Monday, September 26, 2016

The Lost Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church -- 333 W 30th St

In 1910 the church building was being renovated for a publishing firm.  Otherwise, the West 30th Street block remains steadfastly residential.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the 1820s the area north of 23rd Street on the West Side was sparsely sprinkled with small houses and commercial buildings.  But within two decades development was rapidly transforming the Chelsea neighborhood into a northern suburb.

In 1841 a "small mission," as described by The New York Times, was organized in a basement at 10th Avenue and 29th Street.  The group quickly grew, moving into the second story of a factory building at Ninth Avenue and 27th Street.  Then, when the mission was incorporated as the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in 1843, it leased vacant lots on West 24th Street, east of Ninth Avenue, and erected a small wooden church.

Within only three years it was obvious that the frame building would not be sufficient for much longer.  Two lots, Nos. 331 and 333 West 30th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, were purchased and in 1848 the cornerstone of "a substantial building" was laid.  Construction was completed a year later.

The brick and brownstone Greek Revival edifice was dignified and austere.  Unlike some of the wealthier, showier Greek Revival churches to the south with stone facades and columned porticoes, Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was ornamented with only shallow pilasters and a classical pediment.  Above the two-and-a-half story entrance a marble plaque embedded in the facade announced the construction date.

The first pastor in the new church was 28-year old Erastus O. Haven.  Decades later the Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church would remember him at the time as "a brilliant young man" and described Chelsea Methodist as "a young but promising enterprise, in the suburbs of the city of New York."

Three blocks to the north, on Ninth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street, the New York Asylum for the Blind had stood since 1831.  In 1839 it had taken in a 19-year old student, Franny J. Crosby, who quickly was recognized for her talent in writing poetry and hymns.  Fanny had been blinded by an incompetent physician at the age of six months.  But never having remembered seeing, she was pragmatic about her condition, saying "she could climb a tree or ride a horse as well as anyone."
By the time the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was completed, Fanny was an instructor in the Asylum, teaching rhetoric, Greek, Roman, and American History.  She had written her first poem at the age of eight.

Fanny J. Crosby joined the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in 1850 and became its most celebrated member.  By the time she died at the age of 95 on February 12, 1915 she had written over 8,000 hymns, including the popular "Blessed Assurance."

As the Chelsea neighborhood developed, the membership grew.  The New York Times later explained "The large debt accumulated during the society's rapid growth was increased in 1861, extensive alterations and improvement were made, but it was paid off in 1865.  In 1878 $6,000 were expended in more improvements, and ten years later a five-thousand-dollar debt was cleared."

The financial stability of the congregation was further evidenced when, around 1890, it spent $2,200 on a new organ--a $65,000 outlay in 2016 dollars.

The Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was, of course, the scene of many weddings and funerals.  Not all of those marriages drew the most favorable press coverage, however.

One of these involved 19-year old Saira Collins.  Saira was the daughter of a sea captain and in the fall of 1896 she met Andrew J. Collins, whom she described as "neatly dressed and courteous."  Collins told the girl that he was a traveling salesman "with a large salary and bright prospects."

Swept away by the attentions of the salesman, Saira soon agreed to marry him.  The wedding took place in Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church on January 18, 1897, just three months after the two met.  They moved into No. 329 West 35th Street.  Because of his profession, Andrew was gone much of the time, but, according to The Sun a few months later, "she understood he was attending to the selling of goods."

Actually, he was not.

What Saira did not know was that only a day or two before she met Andrew he had been released from the Trenton Prison and that he "was a noted highway man."  His time away from home was actually spent in robbery and burglary.  Within only a few months of their wedding his picture had reappeared in the Rogues' Gallery at Police Headquarters.

When Andrew was arrested one morning on a 34th Street streetcar on a charge "of highway robbery," Saira came to his defense; even after he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in Sing Sing.  But when police gave her a detailed history of his criminal past and showed her his photograph on the headquarters wall, she awoke to reality.

Saira moved back into her father's house and applied to have the marriage annulled.  Her plea to Justice Traux of the Supreme Court was true-life Victorian melodrama.  She said she "was the victim of a most unholy fraud and deceit, and was deceived and led into marriage with the defendant by reason of the villainous and base acts of the most unscrupulous of ex-convicts and prison birds."

A much more bizarre wedding took place in November the following year.  The pastor, Rev. Dr. W. N. Searles was asked by Derby, Connecticut resident Fred Piper to perform the marriage.  The bride-to-be was, seemingly coincidentally, also named Piper and had been visiting the Omaha Exposition.  Fred met her in New York in hopes to head back home to Connecticut as man and wife.

Rev. Searles performed the marriage on Wednesday, November 16, only to be asked rather awkward questions a few days later.  The Sun reported "Piper's relatives were greatly surprised at the announcement of his marriage."  That surprise came from the fact that the new Mrs. Piper was also Fred's grandmother.

Truman Piper, Fred's grandfather, had died two years earlier.  Mrs. Piper was his second wife, so there was no blood relationship between her and her step-grandson.  Nevertheless, the unconventional romance was broadly reported, causing the Rev. Searles public embarrassment. 

Rev. Searles explained that he assumed they couple had the same surname because "he thought the woman might be the widow of the man's brother."  And he said Fred "appeared to be prematurely gray, and at first sight looked fully the age of his wife."  He also claimed that "he also walked with a crutch, which made him seem older."

By the turn of the century Chelsea Methodist Episcopal had a new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Philip Germond.  The minister's greatest battle against sin and vice was not on the sometimes-gritty Chelsea streets, but within his own family.  By the spring of 1903 his 25-year old son, also named Philip, was wanted "in nearly every large city east of Chicago for forgery and passing worthless checks," according to New York Police Inspector McClusky.  The inspector told reporters "there were thirty complaints against him so far."

Germond's life of crime began in 1900 and he was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory on September 24 that year for passing a worthless check.  He and "a woman who was known as his wife" continued passing bad checks and committing forgery from state to state over the ensuing years.

On May 14, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported "Dr. Germond said his son from an early age showed evidence of being utterly irresponsible, and finally went entirely wrong."  The preacher tried his best to track his son's movements, warning Methodist bishops and preachers in each city.  Young Germond would use his father's name to borrow money from the clerics.  Dr. Germond paid the men back from his own pocket.  "By these methods my son impoverished me," he told reporters.

The young Germond's callous criminality extended to his own family.  When his parents were away one summer he came to New York, broke into the parsonage, stole valuables and pawned them.

During his trial Professor John D. Quackenbros of Columbia University testified about Philip's mental abnormality.  "I have never seen another like it.  He has no moral sense.  He never had any, so far as distinguishing between that which belongs to him and to others is concerned."

The new Pennsylvania Station brought with it traffic congestion and on October 24, 1907 the City announced its solution--a new street parallel to Eighth Avenue to be cut through the block between 30th and 31st Streets.  The New-York Tribune pointed out "the proposed street will result in tearing down the building in 30th street in which the congregation of the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church worships."

In response the congregation purchased land far north in Washington Heights, at the corner of Fort Washington Avenue and 179th Street, as a site for a new church.  Ground for the imposing structure, designed by Bannister & Schell, was broken on June 3, 1908.

Ironically, the proposed cut-through street was never realized.  So as the new edifice was nearing completion on November 27, 1909 the Record & Guide said of the 30th Street church "This valuable property is now for sale."

Somewhat surprisingly, the old building became home to The Rural New-Yorker, publishers of the journal of the same name and sellers of farm-related books.  Advertisements throughout the coming years offered "If you want books on farming of any kind write us and we will quote you prices" and announced "Books on all subjects of farming by leading authorities are for sale by The Rural New-Yorker."
This January 12, 1918 cover, like all issues, was dominated by a charming farm scene. (copyright expired)

The publisher converted the sanctuary and interior rooms for its offices and print shop; but left the facade essentially untouched other than removing the stained glass windows and adding other openings.  The casual passerby would most likely assume the building was simply a vintage church.

Three men who did not mistake the building for a church entered the building through a 30th Street window late on the night of June 12, 1926.  When the nightwatchman, Henry McCormick happened upon them around 3:00 a.m., "one of the bandits pointed a pistol at him and ordered him to 'stick 'em up and hold 'em high," according to The New York Times the following day.

As if from a scene in a crime movie, McCormick's hands and feet were bound with rope and he was tied to a chair.  And the similarity to silver screen thrills did not end there.  While one man watched over his captive, the other others made their way to the offices.

"Using the most modern of drills and nitro-glycerine, they blew open the door of the larger of the two safes.  The force of the explosion scattered its contents about the floor for more than fifteen feet.  From this safe the men took the payroll."

They repeated the procedure on the other two safes, gathering up the weekly payroll of $4,500 cash and $8,000 in Liberty bonds.  They left their burglary tools behind, took their loot and, with their cohort, calmly exited through the main door.

After some struggling McCormick managed to work the gag from his mouth and thrashed around in the chair until he managed to knock the telephone receiver off the hook.  He kept shouting "notify Police Headquarters!" until the operator heard his cries. After police arrived and freed him, McCormick was later able to identify two of the thieves from the Police Headquarter's Rogues' Gallery.
Construction of the French Hospital, begun in 1927, required the clearing of much of the block facing the old church.  The Rural New-Yorker's renovations, including the punching through of office windows, is apparent in this September 27, 1927 shot by P. L. Sperr.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
While the Manhattan location for the farm journal may have seemed peculiar to some; Meyer Berger of the New York Times pointed out that the city had its share of gentleman farmers--and actual farmers--at mid-century.  On February 17, 1954 he profiled taxi driver Raphael Gomez who everyday "pours over The Rural New-Yorker" between fares.

"Mr. Gomez dresses like a husbandman, and that's what he is," wrote Meyer.  The cabbie had a 30-acre farm outside of Wickstown, near Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.  "He puts a fortnight behind the wheel in Manhattan, then three or four days on his farm."

Mrs. Gomez and the six children worked the acreage while he was in the city.  Meyer's article explained "He reads The Rural New-Yorker to keep up on the best buys in chicks or fertilizer and drops a letter every day or two advising his spouse what to pick up at Egg Harbor."

After surviving 120 years, the Greek Revival church building came to the end of its road in May 1960 when it was sold to the 33 West Thirtieth Street Corporation.  They group announced its plans "to clear the site and improve it with apartments for nurses and doctors in the French Hospital, which is across the street."

Without a whimper of protest the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church building was demolished.  It was replaced by an eight-story white brick apartment building, completed in 1963.

photo via cityrealty

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Leo Schlesinger Toy Factory -- Nos. 292-296 Lafayette Street

In 1889 Leo Schlesinger most likely surprised other businessmen along Elm Street when he supported the proposed extension of Elm Street to Lafayette Place.  At the time Elm Street ended at Jersey Street.  Lafayette Place began about two blocks to the north.  The public works project would necessitate the demolition of several significant business structures.  One of the buildings that would be affected was Schlesinger’s.  His toy factory at Nos. 129-131 Crosby Street ran back along Jersey Street and straddled the proposed new thoroughfare.

But on November 9, 1889 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported “One of the most important briefs was from Leo Schlesinger, of Crosby street, the well-known manufacturer of toys and tinware, who strongly favored the improvement, notwithstanding that it would have taken 80 feet away from the front of his manufactory.”  Schlesinger argued that cutting the street through would improve transportation and, therefore, the city and its industries in general.

Six years earlier, on October 13, 1883, The American Machinist had reported “Leo Schlesinger, 11th st. and Avenue D…will have a new manufactory of tin toys on Crosby Street.”   The toy maker had purchased the two lots on Crosby and three on Jersey Street from the Stewart Estate for $205,000 ($5 million in 2016).  He commissioned the architectural firm of H. J. Schwartzmann & Co. to design the toned-down Queen Anne style building, completed in 1894.

Schlesinger, who was also a director in several banks and other corporations, employed an average of 160 workers in his factory.  He leased extra space in the building to commercial tenants.  In June 1884 the Industrial Printing Co. was here, looking for a “First-Class job compositor,” one who was “accustomed to fine commercial work.”  The firm promised “steady position to the right man.”

The Crosby Street elevation, once the front of the building, is now blocked up.

There was one rather surprising tenant.  In January 1884, according to The Sun, “the United Hebrew Charities determined to take measures to save the poor boys of their race in this city from what seemed to threaten them as a common fate, viz., becoming peddlers.”

The Hebrew Technical Institute was formed and in its 25th Anniversary booklet it remembered “four months later the sixth and seventh floors of a factory building at 129 Crosby Street were rented from Mr. Leo Schlesinger, who was to furnish heat and power.  There the school continued from May, 1884 to February, 1887.”

While the debate on the extension of Elm Street dragged on, Leo Schlesinger expanded his business.  In August 1895 he partnered with L. Stern to form The Stanley Cycle Mfg. Co.  Iron Trade Review reported the new firm would “manufacture high grade bicycles.  The company expects to turn out between 10,000 and 15,000 wheels per annum” at the Crosby Street factory.

Finally, in 1897 the city condemned and demolished the buildings between Jersey Street and Great Jones Street in the way of the Elm Street project.  Included was the 80-foot section of Schlesinger’s factory building, for which the city paid him a handsome $96,000.  But rather than abandon his reduced property, or demolish the remaining chunk and start over; he commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Deisler to remodel it.

On July 10, 1897 the Record & Guide reported on the filing of 11 building plans related to the widening and extension of Elm Street.  Among them were Buchman & Deisler’s plans for Schlesinger’s seven-story factory.   The Guide’s description was nebulous: “extension of rear wall and new front.”    The project would be much more.

The architects essentially flipped the front of the building—moving the architectural focus to the wider, newer Lafayette Street.   While harmonious with Schwartzmann’s Queen Anne-style Crosby Street design, Buchman & Deisler’s Renaissance Revival Lafayette Street elevation was more aggressive.  White limestone starkly contrasted with the deep red brick.  Handsome stone capitals capped the three-story brick piers at the fourth through sixth floors.  As an added touch, the architects chamfered the corner; a detail which extended to the cast iron store front.

More than a year after the Elm Street-Lafayette Street project began, businessmen were furious with the city’s delay in its completion.  On September 30 Leo Schlesinger was the chief spokesmen at a meeting with the Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck.  He presented the Mayor with three photographs “which clearly proved not only the incomplete state of the work, but the generally obstructed condition of the thoroughfare,” reported the Record & Guide.  Schlesinger called the conditions “disgraceful.”

Leo Schlesinger Company produced children's toys, like this Red Riding Hood tea set.

Disaster was narrowly averted late on the night of November 24, 1902 when the water tank atop the building collapsed.  Fortunately for the businesses inside, there was no damage; however pedestrians must have been startled when “water poured over the roof into the street,” as reported by The Sun the following morning.

By 1915 the area around No. 296 Lafayette Street was the center of the millinery and hat-related industries.  Leo Schlesinger had moved his operation to Front Street years earlier.  Among the businesses in the Lafayette Street building was Ignatius Buckman who manufactured hat making machines.

That summer he did a friend, John Treubert, a favor by storing $4,000 worth of velvet “for safe-keeping.”  But the 51-year old Buckman hatched a nefarious scheme.  He staged a burglary of his own factory, instructing several of his clerks to sneak out the valuable cloth.

When Treubert arrived at the factory the first week of June, Buckman sadly reported that his place had been robbed and that in addition to Treubert’s velvet, the thieves had gotten away with $2,000 worth of Buckman’s property.

John Truebert was not convinced.  He notified detectives who questioned Buckman’s employees.  Unfortunately for Buckman, they readily confessed to having followed their boss’s criminal orders. 

Police surrounded Buckman’s house at No. 283 East 164th Street on the night of June 11.  The Evening World reported “when they were demanding admission to the front door he appeared at a rear window in his night clothing and was about to jump when he saw other detectives and stepped back.”  Ignatius Buckman was arrested for having burglarized his own factory.

In 1919 the Crosby Street store was home to the International High Speed Steel Company; while on an upper floor the Bristol Hat Company was among the millinery firms doing business.  One tenant not in the hat business was Geringer Brothers, a manufacturer of “gas and lamp shades.”

Isidor Geringer was working late with two employees on the night of November 27, 1920.  That night a series of violent hold-ups erupted in both Manhattan and the Bronx.  One of them would take Geringer’s life.

At around 9:00 three men wearing masks and long raincoats barged into the shop.  The employees were ordered to raise their arms into the air.  Geringer nervously watched as one of the thugs was taking $12 from the pocket of Louis Lobell.  He dropped his hands to his side and was immediately shot.  The New York Herald reported “He was taken to New York Hospital and probably will die.”

A bizarre incident occurred here on November 2, 1922 after fire erupted in the building.  Fire fighters poured thousands of gallons of water into the burning building, the upper floors of which were occupied “by various paper and hat concerns,” according to The New York Herald the following day.

Six fire fighters from Hook and Ladder Company No. 9 entered the building and began chopping through a wall.  What they did not realize was that the well-built structure had trapped the growing amount of water, to the point that the walls were bulging, according to the newspaper.

Finally their axes broke through and the firemen were carried away in the massive flood of water which was released.  “Three of the firemen—Wynn, Scheck and Matofsky—were swept down the stairs from the first to the ground floor, and after being dashed from wall to wall finally were catapulted into the street, landing in the roadway half conscious.”  The three others, Lt. Lamb and Firemen Murphy and Murray “narrowly escaped drowning,” according to the newspaper, by clinging “to the only substantial article in sight, a stair rail.” 

The tenants suffered about $20,000 in damages.

The wooden beams and columns survive where tin toys were once manufactured.  photo by Corcoran Group
The former Schlesinger toy factory continued to be home to various small industries for the next six decades.  Then in 1984 the upper floors were converted to “joint living and work quarters for artists.”  Today the lofts where tin tea sets and fire trucks were manufactured are luxury residences that sell for over $3 million.  Buchman & Deisler’s well-preserved façade survives nearly a century and a quarter after Lafayette Street plowed through Leo Schlesinger’s factory.

photographs by the author

Friday, September 23, 2016

The F. C. Havemeyer House -- No. 323 West 14th Street

In 1839 the first of the high-end homes to encircle the newly-established Union Square was erected.  Quickly the an upscale residential neighborhood spread westward along 14th Street.  About the same time that Andrew Norwood started construction on three brick mansions in 1845, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, the wealthy Havemeyer family relocated to the area.   Nearly half a century later, in 1891, The New York Times would remark “All the Havemeyer residences in this city have been for a great many years in West Fourteenth Street.”

Frederick Christian Havemeyer, Jr. and his wife, the former Sarah Louisa Henderson had 10 children.  They were living at No. 323 West 14th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues by the time Henry Osborn Havemeyer, their eighth child, was born on October 18, 1847.

Their handsome brick home was a mixture of Greek Revival and Italianate styles.  A brownstone basement supported four stories of red brick.  The sandstone architrave window moldings on tiny carved brackets at the upper floors contrasted handsomely with the red brick.  A cast metal Italianate cornice with scrolled brackets completed the design.

Havemeyer was born in 1807 to Frederick and Catherine Havemeyer two years after their marriage.  His father had arrived in New York from London in 1800 and opened a small sugar refinery, or “bakery,” on Vandam Street with his brother.   Little Frederick was privately tutored, The Times later recalling “Mr. Havemeyer as a boy studied under old ‘Joe’ Nelson, a blind teacher, who was a noted character in this city in the early days.”   Although he enrolled in Columbia College, he did not graduate, preferring to go into business with his cousin William as successors to his father’s firm.

The firm W. F. & F. C. Havemeyer was born.  It would become one of the largest sugar-refining companies in the world.  Frederick C. Havemeyer, Jr. earned the reputation of knowing “more about the sugar-refining industry than any other man in the world.”

By the time Sarah died on Tuesday morning, January 7, 1851 at the age of just 39, the family had moved about a block east, to No. 195 West 14th Street.   

No. 323 became home to Eugene Mehl, the highly-paid chef of the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and his wife Gertrude.  European-trained chefs were in great demand in exclusive hotels and demanded enormous salaries--the means by which to purchase fine homes like this one. 

Mehl was both accomplished and fastidious in the kitchen.  On December 1, 1879 he made his opinions clear concerning the use of copper utensils.  When a reporter visited the Windsor kitchen, he was told “Dirt is poisonous wherever it is and copper is deadly if you put any acid in it or let anything stand in it after it stops boiling.  I remember twenty-five years ago some people died after eating oysters at the Metropolitan [Hotel].  It was all laid on the oysters and nobody found out what the poison was or where it came from, but we knew in the kitchen.  It was copper.”

Eugene Mehl was offered the position of managing the Hotel Lafayette in Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota in the spring of 1882.  The resort hotel could accommodate 1,000 guests and the opportunity was apparently one Mehl could hardly refuse.  The St. Paul Daily Globe reported on May 28 that he had arrived in that city “en route to his new charge.”

While Mehl’s son, Eugene, Jr. left New York to assist his father as Assistant Manager of the new hotel, it would appear that Gertrude may have stayed back.   A month before the men departed, Mehl transferred title to the house to Octavus B. Libby on April 1.  That same day Libby transferred the title to Gertrude Mehl for a “nominal” charge.

By 1887 the house was home to another chef and restaurateur, Leonard Gosling and his wife.  The elderly couple, who were married in Amsterdam in 1818, had had 15 children.  Forced to leave Paris in 1829 “because of an expression of opinion antagonistic to Louis Philippe,” according to a newspaper, Gosling arrived in New York in 1830.

The New York Times later related “At that time there were no cheap restaurants in the city, and he established one in the old church building at 64 and 66 Nassau-street.  The place jumped at once into popular favor, and the proprietor made money fast.”

Gosling’s success was partly due to his courtesy to his customers and his efforts to meet their wants.  An example was often told of a Greek gentleman who entered the restaurant in the days when raw oysters on the half shell were not served in New York restaurants.  He requested oysters on the half shell before his dinner.

Gosling sent a boy to a nearby oyster stall.  The pleased customer returned the next day. And again for several more days.  Finally he called Leonard Gosling to his table and said “You have very fine oysters, but I wish you would change the shells occasionally.”

It was most likely Gosling who gave the house a facelift.  The parlor floor was given a veneer of rusticated brownstone and Eastlake-style incised decorations appeared in stone panels and window details.
In February 1887 Gosling’s wife died in the 14th Street house at the age of 85.  He died there nine months late at the age of 93.  The New York Times noted “His death was due to old age, although he was a very vigorous man for his years.”  His funeral was held in the residence on the morning of November 20, 1887.

The house would see at least two more owners before the turn of the century.  Nationally-known organist and music publisher Augustin Cortada and his wife were here in 1889, and by 1896 D. Morrison, Jr. and his wife lived in the house.  By the time Mrs. Morrison donated material “for making skirts” to the Binghamton State Hospital for the Insane that year, the end of the line for No. 323 as a private home was nearing.

In 1901 the property was advertised at auction as a “brick and brownstone trimmed single flat.”  The description revealed that the house had already been converted to apartments, just one per floor.  Its tenants were still professional, like Dr. William P. Cunningham who lived here at least from 1914 through 1919.  He was the attending dermatologist to the Misericordia Hospital and provided medical articles to publications like the Medical Council.  In February 1917 that journal published his article “A Calm Survey of the Cancer Scare.”

The building was purchased in October 1920 by Vincent X. McGuire.  The new owner’s extended family moved in.  His mother, Mrs. H. McGuire still lived here in 1928.  The funeral of her son-in-law, Edward P. Mullen was held in her apartment on Thursday, September 6 that year.  Mullen had been married to Helen P. McGuire, already deceased.  Also living in the building at the time was Mullen’s widowed mother, Hanna Mullen.  Other tenants that year included William A. Stephenson, a supervisor for the New York Telephone Company.

When No. 323 was sold to an investor in April 1940, the broker announced it “is to be remodeled.”  The subsequent renovation, completed the following year, resulted in three apartments per floor. When E.B.B. Realty took over the structure in 1981 it added the innocuous if mysterious brownstone plaque “EBB 1981” to the façade.

The 1840s mansion, once home to one of Manhattan’s leading families, survives as a reminder of a much different 14th Street; when stylish carriages waited for wealthy Victorian ladies gentlemen on the quiet residential street.

photographs by the author

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Surviving Shell -- No. 31 East 74th Street

The first decade following the end of the Civil War saw an explosion of speculative development on the Upper East Side.  The Styles family—S. M. Styles, Frederick W. Styles and C. H. Styles—worked semi-independently on their building projects.  S. M. Styles, who doubled as a contractor and architect, brought his sons, John E. and Richard K. into his operation to form S. M. Styles & Sons.

In June 1876 C. H. Styles planned nine brownstone rowhouses that wrapped around the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 74th Street.  Each would cost $12,000 to build—about a quarter of a million dollars in 2016 terms.  He commissioned S. M. Styles as his architect.

C. H. Styles seems to have had problems selling one of the homes.  On March 11, 1877 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered “For sale cheap—Call and see that fine four story brown stone high stoop house No. 31 East 74th st.; will be sold at a bargain.”

A year later, on March 3, 1878 the developer was willing to nearly break even on the still vacant house.  An advertisement explained “$5,000 cash will buy an elegant four story House, cabinet finish.”

Despite the bargain price, No. 31 East 74th Street was still unsold the following year.  On March 23, 1879 Styles offered “Finest located four story brown stone house in this city for the price, in perfect order throughout.”

Another prolific developer, William W. Hall, purchased the house in 1896.  By now Fifth Avenue in the 70s was filling with lavish mansions; and the side streets followed the trend.  The outdated two-decade old brownstones were rapidly being demolished or remodeled into more fashionable dwellings.  Hall hired architect Alexander M. Welch to transform No. 31 into a modern home acceptable to an upper class owner.

The renovations were completed in 1897.  Somewhat surprisingly, Hall and his architect seem to have focused on interior improvements.  The brownstone stoop was retained even when the “English basement” plan had fallen out of favor; and the old 1877 design was only vaguely veiled by the neo-Renaissance motifs.  The second floor sprouted an angled oriel which supported a third-floor balcony.  The arched openings of the top floor received handsome carved framing and an updated, projecting copper cornice was added.

The renovations, while outwardly cosmetic, were successful.  William Hall quickly sold the remodeled 16-foot wide house to Raymond Lesher.  He was a partner with his brothers Arthur and Nathaniel in the “clothiers’ supplies” importing firm of Lesher, Whitman & Company.

Lesher and his wife did not remain in the house for long.  On June 27, 1901 he sold it to William S. Wyckoff for $46,000.  Wyckoff’s wife, Jennie, had died a year earlier, on February 5, 1900.  The New York Times described him as “a well-preserved, tall man.” 

Wyckoff had one grown son, Clarence, who had his own bachelor apartment in the Hotel Manhattan “when not at Palm Beach, Fla., or abroad,” according to a newspaper.  Like his son, William Wyckoff spent more and more time abroad.  He had two sisters, one in England and the other in Scotland.  Around 1905 his attention was focused on a Prussian woman living in London, Sophie Manasse.

The 60-year old’s romance culminated in April 1906 in a surprising coincidence.  Clarence P. Wyckoff returned to his apartment on the evening of April 5 to find a telegram from his father who was in London.  It revealed that William had applied to the Archbishop of Canterbury for a “special license” for the New Yorker and the Prussian to marry.

The New York Times reported “After he read it he looked up with a smile and said: ‘H’m, I’m to be married myself tomorrow.’”  The father and son, “both well-known members of society,” would miss one another’s nearly simultaneous weddings.

It was probably William S. Wyckoff’s overseas romance that had prompted him to sell No. 31 East 74th Street a year earlier.  In January 1905 Newman Erb, Vice President of the Pere Marquette Railroad Company, purchased the house for his daughter.

The generous gift was not a wedding present.  Fannie Erb had married Irving Meade Dittenhoefer on November 18, 1896—the same year that William Hall began the renovations.  The 42-year old Dittenhoefer had graduated from the Columbia School of Law in 1885 and was now a partner in the law firm of Dittenhoefer, Gerber James.

The couple had one son, Newman Erb Dittenhoefer, and like other modern and wealthy families, they traveled widely.  On May 1, 1908 Irving wrote to a former classmate “I have traveled extensively in Europe, having made automobile trips in Italy, France and Germany of over 15,000 miles.”

Unlike the previous owners, Irving and Fannie stayed for nearly two decades.  They sold the house in October 1919 to the 44-year old physician, Dr. Frederick Knowles and his 34-year old wife Sophia.  Living with the Knowles were Charles Stevens, the butler, and his English-born wife, Mahlik, the cook.

Knowles established his doctor’s office in the house.  When elevator operator John Martina Feirera collapsed at the corner of Madison Avenue and 74th Street on February 20, 1933, a market employee carried him to the Knowles house.  Sadly, the 30-year old died on the stoop before the doctor could be called out.

Knowles, now 71, sold the house in April 1946 to real estate operator Norman. S. Riesenfeld.   He quickly resold it to the World Federalists, U.S.A. and the residence became known as World Government House.  The goal of the global World Federalist Movement was to create “a new world order” that could prevent another international war.

Later that year, on November 11, 1946, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived on the Queen Elizabeth.  Another passenger on the ship was heading to East 74th Street.  The New York Times reported “Ulric Nesbet, British representative of the Federal Union, who has designed a world flag, came here to confer with members of World Government House, 31 East Seventy-fourth Street.”

World Government House lasted only a few years at the address.  In 1949 the house was converted to apartments and the stoop was removed.  Among the most interesting of the businesses in the newly-formed commercial space throughout the upcoming decades was Alaska Shop—Gallery of Eskimo Art which occupied the store in the early 1980s.

In 2010 No. 31 East 74th Street got its stoop back—at a price.  CareOne, a firm that operates nursing and assisted-living facilities, hired restoration architects Beyer Blinder Belle and contractors New Line Structures, Inc. to “reinvent the interiors” (as described by CEO Daniel E. Straus) of six brownstones on Madison Avenue, along with No. 31 and its neighbor, the 33-foot wide Grosvenor Atterbury-designed mansion at No. 33.

Completed in 2015, the project called 33 East 74th Street was no nursing home.  As renovations were underway on November 2, 2013, The New York Times journalist Alison Gregor explained “Demolishing all the brownstone interiors enabled Mr. Straus to create the layouts that he believes will best appeal to his target buyers.”  Those target buyers could expect to pay from $14 million to more than $30 million for the three- to five-bedroom condo units.

The completed project retained the vintage facades, but gutted the interiors.  No. 31 can be glimpsed behind the tree at right.  photo by Douglas Elliman Real Estate
Externally, No. 31 with its replacement stoop looks little changed, other than a cleaning-up and replacement windows.  But it is a stage set.  Behind the veneer nothing remains of the house C. H. Styles could not sell and which William Hall fancied up 20 years later.

photographs by the author