Friday, November 21, 2014

The Afred Rossin House -- No. 15 East 62nd Street



In 1871 brothers David and John Jardine worked both as real estate developers and architects.  Before the century was up, they would line blocks of the newly-developing Upper East Side with long rows of brownstone homes.  But this year they worked on a project as architects only; designing six neo-Grec style homes for contractors William H. and Charles Gedney.

Like Charles T. Wills, W. H. Gedney & Son, would play a major part in building and construction in the second half of the 19th century.  Their speculative homes at Nos. 11 through 21 East 62nd Street would be completed in 1872—handsome Victorian residences with broad stoops and carved stone railings sure to lure merchant class homeowners.

By at least 1891 respected dermatologist Dr. Sigmund Lustgarten was living in No. 15.  That year he had written “The Primary Cause of Death Following Burns to the Skin, with Therapeutic Observations” published in the Medical Record.  Born in Vienna, he came to New York in 1889 and became the visiting dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.  He instructed “many of the leading dermatologists of this city,” said The New York Times later; and was a consultant for the Montefiore Home and other institutions.

Dr. Lustgarten and his wife sold the 62nd Street house in March 1899.  Shortly thereafter The New York Times revealed the buyer as Frank C. Hollins.  But as was often the case, Hollins was apparently acting as an agent to keep the actual purchaser’s name temporarily unknown.

A month later the same newspaper reported on the society wedding of Alfred Rossin and Clara Lewisohn.  The couple was married in the “the newly completed residence of the bride’s father, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, one of the most beautiful of New York’s newer houses.”  Among the guests that day were some of Manhattan’s wealthiest and best known Jewish citizens, with names like Rothschild, Untermeyer, Stern and Guggenheimer.

The newlyweds would move into the former Lustgarten house—but not before updating the old Victorian.  Rossin commissioned C. P. H. Gilbert, who had recently completed massive mansions for Isaac D. Fletcher and Franklin Winfield Woolworth, to transform the old brownstone into an up-to-date mansion.

Gilbert stripped off the drab stone façade and replaced it with gleaming limestone.  The resulting Beaux Arts beauty bore no resemblance to its former self.  A rusticated basement and parlor floor base supported a bowed second story façade which, in turn, acted as a spacious balcony at the third floor. 

Prior to its remake, No. 15 matched its next door neighbor (right) -- photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW1J2RFV&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3#/SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYW1J2RFV&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915&PN=3

Rossin was President of the Public National Bank; and while he busied himself with things financial, his wife was involved with the Hebrew Technical School for Girls as its president.  Working along with her was her father, investment banker Adolph Lewisohn, who served as vice-president.  The school came under fire in January 1917 when Felix Warburg laid plans to update the curriculum.

Warburg was a banker and member of the conference board of the Rockefeller Foundation, which planned to revise primary and secondary education nationwide.  Shocking (and unacceptable) to traditional Edwardian minds was his announcement that Latin and Greek would be replaced by French and German in the “modern school.”  He fired back at criticism saying “It is questionable whether a child can be taught what he ought to know under our present system,” and Adolph Lewisohn back him up.  According to the New-York Tribune on January 22, 1917, he “said the community needed more schools like the Hebrew Technical School for Girls.”

Not far away, at No. 40 East 68th Street, was the grand mansion of John Daniel Crimmins.  The wealthy contractor had created the lavish home by combining two older row houses.  On November 9, 1917 the aging widower died with seven of his ten children at his bedside.  Within three months of the funeral, the Crimmins family moved out of the family home.

On March 16, 1918 The Sun reported “The Crimmins family…will occupy the dwelling at 15 East Sixty-second street, a small house, in the future.”  Alfred and Clara Rossin used their house, valued at $97,000, as partial payment for the Crimmins mansion, which they purchased for $350,000.

Apparently the “small house” on 62nd Street was not sufficient for the Crimmins siblings.  Just a year later, on May 5, 1919, The Sun reported that the house was sold to Howard Elliott for $110,000.  “The new owner plans to occupy the house after making extensive alterations,” said the newspaper.

The 59-year old railroad executive and his wife had two married daughters and a son.  He was President of the New York, New Haven & Hartford and the Northern Pacific Railroads.  He was, as well, a director of 17 other railroads, director of the American Railway Association, and sat on the boards of numerous other concerns.

Elliott came from a distinguished family.  His father, Charles Wyllys Elliott was a historian and author of several books.  The Elliott family traced its American roots to John Eliot who settled in Natick, Massachusetts in 1631 and was known as “The Apostle to the Indians.”  On his mother’s side was Samuel Howard, a member of the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The Elliotts moved into No. 15 in 1919 -- photographs from the Library of Congress
Following his wife’s death in 1925, the semi-retired Elliott lived on in the 62nd Street house with his son, Howard Elliott, Jr.  Three years later he traveled to Cape Cod to spend the summer in the home of his daughter, Mrs. Frederick Wilson.  There, on July 8, 1928 he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 67.

Elliott’s entire estate of about $2.25 million was divided among his family.  On October 29, 1929 the house was sold to real estate operator Charles Brown.   He held the property for only 48 hours.  The New York Times, on November 1, wrote “After an ownership of two days, the five-story limestone residence at 15 East Sixty-second Street was resold yesterday by Charles Brown.”  The newspaper added that the buyer “plans to rebuild the house and occupy it.  The alterations will include the installation of an electric elevator.”


Earlier that year Jennie, the wife of wealthy banker Henry White Cannon, died.  New Yorker socialites were no doubt shocked a year later on September 18 when the 80-year old married Miss Myrta L. Jones.  The Times reported that “After a wedding trip the couple will live at 15 East Sixty-second Street.”

Cannon was a member of the board and a former president of the Chase National Bank.  His illustrious financial career included having been appointed Controller of the Currency by President Chester A. Arthur in 1884 and serving as a delegate to the International Monetary Conference in Brussels in 1892.

Myrta’s family was well respected in Cleveland society; but Henry’s pedigree was impeccable.  On his mother side was Peregrine White, born aboard the Mayflower on November 20, 1620 while the ship was moored in Cape Cod Harbor.  His grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War and died a prisoner of the British in Manhattan.

The millionaire’s age did not prevent him from fathering a son, Harry.  Each winter the family would travel to Daytona Beach where Cannon had owned a house on South Beach Street.  Henry Cannon’s health was been failing for some time in 1934, and it was at the Florida home in April, that he died.

Myrtle and little Harry accompanied the body back to New York and Cannon’s funeral was held early in May in Delhi, New York, where he was born.

No. 15 East 62nd Street became home to Dr. Johan H. W. van Ophuijsen, an eminent psychiatrist and director of the Creedmoor Institute for Psychobiologic Studies.  Born in Sumatra, he was associated early in his career with Dr. Sigmund Freud and Dr. Ivan Pavov—pioneers of psychoanalysis.

He came to New York by invitation of the Psychanalytic Institute to teach in 1935.  He would teach there from 1938 to 1948.  He served on the psychiatric staffs of Mount Sinai and Lenox Hill Hospitals, and beginning in 1946 was attending psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration.

The New York Times would write of him, “Dr. van Ophuijsen stressed the importance of the role of the father in the psychological rearing of children, taking sharp issue with experts who had ‘told but half the story,’ he said, in blaming psychoneurotic symptoms—which in this country made many young men unfit to bear arms during the recent war—on the mother.”

Ophuijsen renovated a lower floor in the house as an office where he personally saw patients.  As well as living in here, he founded the Van Ophuijsen Center in the house.  In May 1950 he was stricken with a heart problem, “but flew to Detroit to read a paper before the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting,” said The Times.

Four weeks later, on Wednesday May 31, the 68-year old psychiatrist said good-night to his last patient of the day.  A few minutes later he suffered a heart attack and died in the house on East 62nd Street.

The Beaux Arts mansion continues to be home to the Center, a philanthropic, non-profit institution that carries on its founder’s work.  Outwardly, it remains relatively unchanged since mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert transformed an outdated Victorian to an modern Edwardian for wealthy newlyweds.

non-credited photographs by the author

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Suydam House -- No. 362 W 19th Street


In the 1820s and ‘30s, the farmland north of 14th Street on the west side of Manhattan changed as streets were laid out and avenues extended.  Eighth Avenue was extended northward in 1816 and in May of 1825 the George Rapelje farm—stretching from 16th Street to 18th Street and from Seventh to Tenth Avenues—was dissected into building lots.

In the 1830s brick homes were rising along West 19th Street, at the northern rim of the Rapelje farm.  One of these was No. 362 West 19th Street.  The Greek Revival style was just beginning to nudge out the Federal style and the three-story brick home would reflect many of its elements.  Bold carved stone lintels sat above the openings and a corresponding limestone entrance surround sheltered the recessed doorway.  The rusticated brownstone basement was protected by an iron fence with a Greek key lower border and handsome palmettes along the top.  The sumptuous stoop railing terminated at street level with intricate basket newels perched on brownstone drums.


During the first years following the end of the Civil War No. 362 was home to Susan M. Suydam.  The unmarried woman apparently became concerned when she lost contact with her brother, Charles, who had gone to California.  On June 9, 1871 an advertisement appeared in the Daily Alta California newspaper:  “Information Wanted—By Miss Susan M. Suydam, No. 362 West Nineteenth st., New York, of the residence of CHARLES W. SUYDAM.  Address as above or care of Wells, Fargo & Co., San Francisco.”

Sadly, Susan was too late.  The 41-year old Charles’s death had been reported in the San Francisco Call on February 10 the year before.  Susan would live in the 19th Street house at least through 1872.

By 1885 the house was home to the Meserole family.  Cornelius Meserole was the head of Cornelius Meserole & Co and, according to The Sun on in 1887, “was the man who invented the paper collars.”

Meserole’s children opted for show business rather than take up the paper collar trade.  Daughter Fannie was, according to the newspaper, “a song-and-dance artist.”  On March 25, 1885 she married Samuel Lynch who styled himself as a speculator.  “The ceremony was performed by the Rev. T. G. Veitch,” said The Sun, “and the couple went to live at 362 West Nineteenth street, the home of the Meserole brothers, who are acrobats.”

The couple would soon encounter problems.  “Lynch and his new wife separated, and Lynch put up at the Coleman House.  This summer he has followed horse racing,” advised The Sun on July 4, 1887.  But more serious issues would soon take up Lynch’s time.

It seems that Samuel Lynch had neglected to mention to Fannie L. Meserole that he already had a wife, Sadie W. Smith Lynch, who lived at No. 120 East 26th Street.  In July 1887 Fannie’s brother, Charles, did some investigating and “called on Mrs. Sadie Lynch, who informed him that she was married to Lynch on Sept. 4, 1882, by the Rev. George H. Houghton in the Little Church Around the Corner, and that Lynch had deserted her."

Fannie’s infuriated brother swore out a warrant at Jefferson Market Courthouse charging Samuel Lynch with bigamy.  Court Officer Nixon went to the Coleman House and arrested the 27-year old Lothario.  When he appeared in court, despite being confronted by Sadie and Charles, he pleaded not guilty.

The Meserole family seems to have left West 19th Street within the year.  Miss Adelia O’Rorke lived here at least for four years, from 1888 through 1892, while teaching at Grammar School No. 24.  It then became home to Dr. Euphemia Jane Myers Sturtevant, who moved here from No. 302 West 12th Street.

In the 19th century the mere idea of a female doctor was nearly preposterous; yet Dr. Sturtevant was associated with the New York Medical College and Hospital for Woman; and had been Assistant to the Chair of Surgery there since 1883.  In 1888 she became a member of the International Hahnemannian Association.

Founded in 1880, the association had splintered off from the mainstream homeopathic doctors who followed the teachings of Samuel Hahnemann.  He had revolutionized the focus of 18th and 19th century medicine by stressing the importance of proper diet, exercise, improved hygiene and reduced stress.

Although the conventional Hahnemannian doctors forcefully decried the new Association; Dr. Sturtevant and her comrades were convinced of their lofty ideals.  In an editorial in The Hahnemannian Advocate the group said “The work is radically different from that presented in any other National Association, being a consideration of Homoeopathy pure and simple.”

Around the time the Meserole Family lived here, skinny updated double doors were installed.

Dr. Euphemia Sturtevant lived in the house at least four years—from 1893 through 1897.  By the turn of the century 18-year old William J. Rogers was here.  The boy was employed as a clerk by Theodore Leneburg, who owned Rennenberg’s Drug Store at No. 103 Ninth Avenue, just two blocks away.  His boss would tell reporters that “Rogers was employed to assist the registered clerk.”  He was authorized to wait on customers and dispense drugs that did not need mixing.

At No. 408 West 16th Street lived the family of street sweeper Louis Caputa.  Mrs. Caputa’s mother, 60-year old Joua Vinca, lived with the family to help with the housework and childcare.  On November 20, 1902 the Caputa’s six-month old son, Joseph, was ill.  Mrs. Caputa sent her 8-year old daughter Jenny to the drug store to get “ten cents’ worth of castor oil  and almond oil mixed,” according to The Evening World the following day.

When Mary returned, her mother smelled the bottle and could detect no odor of almonds, and sent the girl back with her older sister, Mary.  According to The Evening World, William Rogers was on duty and “when told that the oil of almonds had not been mixed with the castor oil said he would fix it.  He did.”

The youthful Rogers made a horrific mistake.  Instead of filling the bottle with castor oil and almond oil, he gave the little girls a bottle of Cyanide of Potassium—a deadly poison.

The following morning the grandmother “poured some of it into a teaspoon and gave it to little Joseph Caputa, after which she took a tablespoonful herself,” reported The New York Times.  “In five minutes both the child and the aged woman fell into convulsions.”  The Evening World described them as being in “frightful agony.”

By the time Dr. James Shea arrived, the grandmother was dead.  The baby was taken to the New York Hospital where he died a few minutes later.

The Caputa sisters took police to the drug store where they identified Rogers as the man who had given them the poison.  “Rogers himself said he had not sold the mixture to the children and had never seen them before,” said The New York Times.  Despite his protests, he was arrested and held at $2,000 bail—more than $50,000 in today’s dollars.

Throughout the first half of the century No. 362 remained a single family house, bought and sold as would be expected.  In 1906 John A. Addison sold it to Louis Schramm; and in 1939 Rose F. McKenna sold it to Anna Taylor.

Then, in 1952, plans were submitted to the Department of Buildings “for altering the three-story and basement brick…into two duplex apartments.”  Those plans were apparently never executed; for in 1959 the house was converted to a triplex dwelling on the basement through second floors; with a separate apartment on the third.


In 2007 the house was re-converted to a single family home.  One real estate critic said “the house underwent a significant renovation…but it was hardly what might qualify as a restoration.”  Perhaps years of neglect forced the owners to do what was essentially a gut renovation; but few traces of the interior details remained.  It was sold not long after for $1.5 million; then was relisted in 2011 for $6.5 million. 


An exquisite, yet period-inappropriate Civil War period mantel attempts to regain a sense of history.  Otherwise, little remains to suggest a vintage home.  http://streeteasy.com/building/362-west-19-street-new_york

Despite the unfortunate treatment of the interiors, the façade of the dignified townhouse is lovingly maintained.  The replacement windows are quaint, if incorrect; but the wonderful ironwork of the railings and fence happily survive.


non-credited photographs taken by the author

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The 1928 Birns Building -- 111 Second Avenue




In 1915 Saul Birnzweig was in trouble.  

The somewhat shady entrepreneur had gotten in on the wildly popular phonograph or “talking machine” craze.  Starting out selling the machines at No. 117 Second Avenue, he later had moved down the block to No. 111.  Somewhat suspiciously, he changed the name of his business several times—operating as the Atlantic Talking Machine Company, the Metropolitan Talking Machine Company, and as Saul Birns.

While his business was successful, he cooked up a scheme to make more money.  He ran newspaper advertisements in foreign languages targeting immigrants. They promised a high-quality phonograph plus records of songs in their native tongues on a 30-day free trial.  If the recipient liked the machine, it could be purchased on an easy installment plan.

But Assistant District Attorney Content protested “Birnzweig never sent any of the advertised machines or records on free trial…but when intended purchasers communicated with him, demanded a deposit of $5 to $8 in advance.”  After he received the deposits, “Birnzweig sent a cheap phonograph C.O.D. for about 70 percent of the purchase price and stated that the remainder of the purchase money could be paid in installments.”

Birnzweig, who soon went by the name Saul Birn,shipped phonographs that “were of foreign make and inferior to the standard ones made here,” said the Assistant D.A.  Birn was arrested on July 13, 1915.  The charges alleged “that foreigners living in all parts of the country were being swindled by means of a mail order scheme,” reported The New York Times.

Although caught, Birns profited hugely from his plan.  Later that year the Annual Report of the Industrial Commission stated that Birn was making about $125,000 per year on the ads, “and that he had provided an emergency deposit of $30,000 to be used for legal services should he be arrested.”

Birns was indicted and convicted but the Report was less than pleased with the results.  “He was fined $750, an absurdly inadequate punishment for a man whose swindling operations extended from ocean to ocean, and who for years had unscrupulously robbed ignorant and hardworking foreigners to the amount of over $100,000 per year.”  Birns’s profits from the scheme would amount to about $2.25 million a year today.

A year later Birns was still running the offers; but presumably was backing them up. The Evening World, October 23, 1916 (copyright expired)  

In the years after World War I Birns was investing in real estate, constructing modern apartment houses in the Lower East Side.  He told reporters he wanted to improve housing for the mostly Jewish families living there.  Given his record, his purely altruistic motives might be questioned.

Then, on May 19, 1923 The Music Trade Review announced that Birns intended to demolish his Second Avenue building and erect a skyscraper.  “What is without question one of the most ambitious building projects undertaken recently by any music merchant is the plan of Saul Birns, well known throughout the metropolitan talking machine trade as a live wire, to construct a twelve to fifteen-story building on the site of the property, which houses his headquarters at 111 Second avenue.”  The trade journal said “Mr. Birns stated that provision will be made for the display of his line of talking machines, musical instruments and pianos on an elaborate scale.  There will also be a large auditorium where musical events will be staged, and in addition, if present plans go through, there will be a radio broadcasting station.”

As it turned out, plans did not go through.  Instead, the ambitious project was scaled back to a five-story store and office building.  Begun in 1928 it was completed the following year.  Birns’s plan for an auditorium did materialize, however, on the fifth floor.  It featured extra-high ceilings and a row of arched windows on the avenue.  The multi-purpose space would be leased out for meetings, weddings and bar mitzvahs, dances and other social events.


Designed by architect Ralph Segal, the terra-cotta clad structure cost Birn $300,000; nearly $4 million in today’s dollars.  The handsome Art Deco palazzo design would have been equally appropriate for a department store.  Pseudo-balconies and Art Deco motifs smacked of the lavish movie palace architecture of the time.  The phonograph dealer-real estate developer emblazoned the parapet with his name: Saul Birns Building.

As the building neared completion, The Bank of the United States was granted authorization to open a branch here.  It would share the ground floor retail space with Saul Birns’s phonograph store, taking the southern end at Nos. 107 through 109.  The rather hefty rent, starting on November 1, 1928, was $15,000 per year, increasing to $22,000 by the expiration of the 21-year lease.

Unfortunately, it was a bad time to open a new bank branch.  In October 1929 the stock market crashed, sending the nation into the Great Depression.  The Bank of the United States did not survive and closed its doors the following year.  Twenty-three banks of the New York Clearing House Association arranged that depositors could receive loans up to 50 percent of their balances.  On December 22, 1930 those depositors thronged the sidewalks outside the Birns Building.

“Many of the depositors arrived far in advance of the opening house,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “About 500 were on hand when the branch at 107 Second Avenue opened, some of them having been there, according to the police, since 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Meanwhile, the auditorium upstairs, known as the Central Plaza Hall, was the scene of labor meetings and strike plans of various union organizations through the 1930s.  One especially interesting meeting was that of the National Labor Committee for the Jewish Workers in Palestine, held on April1, 1934.  That night Albert Einstein was the guest of honor and principal speaker.  “The proceeds of the affair, which will also include music and drama, will go to the Arlosoroff Memorial Fund to aid Jewish colonists in Palestine,” reported The Times.

Lieutenant Governor Charles Poletti addressed an all-day meeting of the Hias Council of Organizations here on December 14, 1941, one week to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Poletti was frank in predicting a long fight and warned that “we must accept our individual responsibilities and sacrifices.”

The attendees that day, 2,900 delegates representing 1,157 national Jewish benevolent and labor organizations, had another enemy in mind:  Adolph Hitler.  Poletti told the audience “It may be a long fight, but we are confident that the forces of barbarism will ultimately be crushed.  Our  burdens will be heavy, but we will bear them courageously and cheerfully.”

The Acting Mayor, Newbold Morris, added his thoughts, saying that all Americans would “rather be dead than slaves of Adolph Hitler.”

The terra cotta facade features a wealth of Art Deco details.

Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the Central Plaza Dance Hall was famous for its jazz concerts.  The room was alive with the sounds of the nation’s best-known jazz ensembles while patrons danced through the night.

In 1958 the Birns Building took on another role—that of television rehearsal studios.  On November 8 The New York Times said “This squat, five-story building on the lower East Side is normally used for weddings, dances and lodge meetings.”  But now, wrote Richard F. Shepard, “Some of the most able talent in show business rehearsed for some of television’s most expensive and promising productions yesterday in the Central Plaza.”

Frederic March and cast were rehearsing on the second floor for Columbia Broadcasting System’s production of “The Winslow Boy.”  On the two top floors, dozens of dancers were “whipping into shape ‘Kiss Me Kate’ for the National Broadcasting Company on Nov. 20.”  On other floors, daytime soap operas were in rehearsal.  “Although the building housed at the moment the hopes of television programs that cost, altogether, at least half a million dollars, it was just another day at the Central Plaza,” wrote Shepard.

Meanwhile, for decades the former Birns phonograph salesrooms downstairs had been home to Ratner’s kosher restaurant.  Shepard said “On the main floor, oblivious of the artistic endeavors above, waiters rattled their dishes and made the customers feel like equals in Ratner’s a vegetarian restaurant that has become a sort of downtown ‘Sardi’s’ in its own way at 111 Second Avenue.”

The original Ratner’s opened in 1905 on Pitt Street, founded by brothers Jacob and Harry L. Harmatz and their brother-in-law, Alex Ratner.  Austria-Hungarian immigrants, their restaurant specialized in Eastern European Jewish fare cooked by their wives.  Eventually the brothers went their separate ways, opening their own restaurants.

By now the Second Avenue Ratner’s was run by Abraham Harmatz.  The New York Times called it in 1974 “a gastronomic diadem in the crown of what years ago was called the Jewish Rialto.  Its blinzes and onion rolls, its pirogen and fish, its caloric pastries were adrenalin for the emotionally drained audiences issuing from performances of the many Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue.” 

The neighborhood around the Birns Building (still owned by the Birns family and managed by Bernard Birns) had drastically changed by the 1970s.  The New York Times explained on May 30, 1974 “With the disappearance of the once large resident Jewish population, much of Ratner’s business is in its last years came by taxi and automobile.  It was one of the last preserves of the Jewish waiter, a breed that was usually Jewish but could be Puerto Rican or Iranian, too, and was distinguished by frantically efficient service and a democratic air.”

Finally, after decades of doing business here, Ratner’s closed its doors on May 28, 1974.  The following day, Abraham Harmatz died, one day before his 66th birthday.  He had participated in the management of the restaurant for 45 years.

Following Ratner's, a grocery chain leased the store space.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon from the collectino of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5b105-107-Second-Avenue.%5d-24UAKVM55NN.html

In place of the famous landmark restaurant, a grocery store moved in.  New York University’s School of the Arts took over the top floor for its arts theater.  Eventually the school purchased the entire Birns Building and in 2012 did a major renovation.



Today Saul Birns’s ambitious building with its colorful past gleams again-a handsome survivor of a time when Second Avenue was lined with Yiddish theaters.

non-credited photographs taken by the author



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Robt. M. Van Arsdale House -- No. 276 W 71st Street


Like a still-proud dowager fallen on hard times, a sadly abused townhouse sits quietly on West 71st Street, overshadowed by a soaring apartment building next door.  Still wearing the few ornaments she has left, it is not hard to imagine her young and beautiful.

No. 276 West 71st Street started life in 1886 when architect Edward L. Angell designed four similar Romanesque Revival homes for speculative developers Fonner & Lowther.  The Upper West Side was emerging as an exciting new residential district and, like Fonner & Lowther, developers were snapping up abutting building plots to erect harmonious residential projects.

Completed in 1887, like its three neighbors No. 276 would stray slightly from pure Romanesque Revival.  A panel below the gable opening of saw-tooth brickwork showed a Queen Anne influence and there were suggestions of neo-Tudor and Gothic Revival thrown in.  The two-story base, including the basement, was clad in rough-cut brownstone that carried on to the dogleg stoop.  A bay window, tucked within a hefty stone arch, featured a stained glass fanlight.    The house stood out with its heavy stone oriel, the thick foliated support of which engulfed the entrance transom.   Here were two charming sculpted portraits of children, looking away from one another and graced by a necklace of carved brownstone.  Above it all a robust gable nearly hid the slate-tiled mansard roof.


Fonner & Lowther targeted upper-middle class families.  No. 276, completed in 1887, became the home of Robert M. Van Arsdale and his wife, the former Eugenie Humphreville.  Wealthy enough to be included in the Social Register, they both had impressive pedigrees.

An old Dutch family, the Van Arsdales were best remembered for John Jacob Van Arsdale, a young sailor during the American Revolution who would later become a captain in the U.S. Navy.   On November 25, 1783 the last longboat filled with British soldiers left New York Harbor, after occupying the city for seven years.   The date would become known as Evacuation Day and was more highly celebrated than Independence Day for decades.

Before leaving, the British attempted to prevent the hoisting of the American flag over Fort George (now known as Battery Park).  They had removed the halyards so the colors could not be hoisted, then greased the pole for good measure.  John Jacob Van Arsdale tried three times to scale the pole, while General George Washington and his staff looked on.  Finally someone ran to an iron maker and returned with heavy nails and cleats.

With these in his pockets, Van Arsdale started up again with a new halyard tied around his waist.  As he climbed, he drove a nail in—one at the left, then one at the right—until he had reached the top where he installed the halyard.  When he reached the ground Washington and the growing crowd erupted in applause.  The American flag with its 13 stars and stripes was hauled up as 13 cannons fired from the fort.

Every year thereafter, until the early 20th century, a Van Arsdale descendent would hoist the American flag at Battery Park on Evacuation Day.  The New York Times would later remember “In later years the Old Guard would parade down to the Battery, with thousands of residents behind and with detachments of troops from other States taking part.  Several Presidents attended the ceremony.  And always some member of the Van Arsdale family would be there to do his part.”

Eugenie’s family history was as impressive.  The daughter of Thomas Liberty Humphreville and Anna Eliza Oliphant, she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.   She was a descendant of Jonathan R. Oliphant, Captain of the 2nd Regiment of the Burlington Co. Militia Company.  Wounded in battle, his private papers showed that he gave most of his fortune for the cause of American independence.

The upper stories have received a coating of plum-colored paint and the stained glass fanlight (lower right) has been blocked up.
Robert Van Arsdale was the owner and publisher of The American Engineering and Railroad Journal.  He had begun his career as a staff journalist of the Railroad Gazette in 1875.  By 1881 when he left to start his own publication, he had amassed a small fortune.  Railway Age and Railway Review said “…his use of the first large sum of money, got by frugality and hard work, was characteristic.  He used it all in buying a city house for his mother.  She had always wanted a city house.  Then he saved for himself and bought the publication with which his name has since been associated.”

Now he turned his attentions to a city house for himself and his wife.  While they participated in the expected activities of well-to-do citizens—Eugenie was a member of the New York Peace Society, for instance—the childless couple led an understated life.   Railway Age said he was a “valuable citizen who quietly does his work, with few public appearances.”

One somewhat public appearance for Van Arsdale came in 1895 when he was summoned to serve on a Grand Jury.  The jurymen had a lot on their plate that December.  Judge Cowing mentioned the increasing crime in the city as he addressed them.  “There seems to be an epidemic of crime by violence, such as assaults, highway robbery, and burglary.” 

On November 23, 1909 the 61-year old publisher arrived home.   “Hardly had he reached his home and taken off his overcoat when he complained of feeling ill,” said Electrical Review and Western Electrician.   He sat in a chair, talking to Eugenie when, according to The Sun the following day, “he became unconscious and sank to the floor.”  Dr. George H. Mallet was called; but before he arrived Robert M. Van Arsdale was dead.

The publisher was the victim of a heart attack.  Electrical Review later explained that he “had been working hard for months past, and it is believe that overwork was indirectly the cause of his sudden death.”

Eugenie was now 75 years old.   By 1913 she shared the house at least for a while with Blanche Ostertag, who either rented a room or was a companion of the elderly widow.  Ostertag was a sculptress and painter who had studied in Paris.  Among her works was the mural decoration for the New Amsterdam Theater. 

As the neighborhood around Eugenie Van Arsdale changed, she lived on in the West 71st Street house.  Many of the 19th century rowhouses were demolished to be replaced by modern apartment buildings while others were converted to apartments.  But the Van Arsdale house remained.

In 1934 a reporter for The New York Times heard of the now-forgotten tradition of a Van Arsdale hoisting the American flag on Evacuation Day—a holiday no longer celebrated.   “Records indicate that up to twenty years ago the lineal descendants of John Jacob Van Arsdale kept the tradition alive,” said the newspaper on November 26 that year.  “Then it died.” 

In his attempt to discover what happened to the patriotic tradition, the reporter searched for members of the Van Arsdale family.   He came across Eugenie’s name and visited the house.

“Up at 276 West Seventy-first Street, in a lonely old house near the river, where she has lived more than half a century, is Mrs. Robert M. Van Arsdale.  But Mrs. Van Arsdale is in her 100th year, hard of hearing and bedridden.”

The journalist spoke to a servant.  “'She does remember little things now and then, about the Revolution,’ confided a white-haired housekeeper, ‘but she never said anything about that flag in all the years I’ve know her and I couldn’t ask her now.'”
Eugenie had been his last hope.  “So, it seems, the tradition is dead, and no one quite knows why,” he concluded.

Almost a year to the day following that article, on November 12, 1935, the newspaper reported “Mrs. Eugenie Van Arsdale, wife of the late Robert M. Van Arsdale, passed on at her home, Saturday, Nov. 9.”  On Thursday her funeral was held in the house where she had lived since 1887.

It was, in effect, the funeral for the house as a private home as well.  It was quickly renovated to furnished rooms—three each in the basement and parlor level; four on the second and third floors; while the new owners took the top floor.

The defacement of paint and linoleum to Eugenie Van Arsdale's interiors is heart-breaking.  photo www.blocksy.com

The Van Arsdale house is still rented as apartments.  Its brick and crumbling brownstone have been painted, the bay window replaced by flat openings more expected in a reformatory; and the striking stained glass fanlight has been removed and plastered over.  But despite the heartless neglect; Edward L. Angell’s fanciful design shines through.

non-credited photographs by the author

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Lost Church of the Heavenly Rest -- 551 5th Avenue

At the time of this photograph, around 1897, the clock had not yet made its appearance.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWUDH5SK&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=894

On April 20, 1925 the Rev. Dr. Henry V. B. Darlington stood in the pulpit of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest and reminisced to the congregation about its 57-year history. “In 1868, when the Church was planted here,” he said, “the neighborhood presented a very different aspect from what you see today.  This and the adjoining blocks were for the most part unoccupied or used as cattle yards.”

Darlington was fairly accurate in his description.   When the congregation was formed in 1865 the hulking Croton Reservoir sat on the future site of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.   The avenue was graded and improved only up to that point.  A few houses and some buildings, most notably the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum between 51st and 52nd Streets dotted the rocky landscape; and the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 50th Street had begun.  But, indeed, the neighborhood was “for the most part unoccupied.”

The Rev. Dr. Robert Shaw founded the church along with a group of returning soldiers.  The name was intended to memorialize those who had died in the war.    For a few years the congregation worshiped in the Rutgers Female Institution across from the Reservoir.  Considered a “missionary church” it was far above the established residential section of Fifth Avenue.

Land was purchased between 45th and 46th Streets as the site of the permanent structure.  The odd-shaped plot was L-shaped—the main structure, originally 100 feet long and 75 feet wide and later enlarged to 150 by 95, would sit behind the building lots facing Fifth Avenue.  The Fifth Avenue exposure was the width of a high-class residential building lot at 32 feet.

Construction on the main structure, designed by Edward T. Potter, began in 1868 and was essentially completed by the beginning of 1869.  On February 7 the first services were held.  The New York Times noted “It at present stands back upon its lot, but next year the front will be removed, and replaced by a richly ornamented façade of Dorchester stone, in line with the street, and surmounted by a figure of Jesus and two angels.”

Although the mansions of Manhattan’s millionaires were just beginning to appear above 42nd Street, the building's appointments reflected the wealth of the congregation.  “The interior presents a most agreeable effect,” said The Times.  “It has no galleries.  The ceiling and immediately-adjoining sides are of ultramarine blue, supported by richly carved rafters of fawn color.  The lower walls are temporarily of a light yellow and will receive a final coloring on the enlargement of the church.  Beautiful windows of stained glass are to be found in every direction.”

The interior columns were of imported Irish marble and Aberdeen granite—alternating pale red and green.  The capitals were of carved white stone and incorporated gas jets for illumination.   Drawing inspiration from European cathedrals, Potter enhanced the chancel with a heavily carved black walnut Gothic-style baldacchino.  White marble columns with brass capitals supported its roof.

While much of the woodwork was Gothic-carved black walnut—the altar, pulpit, organ cabinet and choir seats for example—the pews were of contrasting butternut and upholstered in crimson.  Crimson carpeting ran up the aisles.  Potter’s playing of brilliant colors off the somber woodwork carried on to the organ pipes which were decorated with blue, crimson and gold.

By February 1870 the block was filling with brownstone mansions.  The congregation desperately needed to complete the Fifth Avenue elevation before its church was completely lost behind houses.   The Times noted “The unfortunately position of the church—setting back as it does from the avenue—and the homely temporary exterior, have also been drawbacks.  The church is not always found by those who seek for it, and those who see it from without have no idea of the exquisite beauty of its interior.”

Dr. Howland pushed to raise funds to erect the entrance vestibule to Fifth Avenue, telling the parishioners “to place their candle in a candlestick.”  The congregants responded generously.  On February 14 The Times noted “The donations to the church have been unusually liberal.  Almost every beautiful thing upon which expense has been lavished has been a present.  One gift was of $3,000; another of $2,000; another of $1,800; another of $800.”  Donations had, to date, amounted to $12,000—nearly a quarter of a million dollars by today’s standards.

Later that year, in December, the church ladies did their part.  The most common method of raising money for churches and other charities at the time was the staging of a fair.  Church fairs were often elaborate affairs during which patrons could buy donated items and purchase refreshments.  The Church of the Heavenly Rest opened its fair in Lyric Hall.  “The tables are arranged in a truly harmonious and artistic manner,” reported The New York Times on December 22, 1870, “and are filled with every variety of fancy articles specially adapted for holiday presents.”

The affluent visitors to the fair were not looking for pot holders and doilies.   “The gem of the Fair is the magnificent doll, ‘La Belle Helene,’ whose endless trousseau occupies one entire table.  This doll is to be raffled for, and is expected to realize $300.”    The price of the costly toy would amount to about $5,500 today.

Within the year the Fifth Avenue entrance had been completed and the main church extended.  Squeezed between brownstone mansions, Potter somewhat surprising design drew on Venetian Gothic—with alternating colored stone and a false arcade—and an arched stone hood supported by columns above the entrance steps.  A steep mansard with lacy iron cresting stepped away from the style.  It was flanked at the four corners by immense statues of trumpeting angels.  

Despite its eccentric architecture, the narrow 5th Avenue portion slipped into the fabric of handsome residences.  photo from "New York Sketches" 1902 (copyright expired)

While many members lived along Fifth Avenue; others traveled some distance to worship here.  Among those were Chester A. Arthur and his wife Ellen Herndon Arthur, who lived on Lexington Avenue near Gramercy Park.  On January 10, 1880 while Arthur was attending meetings in Albany, Ellen attended a concert.  She caught a chill waiting for her carriage in the rain and within 24 hours it had developed into pneumonia.  By the time Chester Arthur reached home, Ellen was comatose.  He remained at her bedside for nearly 24 hours until the moment she slipped away, never having regained consciousness.

On January 15, in what The Times called an “impressive burial service,” Ellen Arthur’s funeral was held in the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  Newspapers listed a seemingly endless list of dignitaries, military and political figures and prominent persons who attended the service.

The beautiful Ellen "Nell" Arthur died before Chester Arthur became President -- photograph Library of Congress

Happier events in the church were the high-profile society marriages.  On February 7, 1884 Stanford White married Bessie Springs Smith here.  The bride was from a socially-prominent Long Island family.   In December 1888 Englishman and White Star Line executive J. Bruce Ismay was married to the Florence Schieffelin.  Called by The Times the “belle of the city,” the bride wore lace and diamonds and the church was filled with “a fashionable assemblage.”

Perhaps even more socially exciting than Florence Schieffelin’s wedding was that of Sarah Phelps Stokes two years later on February 11, 1890.  The Evening World reported “To-day New York gives another of her fair daughters to enrich and infuse new blood into the effete nobility of Europe.  Miss Sarah Phelps Stokes, after elaborate services in the Church of the Heavenly Rest, emerged at noon my lady the Baroness Halkett.”

Seventeen hundred invitations had been sent out and “the ceremony was witnessed by such a brilliant assemblage as seldom gathers even in New York,” said the newspaper.  “The church was filled to the very doors with the people of the city’s most exclusive society circles.  The floral decorations were on a scale of magnificent splendor.”  The newspaper’s sub-headline read “A Pretty Woman and Many Millions Won by a Scion of Nobility.”

Exactly one month to the day after the elaborate society wedding a well-dressed James Hamilton Howells Jones entered the sanctuary around 3:30 in the afternoon.  During Lent the church was open all day so people could drop in a pray.  Jones was from Pittsburgh and had been in New York about a week.

He took a seat in a pew near the altar.   The silence was broken only by a sole singer.  After a few minutes there was the noise of something falling.  “The young man had slipped from the seat partly to the floor.  A moment later he dropped wholly on the floor,” reported The Sun on March 12, 1890.  “The noise he made would have been inconsiderable anywhere else, but in the silent church it was startling.”

As the doorman and choir singer ran to Jones’s aid, others in the church rushed outside for a policeman.  “The excitement spread outside the church at once, and people ran in from the street until they were obliged to close the doors.”

A strong odor of ether surrounded the unconscious man.  As Policeman Joseph Sontheimer and a doctor from Bellevue Hospital tried to rouse the man, a letter fell from his pocket.  The policeman slipped it into his uniform pocket.  It was later discovered to be a suicide note.

“Then the policeman and the doctor shook him and walked him about in the church, and poked him, and did all they could to brighten him up.  Every now and then he would stiffen himself and say something.”

“I came in here to die.  I wanted to die in church close to the altar,” he mumbled.

But the would-be suicide fell short of its goal.  Jones had swallowed ether; and while it caused him to pass out, it did not threaten his life.  Along with the embarrassment of failing to kill himself, Jones was charged with attempting suicide and arrested.

In 1893 the church received “some important additions,” according to The New York Times on November 24.  Most significant was the immense stained glass window in the chancel, donated by Mrs. George Lewis, Jr. in memory of Mrs. Moses Taylor.  Executed by Heaton, Butler & Bain of London it was deemed “the largest and undoubtedly the finest window in the United States,” covering 588 square feet of glass.  By now the large painting “Christus Consolator” (the Consoling Christ) had been installed and the window was planned around it.

The rich coloring of the window was “toned so as to be sympathetic with the beautiful painting of the ‘Christus Consolator,’ directly over the altar,” explained The Times.  “This picture is a copy of a great masterpiece in Holland.  In this copy the coloring is changed from the original blue and red to a white and brown.  All the decoration in the church is made subservient to this picture, and this rule is observed in the design and coloring of the window.”

A magnificent new pulpit was unveiled around the same time.  A gift of Mrs. J. Hall Browning in memory of her sister, it was constructed of antique oak with six bronze panels.  “The whole is quiet and in good taste, blending harmoniously with the rich, subdued air of the church,” said The Times.

At the turn of the century the church that had once been isolated had seen the most exclusive residential district engulf it and then move past.  In 1900 mansions still surrounded the church; yet commerce was inching northward.  Still, high society weddings and funerals were the norm here.  In 1900 the fixed rate for a wedding was $238 (nearly $7,000 today).   And while the rector, Rev. Dr. D. Parker Morgan, told a New-York Tribune reporter that there were occasions when he married poor couples for free in his mission work on the East Side, he frowned on the practice.

“But I do think,” he said, “that unless the couple can pay $2 or $5 to the clergyman and $1 or $2 to the sexton, who has come a long way to open the church, they ought not to try to marry.”

A yearly spectacle on Fifth Avenue was the annual service for Squadron A.  The cavalrymen marched up the avenue four abreast, then into the church two by two.  As the first soldiers entered, the magnificent organ burst forth with the “Squadron A March” accompanied by a military band.  It was a pageant repeated year after year.

Squadron A files into the church on May 4, 1902.  New-York Tribune May 5, 1902 (copyright expired)

In 1908 the city widened Fifth Avenue, necessitating the removal of mansion stoops and bay windows and resulting in the removal of Heavenly Rest’s portico.   Now flat-fronted, the church was even more easily overlooked.   The New-York Tribune noted a few years later “Hidden in the heart of a Fifth Avenue block, the Church of the Heavenly Rest attracts little attention…The façade is of ecclesiastical design; but it occupies only the width of a city lot, and the street widening regulations have taken away its distinctive and distinguishing marks.

Without its portico, the building looked even less like a church.  The once-grand mansions around it have been converted to businesses.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

“The building conforms so well to its environment that the mother of a preacher who was to occupy the pulpit on a Sunday morning last year passed by and missed the service because she could not find the church.”

While Father Francis P. Duffy, pastor of Holy Cross Church, is remembered as New York’s “fighting priest;” the Rev. Herbert Shipman was equally involved in World War I.   Appointed chaplain of West Point when he was 27 years old, he was reappointed by Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  When he arrived at the Church of the Heavenly Rest to take over from Rev. Dr. D. Parker Morgan, “Fifth Avenue was changing,” said the Tribune.  “Fine old residences were being transformed into business buildings.  A floating population filled the nearby hotels…It was freely predicted that Dr. Morgan’s successor could not hold the parish together in its present location.”

Rev. Shipman removed his clerical garb for the uniform of the U.S. Army -- photograph the New-York Tribune March 17, 1919 (copyright expired

But Shipman did.  Then, with the outbreak of war, he was sent to France as the chaplain of the First Army.  In war he not only counseled the soldiers and prayed over their bodies; he wore the uniform of a fighting man.  When he once addressed a group of recruits eager to plunge bayonets into the bodies of the enemy, he asked “Can you imagine Jesus going over the top to do just that thing?”

Then he continued to the somewhat startled men, that it would be even more difficult to imagine “the Master whom we preach standing supinely by while a little child is ravished or a girl led off into something that is worse than death.”  He concluded that while Jesus was called the Prince of Peace; righteousness would come first, then peace.

When Shipman returned to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in March 1919 the “church was filled to overflowing, and, despite the narrow, unpretentious façade, it is not a small building,” reported the New-York Tribune on March 17.

Within five years the church was smothered by commercial structures.  The property was valued at $2 million in 1924 and the decision to abandon the old building was made.  Heavenly Rest merged with the Church of the Beloved Disciple and laid plans to build a $4 million edifice on Fifth Avenue at 90th Street.

On April 19, 1925 the Rev. Dr. Henry V. B. Darlington preached the last sermon from the old church.  At 9:30 that night the doors were closed for the last time, and demolition began the following morning.  Most of the stone was shipped to Queens to rebuild St. John’s Episcopal Church in Flushing which was damaged by fire the previous November.  The large painting of Christus Consolator was removed to be installed in the new uptown edifice.

Two years late the 38-floor Fred F. French Building, designed by H. Douglas Ives and Sloan & Robertson was completed.
photo by Ian Gratton