Saturday, September 20, 2014

The 1895 Ahrens Bldg - Nos. 70-74 Lafayette Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1891 the History and Commerce of New York described architect George H. Griebel as “a gentleman of middle age—a native of Germany, where he acquired a thorough knowledge of his profession…Theorectically and practically Mr. Griebel is an accomplished representative of his important profession, and numerous evidences of his skill may be seen in various sections of the city and adjoining localities.”

Before long Griebel would be adding on more “evidence of his skill” to his resume.  Herman F. Ahrens had operated his downtown liquor store on Elm Street (later renamed Lafayette Street) for around three decades.  In 1879 he acquired two properties at the corner of Elm and Franklin Streets from the William Briggs estate.  He moved his liquor business into one of the two wooden structures, No. 40 Franklin Street.

Shortly after Ahrens acquired the properties discussions arose about the improvement and widening of Elm Street.  The widening would necessitate the demolition of the structures only on the opposite side of Elm Street; and could significantly raise the value of Ahrens’s property.  The City wrangled over the details of the project for over a decade.  But a year before the final hearings took place in July 1895, Ahrens forged ahead.

He commissioned George H. Griebel to design an office and store building for his corner lot.  It was an exciting time for architects as both steel frame construction and  elevators made multi-level structures possible.  For Ahrens, Griebel would produce a seven-story Romanesque Revival beauty.  He deftly contrasted two colors of brick as well as carved stone to create a colorful and visually-stimulating façade.  And while he garnished the structure with Medieval motifs, Griebel added ultra-modern 1890s metal windows that filled the three great Lafayette Street arches.

photo by Alice Lum
Not everything went smoothly in the construction of what would be known as the Ahrens Building.  In the last decade of the 19th century the organized labor movement was well underway.  The builder had hired non-union steamfitters; a fact that did not go unnoticed by union workers.  On the morning of March 5, 1895 the union mechanics walked off the job and construction ground to a halt.

The Sprague Electric Elevator Company had already finished up in the building before the walk-out.  It had been chosen to provide the six elevators for the Ahrens Building.  These were successfully installed by February 16, 1895 when the firm announced it was now “putting in two of its elevators in the new residence of John Jacob Astor, 5th avenue and 65th street.”

Eventually labor problems were solved and the Ahrens Building was completed later in 1895.  The ground floor with its vast shop windows was intended as retail space; while the upper floors were rented as offices. 

Among the first tenants was lawyer Robert Racey.  He would take on a few highly unusual cases of fraud in June 1900.  The flood of Italian immigrants into New York Harbor at the time was overwhelming.  Newcomers, unfamiliar with the language and their new surroundings, were easy victims for unscrupulous con artists—including their own countrymen.

Italian merchant Luigi Corelli had recently landed in New York when he arrived at Racy’s office.  The Sun reported on June 11, “He told his story through an interpreter explaining that he had been buncoed out of $500.”  It was the origin of the famous “I have a bridge for sale” scam.

An Italian-speaking man approached Corelli and said he thought he remembered him from the old country.  Corelli told him his name and the man exclaimed that, of course, they had known one another.  Corelli, on the other hand, could not recall ever meeting him.

The man took Corelli for a drink then showed him around the city for two days.  On the second day he took the new-comer to the Brooklyn Bridge and told him in strictest confidence that he could sell him the New York half of the span.  The conman explained that Mayor Van Wyck owned the Brooklyn side. He convinced Corelli to buy the New York side for $500 and, after a week, if he liked it he would arrange to sell him the Brooklyn side for $10,000.

According to The Sun, the lawyer replied “Very cheap for the Brooklyn side of the bridge.  I’d give that much myself for it.”

But the gullible immigrant had more money than common sense and the swindler was not through with him.  The translator added “My friend buy-a Central park bear, too, an’ two stores.”

Robert Rayner told police “He was lucky in not buying the new zoological gardens.  I had a man in here the other day who told me that he bought the aquarium from an Italian who met him at the Battery.  He had been in New York but a few days and he signed a contract to buy a third interest in the zoo for $500, from another Italian.”  Rayner guessed that the same man was responsible.  “He took one of my clients down to the city hall, told him it was a hotel, sold him some of the furniture and then brought him over to the county court house where he got his money in return for appointing him chef of the Court House hotel.”

Police went looking for the Italian bunco man.  And Signor Corelli was irate.  As he left Rayner’s office the interpreter said that Corelli vowed that if “Mr. Bunco” did not buy the bridge back, he would kill him tomorrow.

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers established its headquarters in the building by 1902, and other attorneys moved in.  Among them was Colonel Robert J. Haire whose client Louise Vermeule died of strychnine poisoning in her Riverside Drive home in January 1908.  Twice tried for forgery and once for grand larceny, Haire declares that his now-dead client was innocent on the grounds of insanity.

“Why, the woman was crazy, utterly crazy,” he told reporters on January 5.  “That is the only explanation one can give for the amazing turnings and twisting to which she had recourse.  It would account, too, for the effrontery by means of which she has fooled so many men of recognized keenness.”

Bull-nose brick and intricately-carved stone are just two of the elements that distinguish the structure.  photo by Alice Lum

Lawyer Francis W. Stanton was also in the building at the time.  He found himself in trouble with the District Attorney Jerome in December 1908 when he was “accused of taking money and jewelry as a fee from Elizabeth Chalmers, a client, arrested for larceny, without returning any legal services,” reported The New York Times on December 19.

According to the D.A., “Stanton took $25 of her $30, and later obtained her bank book and drew $30 more from the Greenwich Savings Bank.”  But when her case was called she was discharged.   Shortly thereafter she was arrested again, this time for a theft in the Hotel Lafayette.  While she was awaiting trial in the Tombs, Stanton visited her again.  According to The Times he “took possession of her locket, chain, and diamond ring.” 

Chalmers told the court that her attorney promised that he would get the charges reduced to petit larceny; but when she was arraigned on October 14, 1908 he did not appear.  The woman was found guilty of grand larceny in the second degree.

District Attorney Jerome was scathing in his courtroom condemnation of Francis Stanton.  “I feel it my duty to express openly my contempt for such a disgraceful abuse of a client on the part of a lawyer.  I am free to say that such conduct is shameful and shameless, and that a lawyer indulging in it is a disgrace to the bar of New York.”

Also in the building at the time was W. G. Shea who ran the Government’s employment agency suppling workers for the Panama Canal.  Shea was tasked with finding “blacksmiths, rock drill runners, iron molders, car carpenters, angle iron workers, and cooks and stewards who can speak Spanish.”

The New York Times noted on July 23, 1907 that Shea “has been advertising daily the last week for skilled mechanics of all trade to go down to the Isthmus at good wages.”  But, said the newspaper, he was having trouble “filling the vacancies with the right class of men.”

Perhaps the reports of rampant yellow fever and malaria discouraged skilled workers; but for whatever reason, instead “Tattered crowds come down to the office daily looking for a soft job and an ocean trip to Panama, but they go away disappointed.”

The agent was not frustrated, however.  He told reporters he was not in a hurry and “can afford to wait until he gets his complement of the right sort of men.”

Herman F. Ahrens had died by now and the management of the Ahrens Building fell to his wife, Josephine.  On October 31, 1910 the minutes of the Sinking Fund Commissioners noted that Mrs. Josephine H. Ahrens had leased to the city the third, fourth and seventh floors of the structure “for the use of the Board of Coroners” for a period of two years beginning October 1, 1910.  For the three floors the City would pay Josephine $5,220 per year—a seemingly reasonable $125,000 in today’s dollars.

On March 15, 1911, one of New York City’s greatest catastrophes occurred when more than 140 women died in the Triangle Waist Company fire.  The tragedy would set the stage for improved and safer working conditions nationwide.  Less than a month after the disaster the inquest into the deaths was opened in the new Coroners’ Court in the Ahrens Building.

The upper floors of the structure continued to be leased to a wide variety of tenants.  The Web Pressmen’s Union established its headquarters here by 1912 and The Language Press would soon take a full floor.

Although altered, the original medieval-looking entrance survives.  photo by Alice Lum

In the meantime, as early as 1908, Ahrens Saloon was on the ground floor.  Nearby at 45 Franklin Street, Francis E. Hill was the junior partner of Henry C. Kelly & Co., dealers in twine and cordage.  On August 22 that year, soon after arriving at his office, Hill sent a messenger boy to Ahrens Saloon to purchase a bottle of Palm wine.  According to The New York Times the following day, “Ahrens refused to sell this, on the ground that he did not know Mr. Hill.”

Hill then went to the saloon himself and bought a bottle of champagne which he took back to the office.  The executive, who was apparently having domestic problems, sat at his desk and wrote a check to his wife in the amount of $625, and another to Ogden & Cadmus for $84.  He then wrote a letter to his wife and shot himself in the head.

The letter, which began “Precious Darling,” said in part “Try to think kindly of me sometimes, and to forgive me as I hope to be forgiven.  I loved you with all my heart, and did try faithfully to do my duty, but failure seems to have been my inevitable lot.”

In 1924 jewelry manufacturer Bernstein & Roskin operated from the second floor of the building.  There were twelve other jewelry firms in the building at the time.  In the early hours of November 9 detectives followed a known crook who went by the names of Hymie Boston, Hymie Roskin and Hymie Meyers.  When the safecracker and his accomplice, Morris Levine, entered the Ahrens Building, the cops slipped in behind them.

As the thieves were attempting to break into the safe of Bernstein & Roskin, they were apprehended by the detectives.  The New York Times said that all the jewelers in the building “had safes heavily stocked with jewelry in anticipation of the Christmas trade.  Had it not been for their intervention, the police said, the two burglars might have looted the whole building before it was opened for business this morning.”

By mid century the aging building was no longer being used as office space; but as storage and light manufacturing.  At ground level Ahrens Saloon, by the 1940s, was home to Peter’s Bar & Grill.  It continued the tradition two decades later as Doyle’s Corner Pub moved in.

photo by Alice Lum
The Ahrens family retained ownership of the structure until 1968 when it was sold to Morris and Herbert Moskowitz.  The brothers reconverted the aging upper floors to office space.  George H. Griebel’s stunning structure has received a facade restoration and its wonderful polychromy once again awes passersby.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Daniel Kellogg Mansion -- No. 54 East 68th Street

Photo by Alice Lum

In the decade following the Civil War the Upper East Side saw dizzying development.  Among the men responsible for the rows of speculative brownstone rowhouses was Anderson Fowler.  In 1879 he erected five high-stooped homes on East 68th Street, Nos. 52 through 60, designed by brothers David and John Jardine.

A year later, on Saturday July 3, 1880, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide remarked on the stunning growth of the neighborhood.  “In many particulars, ‘Lenox Hill’ is already in advance of the still famous ‘Murray Hill;’ especially in the magnificence of its palatial architecture.”  The article listed the names of important residents, including John D. Crimmins and Robert L. Stuart; then mentioned Anderson Fowler, himself, as one of the new homeowners.

“The names of other gentlemen, besides those we have mentioned, above, occur to us as owning beautiful residences in the same vicinity; among them Mr. J. M. Fiske, Hon. H. C. Van Vorst, Mr. F. D. Tappan, Mr. Anderson Fowler, Mr. Parker Handy, Mr. B. B. Atterbury, and others equally prominent, whose names do not chance to be familiar to us.”

Parker Handy, mentioned as one of Fowler’s neighbors, had moved into No. 54 East 68th Street.  The title of the house was put in his wife Cornelia’s name.  Despite their significant move uptown, the Handy family retained its membership in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Handy had stepped down as vice-president of the Third National Bank of New York in 1870 when he purchased Peter Hayden’s firm, which dealt in precious metal bullion and coins.  Handy converted the business to banking, renaming it the Banking House of Parker Handy.  Before the end of the century the firm would be recognized as the standard for the determination of daily silver price quotations throughout the country.

But before then, Handy sold No. 54 to David H. Gould in April 1885 for $44,500.  As Handy had done, Gould put the property in the name of his wife, Mary.  The price the Goulds paid would just top $1 million today.

The Gould’s did not stay long on East 64th Street, however.  By 1888 it was the home of the Henry R. De Milt family.  The head of H. R. De Milt & Co. at No. 238 Water Street, Henry dealt in metals.  He was a member of the exclusive Union League Club, as well as the Republican Club, the Ohio Society, and sat on the Board of Trade and Transportation.

Social eyebrows may have been raised when an announcement was published in The New York Times on May 19, 1893 concerning daughter Ella Curtis De Milt’s upcoming marriage.  Ella was engaged to Charles Warren Ten Broeck, a member of an old Dutch family in New York.  The Times headline simply read “Miss De Milt’s Wedding To Be Private.”  It noted that invitations to the June 10 reception only had been sent out the previous day. 

It appears that Ella and Charles moved into the East 68th Street house, as she continued to entertain with her mother and sister here.  On January 3, 1895 The Times noted “Cards have been sent out by Mrs. Henry R. De Milt, Mrs. Charles Warren Ten Broeck, and Miss De Milt for a tea on the afternoon of January 10, from 4 until 7 o’clock, at 54 East Sixty-eighth Street.”

A few months later, in June, Henry heard rumors that the City was endeavoring to sell off Upper East Side properties for back taxes.  Apparently concerned about his property values and the upscale tone of his neighborhood, De Milt called a meeting of nearby homeowners on June 4.  The New York Times reported “Property owners interested in the east side lands met in the Continental Building, Court and Montague Streets, Brooklyn, last night, and discussed the questions as to the clouds upon the title of the property.”

De Milt’s proactive stance resulted in the organization of the East Side Lands Property Owners’ Association.

By the time Henry R. De Milt died in the first decade of the new century, the neighborhood was changing.  New homeowners either razed or drastically remodeled the old brownstones.  Where rows of chocolate-colored, carbon-copy houses had stood; now individual brick, marble or limestone mansions were rising.  And that was exactly what Daniel F. Kellogg had in mind when he purchased No. 54 East 68th Street from the De Milt estate in May 1910.

Kellogg commissioned architect Donn Barber to strip off the Victorian façade and create a modern Edwardian residence.  The result was a limestone-clad French Renaissance beauty .  With the stoop removed, the façade was moved forward a few feet and the entrance was now just one step up from the sidewalk.  The service entrance was guarded by an especially handsome iron fence.  Above, two sets of French doors surmounted by classical pediments opened onto stone Juliette balconies.  Barber reserved his most striking feature for the top two floors—a two-story slate-tiled mansard with overblown dormers at the fourth floor and charming copper-clad arched dormers at the fifth.  Barber had created a slice of France off Park Avenue.
photo by Alice Lum
The Sun later noted that it “is equipped with an elevator” and “with the land, cost approximately $150,000.”

Kellogg was unlike his banker, attorney and high-powered businessmen neighbors.  He was the City Editor and Financial Editor of the New York Sun.  Within a few years, however, he left the newspaper to take control of publicity for J. P. Morgan.

Along with Kellogg and his wife in the remodeled house was son Daniel Fiske Kellogg, Jr.  Like the previous young residents he would marry well.  On November 6, 1915 his engagement to Edythe Emily Milliken was announced.  The bride’s father, Charles Stuart Milliken was the President of the Guanajuato Consolidated Mining & Milling Co., one of the most productive silver and gold operations on the continent, according to The Mining Investor in 1908.

photo by Alice Lum
It would be more than a year before Daniel and Edythe married in the fashionable St. Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue.  The day following the wedding, on October 16, 1917, The New York Times noted that “On their return from their honeymoon, Mr. and Mrs. Kellogg will make their home at 54 East Sixty-eighth Street.”

Those plans did not work out.  Five months later The Sun reported that Kellogg had sold the house “to a buyer who is said to be a banker.”  A few weeks later, on April 11, 1918, the newspaper noted the Kelloggs had taken "an apartment at 555 Park Avenue.”

The buyer was 45-year old stockbroker Guy Richards McLane.  He had become widowed when his beloved wife, Dorothea, and their daughter died in childbirth on February 24, 1912.  Dorothea was active in the care for destitute Italian immigrants and a year later McLane and his father-in-law Dr. Henry van Dyke, established Dorothea’s House in Princeton, New Jersey in her memory.

The wealthy McLane was a member of the brokerage firm Jesup & Lamont at No. 26 Broadway; and Secretary and Director of Jeremiah Skidmore Sons, dealers in coal.  Almost three years to the day after purchasing the 68th Street house, on Sunday morning, April 10, 1921, Guy Richards McLane died there.

The estate quickly placed the house on the market for $150,000—closer to $1.85 million today.  It sold the first week of June 1921. 

The house would become home to the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller—Margaret Strong De Cuevas and her husband George.  Society and the New York press questioned her husband’s claim at nobility.  On June 6, 1937 The New York Times mentioned that the Rockefeller family “did not refer to Mrs. De Cuevas by the title Marquise, but simply as Mrs. George De Cuevas.” 

“Several years ago Dr. Strong [Margaret’s father] and his daughter were reported to have become estranged,” said the newspaper.  “This estrangement was reported sometime previous to her marriage to George De Cuevas, who is referred to as the Marquis De Cuevas.  The title is not listed in the 1937 edition of the Almanach de Gotha.”

When Dr. Strong had been asked by reporters”to confirm a report that his daughter had been married secretly to George De Cuevas, he said ‘I’m not in close touch with her.  She is able to take care of herself.’”

When John D. Rockefeller died in 1937, The Times noted that the Social Register listed Margaret’s and George’s address as No. 54 68th Street but “have passed most of their time abroad” and were not well known in New York society.  As a matter of fact, in October that year it appeared that the family would abandon East 68th Street entirely.

“Brill & Brill will sell at auction at the residence formerly occupied by Marquis George De Cuevas, 54 East Sixty-eighth Street, a collection of furniture, furnishings, paintings, Oriental rugs, antique and modern silver, china, glassware and linens,” reported The Times on October 24.

The house was sold to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York as its new clubhouse.  The group quickly realized its mistake.  It later termed the townhouse “a white elephant” and quickly resold it for a bargain basement price of $90,000.  The New York Times reported on the sale on March 5, 1938, saying “A town house in an area of fashionable homes on the East Side passed to new hands yesterday.”

The hands were not all that new, however.  The buyer was Margaret Strong De Cuevas.  Margaret and George began buying up other property on the block.  In 1940 The Times reported that George De Cuevas “bought the adjoining house at No. 56” and in 1953 Margaret purchased No. 52 on the other side.

In 1953 Margaret owned both houses.  photo by Alice Lum
Margaret’s purchase may have been prompted by her son’s wedding on February 3 that year.  By now The Times had apparently accepted her title.  The day after the wedding it referred to John de Cuevas as the son of “the Marquis and Marquessa de Piedrablanca de Guana.”

Margaret’s concern for historic properties in the neighborhood was manifested when in 1965 she bought the two handsome neo-Federal mansions at Nos. 680 and 684 Park Avenue which were threatened with demolition.  She donated the houses to charity.

In 1980, reportedly through the nudging of her cousin David Rockefeller, Margaret donated her own house, along with No. 52, to charity.  No. 54 East 68th Street became the Center for African Art, a favorite area of interest of Rockefeller.

The handsome French-inspired mansion with its long and involved history survives unchanged on a block of remarkable houses.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The 1929 Industrial National Bank -- 72 Second Avenue

photo by Alice Lum

In 1928 the Lower East Side, with its tenement houses and dingy brick commercial buildings, was about to get a splash of color.  On May 19 that year The New York Times announced that “A new national bank, to be known as the Industrial National, will shortly be doing business in Second Avenue…Representative William I Sirovich will head the bank.  Dr. Sirovich is a newcomer in the banking field.”

Unmentioned in the Times article was Max Weinstein, recently president of Russeks Fifth Avenue department store.  Sirovich would serve as President and Weinstein as Chairman of the board.  Both inexperienced in banking, they chose prudently their Executive Vice President.  Philip L. Tuchman had been associated with the State Bank and Trust Company for over two decades.  He was held in such high esteem that a month later, on June 21, over 1,000 guests attended a dinner in his honor, during which he received an automobile as a gift. 

The architectural firm of Landsman & Smith received the commission to design the bank’s headquarters at No. 72 Second Avenue.  When completed a year later, it would be like nothing the Lower East Side—or indeed Manhattan—had yet seen.

As construction commenced, the bank opened for business on July 2, 1928 in temporary space at No. 64 Second Avenue, just north of the site.  The New York Times remarked the following day that the bank “started off with a rush.”  By 3:00 when the doors were closed 350 accounts had been opened with deposits over more than $2 million.

The new building at the corner of Second Avenue and East 4th Street was completed in 1929—just before the onslaught of the Great Depression.  The architects had produced a startlingly different structure.  While the base reflected the solid architectural elements expected in a bank—Corinthian pilasters separating rows of arched openings and a substantial bronze entrance surmounted by a clock—the upper floors exploded in color and fancy.

While the overall style was vaguely Renaissance Revival, the green and beige terra cotta spandrel tiles and the rope-twist engaged columns added an exotic air.  The arcade-like topmost windows, surmounted by a hefty balustrade at the roof, added to the Mediterranean feel.  The $150,000 cost of the building would be more in the neighborhood of $2 million today.

photo by Alice Lum

Oddly enough the Industrial National Bank and its subsidiary Industrial National Safe Deposit would soon seek a new headquarters.  Only months after the new building was opened The Times reported that the bank was moving its main offices.  In January 1939 Max Weinstein announced that the bank would take over a full floor in the newly completed Navarre Building at 38th Street and Seventh Avenue (the same spot where, The Times said, Mr. Weinstein sold candy for a living 37 years earlier).

The Industrial National Bank maintained a branch office in the Second Avenue building for a year; then on December 17, 1931 the Continental Bank & Trust Co. of No. 25 Broad Street opened a branch here.  It was just the first of a series of Depression Era changes.

On July 4, 1936 The Bank of New York announced it would open a branch here.  But when September rolled around, it was instead the Trade Bank of New York that opened.  The institution hired a public relations agency, Green-Brodie, Inc., to handle a promotional campaign hoping to boost interest. 

The Trade Bank of New York weathered the Depression; but the building owners did not.  Three months after the new bank moved in, the building was lost in a foreclosure auction.  Interestingly, the winning bid of $100,000 was placed by Bertha Weinstein, the wife of Max Weinstein.  The man who had come to this country in 1893 with no money and unfamiliar with the language was now wealthy enough to buy his former building back in cash.

In 1938 the Trade Bank of New York was pulled into a high-profile bribery trial.  Assistant District Attorney Alexander R. Baldwin was charged with accepting cash payments by Isidore Juffe who was involved in what newspapers called “a fur racket.”  Baldwin became the central figure in an investigation of official corruption in Brooklyn, called the “Rachet Inquiry.”

Cornered, Juffe had told investigators that he had “paid plenty” to Baldwin over a period of months in 1938.  To help conceal the transactions, the Assistant D.A. would have the money placed in safe deposit boxes to be retrieved later.  And he instructed Juffe to change banks after short periods.  One of the banks was the Trade Bank of New York and one bank employee would take the stand for the prosecution.

“On Aug. 11, 1938, William Miller, a guard in the Trade Bank of New York, 72 Second Avenue, Manhattan, testified, Juffe rented a safe deposit box in that bank under the name of Isidore Rosenbloom.  Previously, Juffe had said Baldwin requested him to change banks.”

The sensational trial played out in the newspaper for weeks, with Baldwin and Juffe “denouncing each other as ‘liars,’” as reported in The Times on August 3, 1939.  Baldwin complained that he was the victim of a plot against him and a “frame-up” by police.  In the end Baldwin was disbarred and humiliated.

The Trade Bank and Trust Company was still here at mid-century.  On February 3, 1950 21-year old Betty Cohen dropped in the bank to pick up her company’s payroll as she did every Friday.  The bookkeeper worked for the Foreign Embroidery Company at No. 159 West 27th Street.  This day would be much different.

Betty left the bank with the $2,300 payroll just after 10:30 a.m.  She entered the building where she worked and took the elevator to the 9th Floor.  There, just outside of the company’s office, a thug assaulted her.  Betty was knocked down, beaten, according to The Times, “and bruised.”

Bank robberies—or at least attempted ones--did not go away with the dawn of the 21st century and modern technology.  By now No. 72 Second Avenue was home to a branch of the Bank of America.  At around 10:30 a.m. on the morning of July 11, 2011 a tee-shirt wearing man in his 40s entered the bank and passed a note demanding money.  The disappointed would-be robber left without any cash.

photo by Alice Lum

Because the ground floor of No. 72 Second Avenue has always house a bank throughout its eight decades, it has not suffered the abuse of modernized storefronts and garish awnings.  Landsman & Smith’s highly innovative and unusual design is beautifully intact; a fascinating example of 1920s bank architecture.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Engine Co. 74 and Hook & Ladder 25 -- 207 West 77th St

In 1894 W. B. Baldwin spent $8,000 to build his new two-story brick stable at No. 205 West 77th Street.  The significant outlay suggests that the stable was a fine building.  But it would not last long.

The city soon acquired Nos. 205 and 207 West 77th Street in a condemnation procedure.  Baldwin was probably not overly put out.  The awards and costs to the city amounted to $34,468.70 for both properties.  On January 2, 1900 the titles were passed to Fire Department.

From 1879 to 1895 Napoleon LeBrun was responsible for designing New York’s fire houses.  Two years later Tammany Hall chose the relatively obscure team of Vincent Slattery and Arthur Horgan to design selected civic structures.  The West 77th Street station would be counted among them.  Newspaper accounts more than hinted that Horgan & Slattery were deeply involved with the Tammany corruption and graft.

By December 1901 the combined fire house for Hook and Ladder 25 at No. 205, and Engine Company 74 at No. 207 was completed.  The Report of the Buildings Superintendent listed the cost of construction at $57,675.00—about $1.5 million by today’s standards.

More attractive than their own character was the architects’ design for Engine Company 74 and Hook & Ladder 25.  Brick and limestone came together in an double Italianate palazzo with Beaux Arts splashes.  Recessed balconies provided an elegant air and triangular pediments above the cornice bore giant shields with the Fire Department monogram.

Not long after the building's completion some event prompted Hook & Ladder 25 to festoon its house.  Engine Company 74 was obviously not so inclined.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The work of turn-of-the-century firemen was especially dangerous.  The majority of buildings were still lit by gas; getting to a fire on streets with little traffic control, teeming with street cars, carriages, pedestrians and automobiles was treacherous; and buildings were constructed with few regulations.

An ingenious pulley system made for rapid harnessing of the horses.  The brass pole can be seen to the right and in the rear is the tender.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The year 1904 was a fearful example.  On February 9 the firemen were rushing to a fire in a 4-story brownstone at 95th Street and Columbus Avenue.  The hook and ladder truck, the chief’s buggy, the fire engine and the tender had to cross the street car tracks on Columbus Avenue.  A streetcar heading north came to an abrupt and unexpected halt.

“The Chief’s buggy, the hook and ladder and the engine had all cleared the car,” reported The Evening World.  “At the near side of Eightieth street the car came to a sudden stop.  Johnson tried his best to clear it but he could not prevent the collision.  As he struck the car the tender listed and he fell from his seat to the street.  There were five men on the tender, but only two of them were hurt.”

Bystanders took the two injured firemen into a drug store while the rest of the crew rushed to the fire.  The men were removed to Roosevelt Hospital.

Rather fearsome faces adorn the keystones of the truck bays.

Four months later, on June 13, 1904 the men of Hook & Ladder 25 headed to a fire in the six story building of the New York College of Pharmacy on West 68th Street.  The fire started when a five-gallon container of nitric acid, packed in straw and sawdust, cracked in the cellar.  “This caused almost immediate combustion, and the packing burst into flames,” explained the New-York Tribune the following day.

Firemen were able to extinguish the flames; but the fumes of the nitric acid had filled the cellar and risen to the upper floors.  Captain P. J. Graham took several men upstairs to search for fire and to open windows. 

“They had reached the upper floor when Captain Graham fell,” said the newspaper.  “Several others followed him quickly. [Fireman Charles] Reich had turned about and started for help.  When he reached the head of the stairs leading to the ground floor he too fell over.”

As firemen continued to try to rescue their comrades, they too fell victim to the noxious fumes, until six men lay on the floor unconscious.  Finally, “with difficulty, on account of the fumes,” all the men were pulled to safety and were revived.

In March 1906, according to The City Record, “additions and alterations to quarters of Engine Company 74 and Hook and Ladder Company 25” were done.  Apparently the changes were made to the interior or to the rear; for the façade was unaltered. 

Nearby at Nos. 219 through 223 West 77th Street was the five-story stable and “district station” of the Department of Street Cleaning.  The firemen noticed fire in the building on July 29, 1910 at the same time that Patrolmen Kear and Blass, passing by, saw it.  The policemen sent in an alarm and the fire fighters rushed to the blaze.

The stubborn blaze had already encompassed the third floor and soon reached the fourth.  The fourth and fifth floors were used for storing hay and supplies, adding to the fury of the flames.  While the fire fighters fought the conflagration, which now was spreading to the fifth floor and punching through the roof, the policemen from the West 68th Street Station turned their attention to the 81 horses inside.

“They ran to the basement, where some of the animals were, and succeeded in getting them up a runway to the street level, where they were driven out by the liberal use of the officers’ nightsticks.  Then the rescuers ran upstairs to the first floor and got out a number of horses quartered there.  These animals were also drive to the street in safety,” said the New-York Tribune.

The fire was extinguished after about an hour of “hard fighting” and now the police were taxed with what the Tribune called “a round-up” of the horses.  All but five were caught.

Young boys in knickers watch as Engine Company 74 gallops by -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1916 Fire Commissioner Adamson sought to modernize the Fire Department with “motor apparatus.”  He told reporters that “tractor engines and hook and ladder trucks” would be a cost savings because they would be maintained and operated at a third of the cost of horse-drawn equipment.  Engine Company 74 was among the first to have engine modified with a gasoline motor.

“The front wheels of horse-drawn engines and hook and ladder trucks are being taken off and a two-wheel motor substituted at a cost of $3,600,” explained The New York Times on July 4, 1916.  The Commissioner added that replacing the 803 horses that still lived in firehouses would be of service to the fire fighters who shared their living space.

“In pushing motorization the Commissioner has considered the health of the men as well as the great saving it would effect.  The presence of horses in a firehouse makes it impossible to maintain ideal sanitary conditions in the living quarters of the firemen.”

The heroic actions of the fire crew were at no time more evident that on February 9, 1920 when the five-story private hospital at West End Avenue and 77th Street caught fire.  Most of the 36 surgical patients were confined to their beds.  The Evening World noted that “The sanitarium is one of the most exclusive in the city and has a long waiting list.” 

The janitor, Max Blumenberg, who found the blaze in the cellar around 7 a.m. was afraid of panicking the patients so he attempted to put out the fire himself rather than send an alarm.  It was a mistake.

The fire got out of hand and spread to a ventilation shaft leading to the roof.  There were no fire escapes on the 77th Street side of the building and nurses and patients were clustered at the windows when Hook & Ladder Company No. 25 arrived.  Ladders were raised to the upper floors and one-by-one those trapped inside were rescued.  Other fire fighters rushed inside to pull patients out who could not be reached by ladders.  There were no injuries or fatalities that day.

Hook & Ladder Company No. 25 received its 30 minutes of fame in 1956 when a color television movie entitled F.D.N.Y was filmed.  The New York Times, saying that the Fire Department “sometimes considers itself the forgotten service among those protecting New York,” explained that the movie—to be aired on local channels—would help citizens understand the work of the Department.

“The picture will show the selection, training, work and home life of the firemen,” it wrote.  The men of Hook & Ladder No. 25 were used as actors in the simulation of a rescue.

The darkest day for the men stationed here came on September 11, 2001.  In the monstrous attack on the World Trade Center buildings Ladder Company 25 lost six brave souls: Matthew Barnes, John Collins, Kenneth Kumpel, Robert Minara, Joseph Rivelli, Jr., and Paul Ruback.

In 2003 a refurbishing of the century-old structure was necessary.  Sometime around 1975 the flamboyant cornice was removed; no doubt because of danger due to disrepair.  Now the weight of modern fire equipment threatened the integrity of the main floor.  A $4 million renovation was initiated under the supervision of architect David Prendergrast.

Simple arched pediments replace the missing cornice.  The flaming torch in the carved cartouche is a fire department symbol.
The result was a restored façade that preserved Horgan & Slattery’s opulent design.  Prendergrast replaced the missing cornice with shallow arched pediments that compliment the design.  While the dealings between Tammany Hall and the architects may have been shady, the result is a handsome remnant of the turn of the century on the Upper West Side. 

non-historic photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The 1845 Skidmore House -- No. 37 E 4th Street

The Bond Street neighborhood in 1844 was already well established as an affluent residential enclave.  Nearby on Lafayette Place was the white marble LaGrange Terrace, where wealthy homeowners like John Jacob Astor lived.  Over a decade earlier the handsome Federal style mansion of Seabury Tredwell had been erected on East Fourth Street.

Now Tredwell’s cousin, Samuel Tredwell Skidmore began construction of his own mansion, just three lots east of his cousin’s.  He commissioned newly-arrived English architects Thomas Thomas and Son to design the upscale home.  Unlike Tredwell’s Federal style mansion, the Skidmore home would be in the recently popular Greek Revival style.  Red brick contrasted with the brownstone details.  An especially elegant portico featured free-standing fluted Ionic columns.  The entrance, with its sidelights and transom, was marked by a highly unusual paneled door which pretended to be double doors.

Thomas Thomas and Sons' original 1844 watercolor and ink drawing is in The Winterthur Library in Winterthur, Delaware.

The house at No. 369 Fourth Street (later renumbered 37 East Fourth) was completed in 1845.  The Greek Revival style eliminated the peaked, dormered attic in favor of a low-ceilinged full floor with small windows.  Here the Skidmore servants would live, including Mary Ann Banks.  The nurse, who came to live with the family in 1830 after having worked for Skidmore’s good friend, attorney John R. Townsend, would have her hands full.  Skidmore and his wife Angelina had eight children.

The same year that construction began on the Skidmore house, William Sloane opened his carpet store at No. 245 Broadway.  From its opening, Sloane’s shop catered to the carriage trade and it appears his was the first to offer Persian rugs in New York City.  Two of the luxurious carpets would end up in the Skidmore house.  In 1845 Samuel Skidmore purchased two Persian rugs from Sloane for $25 each – in the neighborhood of $750 each today.

Skidmore was the head of Skidmore & Co., a wholesale drug firm at No. 58 Cedar Street. His friend, John R. Townsend had been Judge of the Superior Court in 1844.  So well respected was he that when he died two years later the members of the bar wore mourning for 30 days.  The Townsend family recognized Skidmore's integrity and astute business sense and put the significant estate in Skidmore’s hands.

The extent of Skidmore’s own fortune was evidence on September 18, 1860 when he came to the financial aid of the City.  New York City was $3 million in debt and on August 11, 1860 the Common Council passed an ordinance whereby private citizens and companies could buy city stock.  Called “The Floating Debt Fund Stock of the City of New-York,” it was hoped to liquidate the city’s debt.  Skidmore purchased $2,000 worth of stocks—more in the neighborhood of $55,000 today.

By now the Skidmore children were maturing and a nurse was unnecessary.  But the Irish-born Mary Ann Banks was elderly and, according to The New York Times, was “looked upon as one of the truest and most faithful friends of the family.”  Samuel Skidmore told Banks she could stay on in the house as long as she pleased.

Although Samuel Skidmore was active in Trinity Church and since 1845 had been a vestryman there, Mary chose St. Ann’s Church and was confirmed there in 1860.  Around a year later Mary’s brother arrived to visit.  He calculated that his sister’s age at the time was around 83 years old.  “In regard to her age, Mr. Skidmore said that she had always insisted that she was born a short time before the Declaration of Independence,” said The Times.  Mary Ann Banks was fond of retelling the story of the day she had shaken hands with General George Washington, and said that she frequently would see Martha Washington on the street.

Fearing she would be a financial burden, the aged woman was concerned that she would have enough money to pay for her own funeral expenses.  She took $100 to the Bleecker Street Savings Bank and deposited it as her nest egg for when the time came.

Skidmore’s business and fortune continued to grow.  By 1871 he was President of the Howard Insurance Company of New-York and would become a trustee of the U. S. Trust Company.

Skidmore's insurance company suffered heavy losses in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 -- New-York Tribune, October 12, 1871 (copyright expired)

In October 1875 the Skidmore’s faithful servant, Mary Ann Banks suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed.   Her mental faculties were unimpaired, however, and she wanted desperately to see the Centennial Exhibition being planned for 1876 in Philadelphia.  It would not be.

On June 27, 1876 The New York Times reported “Mrs. Mary Ann Banks, who had lived with the family of Mr. Samuel T. Skidmore, of No. 37 East Fourth street, for over forty-five years, and who has said to be more than one hundred years old, died at his residence yesterday morning.”  Mary’s concerns about her funeral expenses were unfounded.  The $100 she had left in the bank years earlier had grown to $250.

Her funeral was held in St. Ann’s church on June 27 at 10:00 a.m.; after which she was buried in the Skidmore family lot in Greenwood Cemetery.

Skidmore himself was aging and within the year he requested to be relieved from his duties of the Townsend estate “on account of his feeble health and his advanced age,” as explained by The Times on March 16, 1877.  The family refused to have an accounting of the estate, saying that Skidmore’s flawless ethics made it unnecessary.

Townsend’s son, John D. Townsend, told the court, “More than 30 years ago Mr. Skidmore accepted at the hands of my dying father the trust which he is to-day prepared to resign…Yet from that day to this he has, without one cent of remuneration, and with a fidelity to the memory of his old friend, and faithfulness to his widow and children unsurpassed, continued to exercise his trust until now.  He leaves it increased in value, and bears with him in his later days the affectionate regards of those to whom he has been thus devoted.”

Samuel T. Skidmore lived for another four years, dying in the house on November 8, 1881.  By now the once-elegant neighborhood was falling victim to commerce.  The wealthiest families had long ago moved northward and the spinster Tredwell sisters at No. 29 and Angelina Skidmore were among the last of the private homeowners on the block.  Angelina stayed on in the house for just two more years, selling it in 1883.

The portico and entrance reflected the wealth and social position of the Skidmore family
It appears that by 1893 the Skidmore residence was being operated as a boarding house.  In 1892 a teen-aged Lillian Payne met Arthur Payne.  The New York Times would describe her as “a daughter of the tenement house, but is as pretty and as attractive a young woman as could be found in a day’s march.”

In order to make a living the girl learned “skirt dancing” and the newspaper said on July 10, 1893 “it was then she met Arthur Payne, an electrician about twenty-eight years old.  He is a handsome fellow, and the two were married about twelve months ago.”

The couple moved into No. 37 East 4th Street; but the honeymoon was soon over.  Payne shortly neglected Lillian “and her friends say that she was obliged to go back to skirt dancing to pay the rent for their little home and buy food.”  Eventually Payne “tired of her” and the couple separated, Payne remaining in the 4th Street apartment.

Although Lillian had her husband arrested around March 1893, her witnesses failed to show up and the case was dropped.  He convinced her to move back with him at the beginning of July, saying he would support her so she would not have to continue dancing.

The night of Saturday, July 8 was Lillian Payne’s last night of skirt dancing.  She left the theatre in Jersey City and reached home around 2:00 in the morning.  She found her irate husband waiting for her.

Arthur Payne demanded to know where Lillian had been, and when she explained she had come straight from the theater he retorted, according to The Times, “Don’t give me any bluffs.  You know you’re lying.”

Before Lillian could reply Payne seized her by the throat and threw her against a wall.  When she pleaded with him, he “gave her a terrible kick in the abdomen,” said the newspaper.  Severely injured, the teen made it out of the apartment and onto the street; but she lost consciousness in front of No. 85 East 4th Street.

It was not until around 3:00 that morning that Policeman Wichman found Lillian unconscious on the rain-wet pavement.  She was taken into the home of Dr. C. E. Hirsch where she finally regained consciousness and told the policeman what happened.

“Dr. Hirsch administered opiates, and then the policeman arrested Payne,” said The Times.  In court he denied assaulting his wife and said she came home intoxicated.  The judge held him without bail.

In the meantime, Lillian was taken back to the apartment.  The New York Times said “In a small bedroom at 37 East Fourth Street yesterday Lillian Payne, a young wife not yet out of her teens, lay suffering great agony in spite of all that medical science could do to alleviate her pain.”  The newspaper hinted that the girl could die.  “There is a grave possibility that the husband may have to answer to a serious charge.”

While the once proud home continued to house renters, the rear of the building was used as a factory by 1895.  That year the Annual Report on Factory Inspection listed Harry T. Kremer’s artificial flower factory here, employing seven men and one female.  In 1901 the space was used by Spitz & Co., manufacturers of “muff linings.”  Spitz’s small operation employed three men and eight women and, like Kremer, surprisingly hired no one under the age of 16.

Hannah Rosenberg purchased the house in 1936 and would hold onto the property for more than three decades.  In 1966 Ralph H. Holmes bought it from Rosenberg, paying $35,000.  He announced his plans to convert it to “three apartments, a duplex for himself, and two rental units on the upper floors.”

The new owner’s admirable plans and the subsequent landmark designation in 1970 would seem to have guaranteed the structure’s future.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The house survived relatively intact through the 1970s.  In 1973 Barbara Hirschl opened Touchstone on the first floor, an art gallery “for artists who’ve never had a New York gallery show.”  New York Magazine said on April 30, 1973 that to see the artwork “in this long room with its two fireplaces, elegant white walls, high ceilings and hand-carved pine windows and doors, is to know just why  Barbara did it.”

A year later The New York Times art critic John Russell agreed.  In reporting on the opening of Otello Guardacci’s exhibition here, he said “This is one of the prettiest houses in town, built in 1845 and still blessed with its original carved doorways and window frames.”

But when Sol Goldman took possession of the vintage building, things declined rapidly.  Once the largest private landlord in New York City, Goldman died in 1987.  Little by little the landmarked house was allowed to disintegrate.  Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney issued a statement saying “We tried for years to get them to do the right thing by this building, but the owners refused.”  A building inspection in 1995 noted that it was “open to the elements.”

In 2010 the AIA Guide to New York City lamented “with each edition of this Guide less remained [of the house].”  The Samuel T. Skidmore mansion was near collapse.  In 2002 the roof had caved in.  Within the previous few years, according to Margaret Halsey Gardiner, executive director of the Merchant’s House Museum (the old Seabury Tredwell house), “with each passing year and each fire and each wall collapse” more of the original elements—shutters, doorknobs, the stairway newel post—were spirited away .

Finally the Landmarks Preservation Commission sued the estate of Sol Goldman.  Tierney said “after it became clear to us that they had no intention of taking care of this historically significant building, we sued.” 

Justice Walter B. Tolub of the State Supreme Court issued his ruling in December 2004.  The owners were ordered to “permanently repair and restore the exterior.”  Tierney hoped the ruling would send “a clear message that demolition by neglect will not be tolerated.”

The Atlantic Development Group leased the abandoned house, the windows of which were by now bricked up.  Working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and conservationists, the firm of Gerner Kronick & Valcarcel Architects studied period houses and Thomas Thomas & Son’s original drawings.

When this photograph was taken in the late 20th century, the house was just beginning to show neglect -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Although the original details evident when Touchstone gallery was here had been ripped out or lost through fire and decay; the exterior was intact although highly abused.  By November 2010 the $4 million restoration and conversion to apartments was completed. 

Amazingly, the Skidmore house—snatched from devastation at its final hour—is reborn.  A reproduction cast iron fence approximates the original and six-over-six windows fill the openings, once bricked shut.  The sidelights and transoms of the entry have been restored and, most miraculous, the original door survives.

photographs taken by the author