt that a novice chamber or kitchen maid could make a comfortable living.

A “’greenhorn,’ at the prevailing rate of wages, should find no difficulty in dressing herself even handsomely and yet putting by at the rate of $100 a year.”  The annual salary which the newspaper found so generous would amount to about $2,730 today.

So in 1903 Mrs. Sage helped found the Women’s Domestic Guild.   The organization, which was part employment agency and part occupational training center, moved into rented space at No. 27 East 21st Street.   The Guild provided staff to households, while instructing potential hires in the “raw material” of general housekeeping.   A clever method of helping assure clients that the servants would stay on was the Guild’s offering them a $1 reward each year they remained in a position.

The Guild provided meeting places for servants on their nights off.  “No provision is now made for such a meeting place,” said The Times, “and to friendless girls the evening off must be a period of acute boredom.”  The newspaper felt that “The aims of the institution it will be seen, are entirely laudable” and “Its manager will have the sympathy of all housekeepers in their endeavors.”

By May 1904 the Guild had secured positions for over 5,000 servants and severely outgrown its space.  It announced that “The crowded condition of the Guild Rooms…has interfered with the comfort of patrons and at times made their transaction of business difficult and unsatisfactory.  Now there will be ample space for all who wish to secure employment and for those who require help.”

The special improvements were due to the Guild’s move to 22 rooms in No. 132 Madison Avenue.  Here “cooks, waitresses, chambermaids, laundresses, parlor maids, and kitchen maids” were interviewed and trained.  Later that year, in September, the Women’s Domestic Guild found itself sorely short of a particular kind of help.  An advertisement in The Sun on September 11, 1904 read “Fifty French Servants wanted at once in the Department of French Service.”

Within only a few years the former mansion became a hub of firms involved in the architectural business.  Architect Aymar Embury moved into the building in March 1912 and would stay for years.  He would be joined by architects Oscar C. Hering and Douglass Fitch, and Alfred Busselle.  Related companies like general contractors J. H. L’Hommedieu’s Sons Co. and the Lighting Studios Co. also took space in the pre-World War I years.

By the 1920s the millinery and garment districts had moved northward, engulfing the area.  On March 26, 1921 The New York Times announced that J. W. Bell, the building’s owner, had commissioned architect A. A. Hopkins to convert No. 132 Madison Avenue into “four-story offices.”  The $5,000 renovation corresponded with the city’s widening of Madison Avenue that same year.  The result was the removal of the grand stoop (the arched entranceway was converted to a window), and the lowering of the doorway to ground level.  A vast show window was installed on the former parlor floor.  On the 31st Street elevation, shallow Corinthian pilasters that once most likely supported a long cast iron balcony were allowed to remain.

For over a decade, before the garment district moved north of 34th Street, No. 132 Madison Avenue was home to children’s wear, lingerie companies, and manufacturers of dresses and women’s suits.   Then, in 1959, the house where wealthy girls read French poetry and swept up the mahogany staircase in antebellum skirts, was converted to a restaurant.  Department Buildings documents noted that the kitchen and one dining room were in the basement; the dining room, bar rooms, coat check room and office were on the first floor, and that all the upper floors were “to remain permanently vacant.”

Only three years later another conversation resulted in offices throughout.  Today Madame Bergier’s Boarding and Day School retains its sober countenance despite its many uses and several alterations.  Yet few passing can imagine the history of the venerable old mansion.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Franklin Baylies's No. 36-38 East 20th Street

As the turn of the last century approached, almost all of the brick and brownstone residences on East 20th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue had been converted for business or razed.  In 1899 two more, Nos. 36 and 38, would go.

The two 20-foot wide homes, both owned by the Remsen Estate, were being used by high-end dressmakers in the 1890s.  Additionally the Gramercy Laundry operated out of the basement level of No. 38 in 1895.  But with the millinery and apparel districts inching northward, the potential value of the real estate for commercial purposes far outweighed that of the old dwellings.  On January 27, 1899 The New York Times reported that the three-story houses had been sold to the real estate firm of Boehm & Coon.  Only days later, The Evening Post Record of Real Estate Sales noted that the firm had resold the properties “to a builder who will erect an eight-story building on the site.”

The “builder” was speculative developer John Walker.  He commissioned architect Franklin Baylies to design a modern loft and store structure on the site.   Plans were filed in March and the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted they called for “8-story brick, stone and terra cotta fireproof stores and lofts.”

Completed in 1900, the Beaux Arts-style building was as up to date as it was eye-catching.   A two-story base of rusticated limestone framed the first-floor retail space.  Its cast iron storefront featured a bowed show window and exuberant ornamentation of garlands, arabesques and cartouches.   The red brick of the upper floors was contrasted with white limestone courses, lintels, cornices and carvings.  Large, heavy cartouches below the fifth floor cornice matched those of the cast iron store front.  Baylies’s decoration of the topmost floors was controlled and yet sumptuous.

The attractive storefront featured the eyecatching, off-set protruding shop window.
The building quickly filled with apparel-related firms, like Simon Brothers, manufacturers and dealers in furs.   The firm was located on the fourth floor where flammable components like glues were stored.   After employees left for the night on July 8, 1904, something in the shop began slowly smoldering.  After several hours, around 7:00 in the morning, the pile burst into flames.

Fire fighters rushed to the scene, but the intense blaze took more than an hour to extinguish.  Officials estimated the damage to be around $10,000—nearly a quarter of a million dollars today.

Ladies’ hat makers Burras & Griffin moved into the building in 1906.  The semi-monthly journal Men’s Wear called it “a fine hat manufacturing establishment, making exclusive designs in shapes only.”   The company advertised its “high grade ladies’ and misses’ untrimmed hats.”

But not every tenant in the building at the time was an apparel firm.  That same year architect Charles Platt operated from here. 

J. Spencer Crosby & Co. was in the building in 1908.  Forest Leaves magazine, Spring 1908 (copyright expired)

In December 1909 the Cincinnati-based firm of P. R. Mitchell Company leased the store and basement “for a long term of years, at an aggregate rental of $45,000,” as reported in The New York Times.   While the store would cater mostly to women searching for bedding and pillows; the firm was also a wholesale dealer of upholstery stuffings.  Its listing in the American Trade Index the following year noted that it offered “Curled hair ‘Sterilized’ for all upholstering purposes, feathers and down for bedding purposes, turkey quills for duster and millinery purposes, bristles; tickings, denims, cretonnes, etc.; feather dusters; pillows and cushions.”

Housewives shopped for feather-stuffed pillows in the store in 1909 -- (copyright expired)
The building saw a surprisingly-quick turnover in ownership starting in 1913.  Five years earlier Julius Heimann had purchased it.  Now in July 1913 he sold it to the Salisbury Realty Company, which resold it in January 1914 to Minna M. Coester.   At the time the city assessed the property at $240,000.

Changes in ownership apparently did not negatively influence the building’s tenant list.  In May 1915 Pomeranze Bros., makers of cloaks and suits, moved in.  Prior to the move American Cloak and Suit Review made note of the increased space.   “While Pomeranz Bros. are now occupying extensive quarters, they have developed their business so successfully recently that they completely outgrew their accommodations and will have ample room to care for their increased business in their new home.”

The same year Tuttman Bros. & Rosen was organized to produce what The Corset and Underwear Review called “Attractive styles in infants’ and children’s dresses and children’s undermuslins.”  The journal said “They are featuring all white garments, which are being marketed as the ‘Daisy Brand’ line.”

Other tenants in the building in 1917 included P. J. Barash, who advertised “The Big 5 Skirt Line” saying “Come downtown and Save Money at Barash’s;” and Chas. Kafka & Co, manufacturers of dress skirts.  Kafka promised his buyers that year “The last thing I would think of would be to antagonize the buyers whose confidence and good will I value so highly and want you all to know that I am serving your  best interests by marking my skirts as low as possible.”

Eventually the garment district moved northward, past 34th Street.  As apparel firms moved out, vastly different companies moved in.  In 1933 the store became home to Samuel Wach and Samuel Berger, manufacturers of paper boxes.  Seven years later it was leased to the Chisolm Company, vendors of barber supplies.

Astoundingly, as the neighborhood and the tenant list changed, the exterior of Nos. 36-38 East 20th Street remained unchanged.  Today the ground floor retail space where P. R. Mitchell Company sold feather-filled comforters is home to a trendy restaurant.  Its wonderful bowed show window survives with little alteration, the cast metal store front is intact, and even the three sets of 1901 double doors remain.  And above, Franklin Baylies’s ebullient Edwardian façade deserves a craned the neck from across the street.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The 1907 Harris House -- No. 50 West 86th Street

At the turn of the last century, Sarah Harris was an active player in what was mostly considered a male-only game—real estate development.  In 1907 she embarked on a project with architects Neville & Bagge that was a little more personal—her own impressive mansion.

Harris had acquired the ample 25-foot wide building lot at No. 50 West 86th Street.  The block of the avenue-wide street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue had only just begun seeing the rise of elegant mansions in the past few years.    Sarah Harris’s limestone-faced Renaissance Revival home would hold its own with sumptuous houses on opposite side of Central Park.

Completed that same year, it rose four stories above a the basement, the entrance to which was below the arched parlor windows and behind an imposing iron fence and gate.  The main entrance sat upon a five-stepped white marble stoop and was sheltered by a shallow portico upheld by gray granite Ionic columns.  Gilded bronze doors not only provided security, but announced that Sarah Harris had money.

The architects embellished the underside of the three-sided bay at the second floor with heavy foliate carving that incorporated two full-bodied lions flanking the snarling face of a third.  The bay extended two floors, where it culminated in a balcony protected by an ornately carved stone balustrade.

The elaborate bay carvings incorporated a lion motif.

The business relationship between Sarah Harris and Neville & Bagge continued, and in 1909, two years after she moved into No. 50, Sarah commissioned the firm to design a $100,000 six-story apartment house on 157th Street. 

Nearby, at No. 40 East 80th Street, Olin D. Gray lived with his wife, the former Lydia Blossom, and their daughter, Laura Blossom Gray.   The same year that Sarah was constructing the 157th Street building, the Grays were finishing their new country house in Garden City.

In 1914 Sarah Harris left West 86th Street.  She sold No. 50 for $80,000—just under $2 million today—to the Grays; the title being transferred to Lydia’s name.   Like Sarah, Lydia was involved in real estate dealings.   Olin Gray was head of the Gray Realty and Development Company, and had been, until 1910, President of the Gray Lithographing Company at No. 15 Laight Street.  Yet it was Lydia’s name that repeatedly appeared in the real estate columns buying and selling properties.

This purchase, however, as it had been for Sarah, was personal and No. 50 West 86th Street was to become the Gray family home. 

The Grays were barely settled into the West 86th Street house when scandal threatened to tarnish their good name.   In 1915 investigations into the finances of Olin D. Gray and the now-defunct Gray Lithographing Company, explained why Lydia Blossom Gray was so active in the real estate market.

Court documents relating to the Irving National Bank vs. Gray, revealed that from 1900 to 1910 Gray “drew large sums from [Gray Lithographing] for his own use” and that he had invested the cash into real estate, placing the titles in his wife’s name.  On June 16, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported that Irving National Bank alleged Gray had “transferred assets amounting to about $500,000 to prevent his creditors from collecting judgments…Much of this property, it is alleged, was transferred by Gray to his wife, Mrs. Lydia B. Gray, who is named as a defendant.”  The bank claimed “that Gray has fraudulently concealed property and denied ownership of it.”

The West 86th Street house was, thankfully for the Grays, not involved in the suit.

By the time the untidy legal issues were straightened out, Laura, who preferred to be called Blossom, was growing up.  In 1918 she was graduated from the exclusive Spence School and on February 21, 1919 her mother hosted her debutante dance in the mansion.   

The war in Europe was over and America’s fighting men returned home.  One of them was Cameron O’Day Mcpherson, the grandson of Daniel O’Day who helped form the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller.  Mcpherson had served in the Royal Air Force, “which he joined because of his English and Scotch connections and long residence in London,” as explained by The Sun.

Now, less than six months after Blossom’s debutante dance, the Grays announced her engagement to Mcpherson.  The announcement in The Sun on August 6, 1919 said “The wedding will take place during the mid-winter in St. Thomas’s Church, and will be followed by a reception in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gray.”  Only part of that would come to pass.
Rather unexpectedly, Laura Blossom Gray's parents sold the 86th Street house before her wedding -- New-York Tribune, August 6, 1919 (copyright expired)
Laura Blossom Gray would get her fashionable society wedding in St. Thomas’s Church on Valentine’s Day, 1920.  But there would be no reception in the West 86th Street mansion.   Two months after the engagement was announced, her parents abruptly sold the house.  On October 22 the New-York Tribune noted the family was “at the Hotel Commodore for a few days.  On their return from the country, about Dec. 1, Mr. and Mrs. Gray will go to the St. Regis.”

It was in the St. Regis Hotel that Blossom’s wedding reception was held.

No. 50 was converted to apartments and Fred M. Santley was among its first tenants.  By 1939 it was owned by the Bank of Manhattan Company, which leased it in February that year.  “The lessee will rent the rooms for furnished apartments after alterations,” reported The New York Times.  The residents were apparently well-to-do.  On June 18, 1939 Mr. and Mrs. Harry Gerstein announced the bar mitzvah of their son, David Elliot, at the nearby Rodeph Sholem Temple in the society pages.

The former mansion saw a relatively quick succession of owners through the 1950s and ‘60s.  In 1961 it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Payor who did a rather substantial conversion.  The basement apartment with its separate entrance received a swimming pool and private gallery.  The parlor floor was divided into two large apartments, as was the second floor.  The top two floors contained a combination of small apartments and furnished rooms creating a total of 12 rentable spaces in the house.

The Payors sold the house in 1963.  At the time Curtis Ousley had made a name for himself in the musical world as King Curtis.  The blues and soul musician who started out as a member of Lionel Hampton’s band was also an arranger, composer and bandleader.  His own band had backed Aretha Franklin, as well as pop stars like Andy Williams, Bobby Darrin and Nat King Cole.

The popular musician purchased No. 50 as an investment -- photograph

Although he lived further uptown, at No. 150 West 96th Street, the 36-year old saxophonist owned No. 50 West 86th Street in 1971.   On the fateful night of August 14 that year, he was visited the property and encountered 26-year old Juan Montanez sitting on the stoop.  Curtis demanded that the young man not loiter on the steps.  Heated words boiled over, erupting into a fist fight.

Suddenly Montanez pulled out a knife and stabbed Curtis.  Before he collapsed onto the sidewalk, the musician wrested the weapon from his attacker, stabbing him.  Before police arrived Montanez had staggered away.

King Curtis was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where he died.  Investigators learned that another man, also with stab wounds, had been admitted to the same hospital almost simultaneously.  Montanez was charged with the homicide.

As it turned out, King Curtis would be just the first in a string of celebrity names to become associated with No. 50 West 86th.   In 1980 a 19-year old wanna-be actor moved into one of the upper floor rooms.  According to another resident, he paid his $300 rent by doing janitorial chores in the building.  A year later, Tom Cruise landed a supporting role in Taps and shortly moved on.

When a penthouse was added to the building in 1989, the fourth floor was converted to a duplex and a triplex apartment, extending upward the new addition.   Robert Downey, Jr.  had been dating actress Jessica Parker for about five years.  He took one of the penthouse apartments and before long Parker moved in as well.  Their romance lasted only for about one more year, after which No. 50 lost one of its celebrities in Parker.

Although most of Neville & Bagge’s interiors have been lost; except for replacement windows and the penthouse, Sarah Harris’s handsome townhouse looks much as it did in 1907.

photographs by the author  

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Lost Maxine Elliott's Theatre -- No. 109 W. 39th Street

A postcard depicted the newly-opened theater in 1909.

The daughter of a sea captain, Jessie Carolyn Dermot was born in Rockland, Maine on February 5, 1868.  Jessie was not destined for the quiet life of a Victorian New England housewife.    At the age of 15 she was enrolled in the Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

While on a trip to New York City shortly thereafter, the teenager met attorney George A. MacDermott, who was in his 30s.  After their brief marriage, Jessie enrolled in acting classes.  Her instructor, Dion Boucicault, gave her the stage name Maxine Elliott.   By the mid-1890s Maxine was touring the country and drawing large audiences; not because she was an especially good actress, but because of her extraordinary beauty.

She married her co-star, Nathan Goodwin in February 1898 and the pair continued to tour together.  All the while Maxine Elliott’s personal fortune increased.   She was firmly established as a star when she appeared in September 1903 in Her Own Way, by Clyde Finch.  This time her husband did not share the stage with her.  The smash hit traveled to London where her performance prompted King Edward VII to request an introduction.  Whispered rumors suggesting a sexual relationship between the couple would follow Maxine for the rest of her life.

Cabinet card from the collection of the New York Public Library

Maxine Elliott was not merely a pretty face.  She was a shrewd businesswoman and in 1906, after returning to New York, took over the management of her finances.  Two years later, she divorced Nat Goodwin, and began negotiations with brothers Lee and Samuel Shubert in a brash—some would say shocking—venture.  Maxine wanted to own and manage her own theater.   A woman operating such a business was essentially unheard of at the time.

By now the entertainment district had begun the migration from 23rd Street to the former Longacre Square neighborhood (newly renamed Times Square).   Lee Shubert purchased the four “tenements, with stores” at Nos. 105 to 113 West 39th Street in May 1908.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “The property is going to be improved with a theatre and will be called the Elliott Theatre, after Maxine Elliott.”

The Shubert-Elliott partnership prompted yet another rumor.   Many suggested that Maxine’s share of the investment came from J. P. Morgan who was not only a close friend, but a rumored lover.  The Record & Guide, by the way, got the name of the proposed theater wrong.  The Shuberts suggested the name “The Maxine Elliott Theatre,” but Maxine resolutely resisted.  She insisted on “Maxine Elliott’s Theatre.”  The apostrophe, she realized, made the clear distinction between a theatre named in honor of an actress, and one owned and managed by her.

A 1908 publicity photo posed Maxine with a pickax breaking ground for the new theater -- The Sketch, September 30, 1908 (copyright expired) 

It seems to have been Maxine herself who chose the Chicago architectural firm of Marshall & Fox to design the building.   Just one month after the property was purchased, the announcement was made that “The construction is to be of stone terra cotta and brick, and will cost in the neighborhood of $300,000.”  That figure would translate to about $7.8 million today.
The architects were instructed to use the Petite Trianon as a model -- photo by Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons
The Record & Guide noted “When the playhouse is completed next January Miss Elliott will become the manager of it, and will be the first woman star in New York to own a playhouse and have it named for her…and hers will be one of the finest of the small modern theatres, in the city.”

Maxine directed the architects to model the façade on the Petite Trianon.  Not content with limestone, brick or granite for her upscale structure, she insisted on white Dover marble.   In September 1908, as the structure rose, The Sketch described what theater-goers might expect.

“The interior decorations are decidedly novel, the woodwork being a deep old ivory, forming panels which are filled with a glowing old gold brocade of the tint which is commonly known as castor brown.  The stalls—which, in accordance with the American custom cover the whole of the floor—are very roomy chairs, so that the comfort of the audience is certain, and it will be studied in every way.”
Architects' and Builder's Magazine, September 1909 (copyright expired)

Months later, after the building was dedicated, Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine added to the description of the 900-seat playhouse.  “The lobby of the theatre, entirely finished, walls and ceiling, in a white veined Vermont marble is about 10 feet wide…In the lobby the lighting fixtures are handsomely designed and are of cast bronze, gold plate, as are all the others in the house.”

In the basement was the gentlemen’s smoking room with its oak furniture, the check room and toilet (“finished in old Ivory tints with paneled walls, outlined with mouldings of circassion Walnut").  The ladies’ dressing room was also on this level, furnished in Louis XVI reproductions, and the orchestra pit, hidden from the audience—“the sound of the music being wafted through a leafy screen which takes the place of the usual apron placed before the stage,” explained Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine.

Maxine's dressing room was, in fact, a several-room suite -- Burr McIntosh Monthly, April 1909 (copyright expired)

A large crystal chandelier hung above the audience, carrying on the French motif.   The critic writing for Architects’ and Builders’ did not care for it.  “In the criticism of the lighting, it might be said that the central chandelier, although a very beautiful piece of work in itself, is a relic of archaism in theatre construction that might well have been omitted.  It is therefore to be hoped that the owners of the theatre will avail themselves of an opportunity in the near future to do away with this feature and to cover the auditorium ceiling with some soft and indefinite mural painting, lighted indirectly from above the heavy cornice which frames the ceiling panel.”

Burr McIntosh Monthly, April 1909 (copyright expired)

The Burr McIntosh Monthly spoke about Maxine’s close involvement with the interior decoration and the building’s safety.  “It is scarcely necessary to say that the womanly thoughtfulness and care and taste which have been lavished on the public part of this notable structure have been as freely and generously expended to secure the comfort and safety of those behind the scenes…Really, Miss Maxine Elliott’s theatre makes one wish that they owned it for a home, and no greater testimony to its artistic perfection or of the womanly care which has been bestowed upon its details could be paid it.”

Putnam’s Magazine made special note of the Maxine’s thrust for sexual equality in erecting the theater.  “In the first place, it is the only theatre ever built in this city by a woman and managed by a woman.”  It added “She intends it primarily for women ‘stars.’  When she herself acts there, her plays will be by women, if women can give her what she wants.  ‘The Chaperon,’ with which she opened the theatre, was written by a woman, being Miss Marion Fairfax’s second production.  Miss Elliott has installed women ushers—an innovation in this country.”

The glistening white structure stood in stark contrast to a pile of street debris in 1909 -- photograph Library of Congress

The magazine suggested that Maxine’s ground-breaking endeavor would change the face of Broadway.  “The success of the Maxine Elliott Theatre has incited other actresses to go and do likewise, and I hear that we are soon to have an Annie Russell Theatre. It may be that in time we shall have none but theatres that are emblazoned with the names of ‘stars.’”

As Putnam’s mentioned, the theater opened in 1909 with Maxine starring in The Chaperon.   Not long after, Maxine donated the use of the theater for “a suffrage matinee” on March 31.  She also paid for the orchestra.  Three plays were staged for the benefit of the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women:  Before the Dawn, A Woman’s Influence, and How the Vote Was Won.

The matinee was organized by Beatrice Forbes-Robertson, daughter of the great English actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, considered one of the finest thespians of the day.   Not only did Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman recite a suffrage poem during one of the intermissions and Mrs. Stanton Blatch speak; but Beatrice managed to get her esteemed father to speak as well.

Maxine returned to London later that year, leaving the management of the theater to the Shuberts.  She could not have known that in her absence the President of the United States would be in the audience of her new theater.

On December 30, 1909 Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson was back at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre; now performing in The Passing of the Third Floor Back.  President Taft was in town, as were several members of his family from Ohio.  The entire group decided to take in the show.

“Before his arrival at the theatre Thirty-ninth Street was lined with policemen from Broadway to Sixth Avenue,” reported The New York Times the following day, “and after he had entered his box there were officers in the lobby, on the sidewalk, and even in the auditorium of the house.  A line of Secret Service men prevented any access to the stage box in which the President and his party sat.”

In anticipation of the President’s visit, his boxes were draped in the American and Presidential flags.  “When the President entered the theatre, at exactly 8:30 o’clock, the orchestra played “America,” and the audience, already in place, stood until he was seated.”

Between the second and third acts Forbes-Robertson was brought to the Presidential box for introductions.  “After the performance the President entered his automobile and was driven to the Pennsylvania Station in Jersey City, where he took the midnight train for Washington.”

Maxine Elliott returned to New York in 1910 and appeared in The Inferior Sex.   A year later the theater was once again the venue of a suffragist benefit.  On January 18, 1911 women from the highest ranks of New York society took to the stage in a series of tableaux representing historic women.  Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson appeared as Motherhood, mimicking the Raphael Madonna.  Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt was Joan of Arc and Mrs. Gould portrayed Catherine of Russia.  Mrs. Archibald Mackay posed in “Discovery of Radium or Mme. Currie in Her Laboratory.”

The women in the audience were no less elevated with names like Goelet, Sloane, Morgan, Harriman, Mills, Whitney, Lydig and De Koven.

A performance in the theater later that year would be less polite.  When Irish playwright John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World opened at Maxine Eilliott’s Theatre on November 27, 1911 a riot broke out.   The play had already been staged in other cities and protestors who felt it portrayed the Irish badly, were now ready.

The New York Times reported on the mayhem.  When an actor “in the humble dress of the Irish peasant” delivered the line “I killed my father a week and a half ago for the likes of that,” the audience yelled “Shame! Shame!”

“A potato swept through the air from the gallery and smashed against the wings.  Then came a shower of vegetables that rattled against the scenery and made the actors duck their heads and fly behind the stage setting for shelter.

“A potato struck Miss MaGee, and she, Irish like, drew herself up and glared defiance.  Men were rising in the gallery and balcony and crying out to stop the performance.  In the orchestra several men stood up and shook their fists.”

When the stage manager insisted that the actors continue, the “tumult broke out more violently than before, and more vegetables came sailing through the air and rolled about the stage.  Then began the fall of soft cubes that broke as they hit the stage.  At first these filled the men and women in the audience and on the stage with fear, for only the disturbers knew what they were.”

They were stink bombs.

Policemen streamed in from the streets; and men and women alike were hauled out onto the street.  “Even while the police were at work missiles kept striking the stage, and the actors, with one eye on them, were going on with their parts.  A potato struck Miss MaGee and rolled to the wings.  Lady Gregory, who has followed the play about on its troublesome course, picked it up and said she would keep it as a token of her visit to this country.”

The Times opined “It will be the greatest of pities if such rowdyism as last night’s is not speedily put down, for apart from its own despicable character it may be the means of preventing many people from enjoying what is really a very remarkable piece of dramatic literature.”

In 1913 Maxine scored a great success in Joseph and His Brethren in London.  Suspecting that she had achieved the high point of her career, she decided to exit gracefully while on top.  She acted sporadically for the next few years; then in February 1920 she appeared for the final time in her own theater, playing in Trimmed in Scarlet.

She retired to Europe, spending much of her time in her Riviera chateau.  The international beauty entertained royalty and celebrities, growing corpulent—weighing 200 pounds at the time of her death on March 5, 1940.

In the meantime, Maxine Elliott’s Theatre had continued to thrive.  Here Jeanne Eagels opened in Rain, Ethel Barrymore starred in The Constant Wife, and Helen Hayes thrilled audiences in Coquette.  Plays by renowned playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Noel Coward, John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw opened here.

But before long  the theater district passed Maxine Elliott’s Theatre.  By the time of the Great Depression few theaters remained south of 42nd Street.  In 1930 Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Helen Tamiris (who went only by her last name) formed The Dance Repertory Theatre and the group made Maxine Elliott’s Theatre its home.

When it opened here on January 6, 1930 The New York Times called it “an unqualified success” and said “Not since the memorable debut of La Argentine last season has such a brilliant audience assembled for a dance performance.”  Three days later Martha Graham gave her Dance Without Music.

The Dance Repertory Theatre would share the venue with stage plays and in 1931 Judith Anderson appeared here in Luigi Pirandello’s play As You Desire Me.  On November 20, 1934 Lillian Hellman’s tragedy The Children’s Hour opened.  It would run for an amazing 691 performances, finally closing on July 4, 1936.

With the closing of The Children’s Hour the theater was leased to the Federal Theatre Project.  Trouble came to the Maxine Elliott’s Theatre the following year when Orson Wells began rehearsals of The Cradle Will Rock, produced by John Houseman.  Violent labor unrest gripped the nation.  The play’s story about the push to organize a union in the steel town, some thought, hit too close to home at a time when tensions and emotions were raw.

The WPA, which was funding the play, feared that the pro-union message may cause lawmakers to cut back its funding.  Four days before the play was slated to open on June 16 a memorandum from the WPA put it off .  On June 15 WPA police took over the Maxine Elliott Theatre to make sure the play did not open.

Defiantly Wells and Houseman marched the entire troupe and ticket-holding audience 20 blocks north to the empty Venice Theatre.  Reportedly, thousands joined the impromptu march and the theater aisles were packed with those unable to find a seat.  Following the performance, the cast went back to the Maxine Elliott Theatre in order to comply with WPA rules regarding absences.

Following the closing curtain of The Lady Who Came to Stay in January 1941 the out-of-place theater sat empty for nearly two years.  It was used as a radio station in 1941 and in November the following year The New York Times mentioned “there had been talk about tearing it down.”

But by 1948 Martha Graham was back, sharing the theater with The Experimental Theatre.  On February 9 that year The Times made a passing remark about “A company of talented Negro players” who were part of the third production of the Experimental Theatre’s season.

Still owned by the Shubert and Elliott estates, the once-grand playhouse was converted to a CBS television studio in 1949.  Here Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town shows were aired.  Then in 1956 the Elliott heirs sold their portion to the Shubert estate, which rapidly liquidated the property.  The old theater, an anachronism among soaring Garment District loft buildings, had outlived its usefulness.

By the second half of the 20th century the white marble building was surrounded by lofts.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

On February 21, 1960 The New York Times wrote “The demolition last month of a theatre landmark on West Thirty-ninth Street to make way for another office building was unnoticed by most New Yorkers.

“The building was Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, and though the city seemed indifferent—the theatre had not been important for many years—some people remembered its old elegance and the beautiful woman who gave it her name.”