Monday, May 30, 2016

The Lost Mother Zion Church -- No. 127 W 89th St




photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1796 a group of black New Yorkers, frustrated with the racism they endured at the John Street Methodist Church, created their own congregation.  The first black church in New York, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church generally followed the Wesleyan tenets; but was organized with bishops, like the Episcopal Church.

In 1864 the congregation took over the former Dutch Reformed Church at Bleecker and 10th Streets.  By the turn of the century there were other branches of the AME Zion Church, earning this congregation the name Mother Zion.  In 1903 trustees laid plans to move northward from Greenwich Village.

The congregation purchased three houses at Nos. 127 through 131 West 89th Street and on August 18, 1903 architect Edward Alfred Sargent filed plans for a “one-story brick and terra cotta church.”   On the afternoon of October 18 the cornerstone was laid “in the presence of a large crowd,” according to The New York Times.  The newspaper noted “The cornerstone was laid with Masonic ceremonies under the direction of the Grand Lodge of the colored Masons in the State of New York.”  The strict separation of blacks and whites in social and religious organizations was evidenced in the notation “The Grand Commandery of the colored Knights Templars and Alpha and Eureka Chapters of the Order of the Eastern Star were also present.”

The church building was completed in 1904 at a cost of $40,000—just over $1 million in 2016 dollars.  Sargent had produced a brick-faced neo-Gothic structure trimmed in brownstone and terra cotta.  A centered pavilion with three entrance doors above a wide set of stairs projected slightly away from the main building.  Its dramatic full-story gable, clad in rough-cut stone, thrust above the peaked roof.  Three grouped, soaring Gothic-arched stained glass windows which rose above the entrance porticos formed the focal point. 

Pastors of black churches in the early decades of the 20th century dealt with tense racial relations, bigotry and the challenge of blacks coexisting with a not-always welcoming white community.  Such was the case in August 1908 when two days of race riots in Springfield, Illinois drew national attention.

On August 14 a mob of white citizens—estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000--marched on the Springfield jail with lynching on their minds.  They demanded the release to them of two black prisoners, accused of violent crimes against whites.  The rabble was informed that the sheriff had already transported the men to Bloomington, 64 miles away; not only for their safety but in the hopes of avoiding racial trouble.

The infuriated mob turned its rage on the black community.  For two days buildings were burned in black neighborhoods and seven people were killed.  Property loss was estimated at $200,000 and thousands of state militia were required to restore calm.

Despite the contemptible acts, the Rev. Dr. J. H. McMullen urged his congregants not to be pulled into the madness.  “We must not let our sanity and judgment be swayed by such outrages as that at Springfield, nor must we apologize for the felon who caused the riots.  Law and order are the means which will bring about the proper relation between races.”

Nevertheless, McMullen did not excuse the Illinois authorities.  “The law is our hope and our salvation.  At times we regret that the administration has not been placed in the proper hands, but eventually we will, through its right administration, receive its blessings.”  He insisted that guilt on the part of both blacks and whites must be answered for.  “The culprits, whether they be of our race or any other, must be punished, and we must withhold our sympathy when punishment is legally meted to a criminal.”

The African Zion Methodist Episcopal Church would not stay especially long in their new home.  In January 1914 the church purchased the Church of the Holy Redeemer at No. 153 West 136th Street in Harlem; and on Christmas Day 1914, one decade after the building was dedicated, The Sun reported that it was selling the Upper West Side church.  The typical racism of the period was evident in the newspaper’s headline “Negroes Sell 89th St. Church.”

The building was purchased by the New York City Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  It became home to the Methodist Swedish Church, also known as the Battery Swedish Church.    The Swedish Church shared the building with the Central Baptist Church in 1915 while that congregation erected its imposing church building at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 92nd Street.

The Swedish Methodist Church would stay an even shorter time on West 89th Street than had its predecessor.  On December 16, 1922 the New York Herald announced that the Methodist Episcopal Church had leased the property “for twenty-one years” to Revere & Goldenblum, operators and builders.  “The lessees intend to build an eight story warehouse and garage.”

But instead, the operators resold the church to the Benkay Amusement Company, which converted it to a motion picture theater, the Endicott.  Rather amazingly, while the interior was renovated to accommodate the movie theater, the exterior remained untouched.

When this photograph was taken the former church was undergoing alterations to a motion picture theater  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
It may have been the advent of the Great Depression which prompted Benkay Amusement to close the Endicott in 1930.  Certainly motion pictures were high on the list of non-essentials which were cut out of the budgets of struggling families.  In any case, in 1930 the firm sold the old church building.  The New York Times reported that a “47-family apartment building” would be erected on the site.   But nothing happened for four years.  Then on May 21, 1934 architect George C. Miller filed plans for a six-story, $150,000 apartment building.  The brick and stone Art Moderne structure survives; and the short-lived church-turned-movie theater is long forgotten.

photo http://www.urbanedgeny.com/sites/urbanedgeny.com/files/norcor_management_corp_129_west_89th_street_building.jpg

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Humor Amidst Desperation -- No. 787 Ninth Avenue



On November 10, 1879 the New York Herald gave its readers an idea of what life in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood was like.  “The tenement houses and rookeries in this section are like seething caldrons of vice and brutality, and the filthiness and slime of the passageways and alleys in these human hives are in emblematic keeping with the moral dirtiness and corruption of their inmates.”

The article lamented “It is a painful fact that in this part of the city little children are actually sent out to steal when they are scarcely able to walk.  They are trained and educated in sin by harsh and brutal parents, and driven into the streets to sin when they have scarcely received a mother’s caress.”  It described the best of the living conditions as “four and five story tenement houses, with small rooms and narrow and winding passageways.”

Among these was the Werner tenement, at No. 787 Ninth Avenue.   Until 1871 a small building had fronted Ninth Avenue on the site.  To the side a horsewalk (a narrow path between buildings) most likely provided access to the brick back building.  When Frank Werner demolished the the front structure, he left the old building in the back standing.

Werner commissioned architect G. Halzeit, unknown today, to design the structure.  His plans, filed on January 11, 1872, called for a “four-story tenement” on a residential-sized plot 25-feet wide.  When The New York Times mentioned the proposed building the following day, it spelled the owner’s name wrong, “Frank Merner.”

Anyone passing by the completed building would not make the same mistake.  The overblown pressed metal cornice with parapet loudly announced F. WERNER.  Despite the gritty surroundings, Werner did not scrimp on materials.  The red brick fa├žade was trimmed in sandstone and ornamented with terra cotta and cast iron.

F. WERNER is proudly pressed into the ambitious cornice.  Below, terra cotta panels include chubby-faced cherubs, nearly indistinguishable from street level.
Halzeit's design was a happy medley of styles.  The stone cornice above the cast iron storefront included carved classical anthemions. A Renaissance pediment sat above fluted Corinithian pilasters.  Neo-classical festoons appeared in terra cotta panels, and rows of stylized sunflowers, influenced by the emerging Aesthetic Movement, formed the cast iron balconette railings.  Here delightful finials decorated the corners like cast iron July 4th sparklers.

Delightful sunflower railings and detonating finials decorated the stone balconettes.  Halzeit's carved details, the brick side pilasters, and the terra cotta band placed the structure a step above the average tenement.

The most eye-catching of the details, however, were the carved faces that formed the lintel keystones.  The stone carvers let loose their creative humor to produced whimsical characters that may have briefly lightened the difficult lives of the residents and neighbors.  The mouth of one is agape--laughing, singing or, perhaps, screaming.  Another sticks his tongue out at passersby; and one, with a haughty expression, seems to roll his eyes in exasperation.
At the second floor one horned and mustachioed fellow looks slightly concerned.  His unlikely companion looks rather disapprovingly towards him
As expected, the Werner filled with working class tenants.  Among the first were Ernest Emden, a miller; Clement Erlinger, coachmaker; and Frederick Bilstein, a bricklayer. It may be that Werner kept the back building for his own family.  Werners are listed at this address at least until 1888 when Charles Werner, a fireman, was injured in a deadly fire in the Five Points neighborhood.

Another early tenant was not so hard-working.  Joseph Roberts ran his “policy shop” from his apartment.  Policy games were illegal lotteries, later known as the number racket.  The games preyed on low-income persons who dreamed of quick riches.

On January 16, 1874 the New York Herald reported “Thomas Murray ventured the sum of ten cents on the numbers 5, 14 and 47 in that establishment, but was unfortunate.  So also was Roberts, who was arrested by Officer Dolan and moleted in the sum of $100, for the benefit of the city treasury.”

On either side of the centered entrance were retail stores.  Peter Feinholz ran one, described in the 1872 city directory as “milk, candy, varieties.”  On the other side was the “segar” store of Francis Winter and his wife, Eva.  They not only sold, but manufactured the cigars here at least through 1877.  Feinholz’s variety store, too, would be in the building that long.

As it does today, the central apartment entrance separated two retail shops within the cast iron base.

Through the 1870s the tenant list reflected a high proportion of German immigrants with names like Kirchner, Schmidt, Donfelser, Kaltenbacher and Grunig.  Their occupations suggest that they were mostly hard working men, simply trying to make a living.  Among their professions were grinder, upholsterer, baker and tailor.

One family, at least, was doing its best to elevate their son from the miserable environment.  In 1884 Hermann Diedrich Lange enrolled in law school.  It was no doubt a tremendous financial strain on the family.

The old brick back building still stands hidden from the street.

But respectable professions could not change the hard-nosed, street-wise character of many residents.  John McNeil worked as a longshoreman in the first years of the 1890s.  On Saturday night, February 18, 1893 he attended a birthday party at the apartment of another longshoreman, Frank Clark.

At some point McNeil and Garret Addis argued.  They left the apartment to fight outdoors.  The New York Times reported two days later, “McNeil went to Bellevue with a cut over his eye and a compound fracture of the skull.  He is likely to die.  Addis and everybody at the party were arrested.”  The entire group was taken to Bellevue to form an impromptu line-up, from which the dying McNeil identified Addis.
Among the other comical faces on the facade is one who tauntingly sticks his tongue out at passersby, and a singer (or possibly screamer).  Both support stylized anthemions.

The following year New York was plagued by a deadly small pox epidemic.  The disease especially raged in the poorer crowded, unsanitary neighborhoods.   In March 40-year old Andrew Newkirk became ill.  A visiting physician from Roosevelt Hospital dropped into No. 787 Ninth Avenue on the night of March 6, 1894.  The Evening World reported the news which must have terrified other residents.  “Newkirk…was discovered last evening in his apartments…where he had been ill with small-pox for several days.”

Newkirk was removed to the Smallpox Hospital on North Brother Island and a medical team was sent to the Werner tenement building.  “Vaccination and fumigation were employed to prevent further spread of the infection,” said the newspaper.

The police department’s battle against illegal gambling here had not stopped with Thomas Murray’s arrest in 1874.  Twenty-three years later Detective Waters paid a black informant, Perry Steddle, to get evidence against policy shops.  Steddle was no doubt chosen partly because of his race which, for the Hell’s Kitchen crooks, would make him less expected to be involved in a police sting.  On the afternoon of January 22, 1897 Steddle testified that he had purchased policy slips at No. 787 Ninth Avenue.

The difficult conditions of tenement life were exemplified on November 17 that year when Harry L. Rhein died in an apartment here.  He was just two years old.

Michael Healy and his wife lived in No. 787 in 1914, the year he was laid off from his job as an ironworker.  Without an income the 28-year old faced  terrifying consequences; only one of which was the possibility of eviction and homelessness.  On October 15 he walked to the end of the West 54th Street pier where several men were fishing.  He took out a cigarette and asked them for a match.

The New York Times reported “After smoking for a few moments, he took off his hat and coat and jumped over.  He came to the surface only one.”  In the pocket of his coat a policeman found a note requesting “that his sisters Margaret and May and his wife be notified.”  The newspaper added “His wife said that he was worried because he was idle.”

Life in Hell’s Kitchen and at No. 787 Ninth Avenue did not improve in the first decades of the 20th century.  Mary Harmon lived in the building with her husband in the early 1920s.  On the night of January 4, 1923 she was invited to the apartment of 50-year old auto mechanic Arthur Cole, who lived at No. 409 West 50th Street.  He also invited another married woman, 30-year old Henrietta Dalton.

At some point during the evening two more women arrived, Anna George and Margaret Clark (both unmarried).   Now, it seems, Henrietta and Mary became jealous and “the strife for Cole’s attentions began,” according to The New York Times the following day.

The newspaper reported “There had been much drinking among the five persons…and toward morning the women came to blows.  After they had punched and kicked each other about the apartment a knife was drawn and each of the women received wounds.”

Alarmed at the commotion, another tenant opened his window and blew “a police whistle,” which brought Patrolman Harry Reinhart to the scene.   He found Mary with a slashed right breast and blackened eye; Anna George with a stab wound in her leg; Margaret Clark with lacerations and bruises and Henrietta Dalton with her right index finger missing.

The wreckage wrought by the vicious feminine battle was staggering.  “When the patrolmen searched the apartment he found thirty-three empty whisky flasks.  Every window n the apartment was broken and the furniture lay scattered about the rooms.”

Unlike two of the women who were taken to jail, Mary Harmon was able to pay her $10 fine (about $140 today) and was released.  She now had to explain things to her husband back home at No. 787 Ninth Avenue.

Another resident to see the inside of a jail cell was Amedia Ricard, who worked as a waiter at the Tree Club at No. 119 East 55th Street in 1932.  Ricard was no doubt happy to have a Depression Era job and the Tree Club was an upscale nightclub.  The problem was Prohibition, which made the Tree Club a high-end speakeasy.

Early in the morning of July 9 that year Federal agents raided the club.  They seized $25,000 worth of furnishings “including an elaborate bar,” and a “large quantity of cordials, brandies, liquors and whiskies.”   They also seized Amedia Ricard among other employees, who were charged with Prohibition violations.

The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood retained its seedy reputation until the last quarter of the 20th century.  By 2000 it was being marketed by real estate agents as “Chelsea Heights” and modern apartment buildings began replacing the old tenement structures.

Today a pizzeria and an Afghan restaurant occupy the retail spaces once home to a Victorian variety store and a “segar” shop.  Upstairs the tenants, while not living in luxury, enjoy a much improved lifestyle than their 19th century predecessors.  And all the while the comical faces of the keystones above continue to amuse the pedestrians as they have for more than 140 years.

many thanks to reader M. Hobson for requesting this post
photographs by the author 

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Torrilhon House Hotel - No. 680 Sixth Avenue



In the years prior to the Civil War French immigrant Jean George Torrilhon had established himself in the butcher and catering business.  In 1860 the Thompkins Market opened near the Cooper Union.  It was an unusual cast iron-fronted building with a split personality.   The upper floors housed the Armory of the Seventh Regiment, while the ground floor served as a high-end grocery. 

In 1862 historian Thomas F. DeVoe recorded the scope of Torrilhon’s offerings.  “Under the stairway are located stands Nos. 43 and 45, kept by two Frenchmen, (F. A. Bailly and J. G. Torilhon [sic],) who keep, besides pork in every conceivable form, boned turkeys, capons, larded bird-game, filet de boeuf, etc., many of which are cooked ready ‘for parties, breakfasts, dinners, or suppers, cold or warm.”

In the meantime to the west, Sixth Avenue was changing.  Modest brick-faced homes lined the blocks between 14th and 23rd Street; but the uptown movement of commerce was already making itself felt.   By 1869, the year that Edwin Booth opened his colossal granite Shakespearean theater  at the corner of 23rd Street, Torrilhon had opened the Torrilton House on the opposite corner.

On October 17 that year he advertised “Fine Apartments for families and single gentlemen to let, with Board; the very best table d’hote in the city, being served at 6 o’clock; terms moderate.”

But Torrilhon’s hotel would not last long at that location.  On July 8, 1870 architect Julius F. Munkwitz filed plans for a “four-story Ohio-stone front hotel” two blocks to the south at 344 Sixth Avenue, between 21st and 22nd streets.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that Vanderbilt & Ackerman would be the builders.

The choice of architects was perhaps surprising since Munckwitz was at the time the Supervising Architect and Superintendent of Parks.  While working on Thorilhon’s hotel he was simultaneously designing park structures with Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould.

A harmonious blend of Italianate and neo-Grec styles, the four-story building was completed early in 1871.  A pleasing marriage of Italianate and neo-Grec styles, it featured miniature cornices which defined each story.  The lintels of the openings held hands by way of slightly projecting band courses.  A handsome pressed cornice finished the reserved composition.


It would seem that Jean George Torrilhon never intended to move his Torrilhon House into the new building.  On February 26, 1871 he advertised “To let—Very nice, small hotel, well situated, furnished or unfurnished; possession immediately.  Inquire at 344 Sixth avenue.”  Torrilhon’s restaurant background was reflected in his boasting “The kitchen has one of those imperial French ranges of Moneuse & Duparquet; the only good one in America.”

Torrilhon either changed his mind, or simply had no takers.  The new hotel became the Torrilhon House; and Torrilhon partnered with John P. Dietrich to establish a restaurant on the first floor. 

The residents of the upper floors were apparently financially comfortable.  One of the earliest left her French silk umbrella at the Second National Bank on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street in June 1871.  She placed an advertisement in the New York Herald, describing it as having “a golden rim,” and offering a $3 reward.  The generous reward would amount to $60 in 2016.

In 1873, the same year that Torrilhon brought Julius Munckwitz back to enlarge the hotel to the rear, a French couple moved into Room No. 1.  City life appears to have been not to their liking, however.  An advertisement in the New York Herald on August 19 read “A French gentleman and his wife, recently arrived from Europe, desire to find Board with an American family in the country, where they could exchange French for English lessons, or give French lessons for part board.”  After giving the Torrilhon House as his address, the Frenchman added “P.S.--The lady is a first class dressmaker.”

The building to the right, another hotel, was built the same year as the Torrilhon House.

In 1887 No. 344 was purchased by John Parke.  He and his wife had lived on the third floor since its opening.  He immediately brought in architect and contractor J. H. Fitzpatrick to remove the restaurant and install a new storefront.  The alterations cost him $400.  The newly-created store was became John Clark’s hardware store.

Mrs. Parke was a fixture at her third floor window.  By now the avenue below had become a major shopping district, vying with Broadway.  Old-fashioned and outspoken, she was known to shout down to women below if their demeanor or apparel induced her displeasure.

But the habit caused her serious problems on Sunday evening, July 12, 1891.  Two days later The New York Times reported “Mrs. John Parke, who has lived for years at 344 Sixth Avenue, is in a peck of trouble.”  The newspaper said that she had been enjoying the Sixth Avenue sights “and still livelier Sixth Avenue fashions” that evening.

When she saw two women wearing what she considered outlandish costumes, she let out a barrage of insults.

“Mrs. Parke is not identified with the new school, and as may be imagined sees cause for frequent ejaculation from her vantage point above the sidewalk, and in an ejaculatory period of unusual extent on Sunday evening she was unfortunate enough to have her artificial teeth escape and fall to the walk below.”

The women saw their opportunity for revenge.  “A couple of wonderfully bedecked women approaching—their starling appearance had been the cause of Mrs. Parke’s wide-mouthed emotion—saw the teeth as they struck the pavement, and lost no time in taking possession of them.”

The dentureless Mrs. Parke tried her best to call the women back; to no avail.  She placed an advertisement in the morning paper, offering “a suitable reward for the return of the teeth.”

The New York Times jibed on July 14 “The advertisement brought a score of persons with teeth to exchange for money, and as a result Mrs. Parke was in such a state of mind yesterday afternoon that she did not feel like discussing the matter.”

In 1895 John Parke took out a $55,000 loan on the building, presumably to convert the hotel to commercial lofts.   By 1898 the upper floors were filled with a variety of small businesses, including Bruno Lueddeker’s retail fur shop; Lillian Fimbell, “ladies’ hairdresser;” M. Standish, “manicures;” drawing and painting instructor Newell Favarger, and Kate McCrane’s lamp shade business.  The first floor was once again a restaurant, operated by George Hoeffler and his wife, Clara.

Parke had died by 1899, but his family held on to the property and replaced the storefront that year.  The eastern side of Sixth Avenue had seen the arrival of massive shoe concerns in the 1890s—most notably those of Andrew Alexander and Alfred J. Cammeyer.  In the first years of the new century No. 344 Sixth Avenue, too, began filling with shoe retailers.

The first was the Oppe Shoe Company, which leased the new ground floor store and the basement.  In 1904 the other tenants in the building were the Manhattan Dental Company on the second floor, and the Spencer Umbrella Company on the top two.

Around 5:00 on the afternoon of June 7, 1904 fire broke out in the basement.  The Times reported “There were a number of people in the shoe store and in the dental parlors.  All of them ran hurriedly to the street.  Everyone succeeded in getting out before the fire gained much headway except Charles Carpenter, an old man, who was in a rear room on the third floor.”

Carpenter was disoriented and nearly overcome by the smoke when he succeeded in finding the front window.  He had climbed half-way onto the sill when he fainted.  A police officer was able to reach him from the third floor window of the adjoining window, and push him back into the building and safety.  Later a fire fighter climbed a ladder and brought the unconscious man down.  The damage to the building was estimated at $2,000 (about $55,000 today).

Soon the shoe store of Frazin & Oppenheim moved in.  The store started operation in 1901 and by 1909 had six other New York stores when the over-extended firm faced bankruptcy.  The Shoe Retailer reported on October 9 that year “The store at 344 Sixth avenue was bought, lease, stock and fixtures, by Schwalbe Bros., who will continue the business at that place.”

Shoes would be replaced by garments within the decade.  In 1915 the store and basement were leased to David Weiner for his ladies wear shop, the Weiner Busy Cloak Co.  Other apparel companies to lease space within the next few years were the Martin Hemstitching Company, Antaky & Fazio, embroiderers, and the Century Braid Company.

The building was the scene of a mystery on December 3, 1914 when Robert L. Gordon discovered a four-month old baby girl “sitting in a go-cart” in the hallway.  Gordon called Patrolman Kelly who went from office to office in the building; but no one knew where the baby had come from.

The little girl was taken to the West 20th Street Station house for several hours; when to Bellevue Hospital.   The baby’s mother had carefully dressed the child before abandoning her.  The Times said “The child wore a white coat, a white dress, white knitted bootees, knitted underwear, and a pink petticoat.  It was wrapped in a s mall blue quilt.”

In 1925 Sixth Avenue was extended to the south, resulting in the renumbering of the building to No. 680.  Throughout most of the 20th century the former hotel was home to an assortment of small businesses—dressmakers and embroiders, for instance--on the upper floors while various stores (one a china and glass merchant) occupied the street level.
After the dark period of the 1970s and ‘80s when the buildings of the Ladies’ Mile suffered neglect and abuse, a renaissance gave them new purpose.  In 2005 No. 680 was connected internally with No. 678 and renovated to apartments.  

photographs by the author