Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Henry Illoway House - 1113 Madison Avenue

In 1853 Rabbi Bernard Illowy and his wife, the former Katherine Gitel Schiff, immigrated with their two children, Henry and Nettie, from Kolin, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to the United States.

Bernard came from a long ling of religious scholars.  He was recognized for his exceptional oratory abilities, and many of his sermons and speeches were published.  He held a doctorate from the University of Budapest and was fluent in Italian, English, French and German, and was literate in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  But because of his opposition to the Habsburg Empire he was forced to leave his homeland.

The Illowy family was living in St. Louis when a second son, Jacob, was born.  As the eldest son, Henry was expected to become a rabbi, too.  He accompanied his father to principal U.S. cities where the rabbi preached.  But in 1864, at the age of 17, Henry changed his mind and announced he wanted to study medicine.

By then the family had relocated to Cincinnati, where Rabbi Illowy died in an accident in 1871.  Henry continued his studies, receiving his medical degree from the Miami Medical College of Cincinnati, and later studied in Berlin and Vienna.  By the time Henry and his siblings moved to New York in 1894, they had changed the spelling of their name to Illoway.

Henry was a specialist in children's diseases, but he never turned his back on religious scholarship.  He regularly wrote on biblical and talmudic subjects and was a member of the ancient Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel.

Jacob, who married Gertrude Kahn around 1890, went into business, becoming a partner in the LaMuriel Cigar factory on Avenue A.  Nettie eventually became a recognized artist of oil landscapes and seascapes.

James McNamara and his wife, Evelyn had lived in the 20-foot wide brownstone rowhouse at No. 1113 Madison Avenue since 1894.  Living with them was their son, Joseph, who was a Commissioner of Deeds.  The French Second Empire dwelling had been on the cutting edge of architectural fashion when built.  Three bays wide, the high stoop led to the parlor floor where, almost certainly, the windows stretched nearly floor to ceiling.

The elegant mansard level, however, drew the most attention.  Shingled in slate tiles, it sat above an exceptionally handsome bracketed cornice.  Two shallow, arched dormers were stylishly framed; and the roof was crowned with lacy iron cresting.

Henry Illoway, who never married, purchased the house from McNamara in March 1903.  His $12,000 mortgage, a third of a million dollars in today's money, points to the still-upscale residential nature of the avenue.   Nettie, also unmarried, moved in with him.

Illoway was well-known and respected in the medical community by now.  He was a member of the American Medical Association, the Medical Society of the State of New York, the New York County Medical Society, the Academy of Medicine of New York and the Society of Medical Jurisprudence.  He opened his office in the house as well. 

In 1907, the same year that Henry was elected president of the East Side Physicians' Association, his brother died.  Jacob's widow and their daughter, Mariam Ruth, moved into the Madison Avenue house with Henry and Nettie.

While the upper floors of the brownstone were now filled with the extended Illoway family, Henry converted most of the basement level to a free clinic for poor children.

On December 12, 1916 Gertrude announced Miriam's engagement to Richard Illowy, who had recently arrived in New York from Buenos Aires.  An Argentine native, he had been an importer of dyes until the outbreak of World War I.  He now intended to establish a new business in New York.

In reporting the engagement, The New York Times addressed what must have been on many readers' minds.  "There is only one letter difference between her name and that of her fiance."  What the article did not note was that the spelling "Illoway" was new to the family and Rabbi Bernard Illowy had never accepted the added "a."

It may have been the almost certain familial relationship that quickly undid the wedding plans.  Ten days later Gertrude announced that the engagement had been called off.  The New York Times simply wrote "No reason was given yesterday by Miss Illoway's relatives for the annulment."

Miriam remained in the house with her mother and uncle until May 1929 when she married Edward Jonas Phillips.  Phillips traced his American roots to the early 18th century and an ancestor, Moses Seixas, was the warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.

In October 1931 Henry Illoway decided to take his first winter vacation and went to Florida.  He had only just arrived when he became ill and he headed home, arriving in early November.  He had developed uremia and died in the Madison Avenue house on January 15, 1932.  He was 84 years old.  At his bedside were Gertrude, Miriam, and Nettie, who had come from her home in Washington.  His funeral was held in the house on January 17.

Illoway bequeathed his "large library of Hebrew works and a trust fund" to the Jewish Theological Seminary.  The bulk of his estate was divided among Gertrude, Mariam and Nettie.  He was specific in the use of the $5,000 he left to his brother's other child, Bernard.  It was to be used to "establish him as a physician or in any other honorable profession."

By now the Madison Avenue neighborhood had changed.  Private homes which had given way to apartment buildings now had shops appearing at street level.  In February 1934 the A. Schultze Company, Inc. purchased No. 1113 Madison Avenue from the Illoway estate.  Interior decorators, the firm had been located on Lexington Avenue for more than half a century.  Now on February 3 The New York Times announced the firm's plans "to remodel the building and make a two-story showroom of the ground floor."

The stoop was removed and a modern storefront installed over the basement and parlor levels.  There were now two apartments on each of the upper floors.

By mid-century A. Schultz was gone, replaced by Scott Service, described by a newspaper as having "a group of workmen who will take care of practically anything that needs cleaning or repairing."

When the white brick apartment building replaced the four properties at Nos. 1115 through 1121 in 1963, the former Illoway home became the last holdout on the block from the elegant post-Civil War row.

Throughout the next decades the retail space would be home to a variety of businesses.  In 1978 The Larder opened; a gourmet take-out shop that offered delicacies, some of which New York Magazine deemed "too expensive."   In 1990 a Beau Brummel branch opened in the space; followed by Kimara Ahnert in 2010.

The storefront today wears a polished granite facade that apparently attempts to match the original brownstone.  The architectural details of the upper floor openings have been shaved flat.  But the glorious mansard and cornice--right down to the slate shingles and cresting--magically survive as if preserved in amber.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Oscar Saenger House - No. 6 East 81st Street

Brothers William B. and Ambrose M. Parsons hired architects Thom & Wilson to design a row of 11 brownstone residences on East 81st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in 1883.  The high-stooped, neo-Grec homes were completed the following year.

No. 6, just steps from Central Park, was sold to wealthy meat packer Charles White.  The family's new home was four stories tall above the English basement, and its openings were enhanced with distinctive architrave surrounds which included scrolled base supports, Eastlake-style carvings on the brackets and transom panels, and tiered cornices.

Charles White died at the age of 78 on Friday, December 13, 1889.  His funeral was held in the house three days later.  By the turn of the century it appears that the White family was leasing the house; which had become home to William F. Wilson.  He died on June 22, 1903 at the age of 66.

In the meantime, vocal instructor Oscar Saenger and his family were living at No. 51 East 64th Street.  Born in Brooklyn to German-American parents in 1868, he had studied at the National Conservatory of Music of America and in 1891 became the baritone soloist for the New American Opera Company in Philadelphia.  The following year he married organist Nayan (known as Charlotte) Wells.

Saenger gave up the stage to devote himself to coaching.  His tutelage was just one segment of a student's education.  And the proper training for a singing career was both time consuming and expensive.

In 1910 he explained the process in The American History and Encyclopedia of Music.  "Preparation for an operatic career involves a weekly outlay for at least two vocal lessons, two opera class rehearsals, two language lessons, either French, German or Italian, a lesson in stage deportment, one lesson in musical theory and the cost of an accompanist or coach for from four to six hours' private practice."

He said "The pupil who provides wisely must count on spending $1,500 a year for at least two years, to cover the period of preparation."  That would amount to about $38,600 a year today.  Saenger's fees were, apparently, well worth the cost.  The American History and Encyclopedia of Music called him "the wizard of vocal teachers, whose students are to-day the favorites at the great opera houses here and in Europe.  Nothing more valuable than this master's treatment of his subject can be imagined."

In May 1911 Saenger purchased No. 6 East 81st Street from Charles White's daughter, Georgianna, for $75,000 (just under $2 million today).   By now the old brownstones in the Central Park neighborhood were decidedly out of style.  One by one they were being razed or remodeled into modern residences.

Within three months architects Marvin, Davis & Turton had drawn plans for updating the former White house.  The renovations, which would cost $15,000, included rearranging the floorplans and replacing stairs on the interior.  Outside, the stoop would be removed and the facade of the lowest two floors extended to the property line.  Above the extension, the plans called for a third-floor "sleeping porch."

Sleeping porches were important in the decades before air conditioning.  Entire families would move bedding onto the porches to escape the suffocating heat of summer.   But such a "porch" in the Saenger mansion would be highly unusual.  Not only would it be on the front of the house (they were normally hidden in the rear); but it would be a rarity in such a high-end home.  Few wealthy families required a sleeping porch because they closed their mansions and spent their summers in resorts like Newport or Bar Harbor.

But the Saenger family obviously intended to use their house year-round.  The architects were directed to transform the roof--normally disregarded by upscale families--to a garden and entertainment area.

Oddly enough, what appears as an elegant, full-width balcony was termed a "sleeping porch" by the architects.

The remake was somewhat surprising.  The lower two floors, clad in light stone, were modernly neo-Classical.  The entrance was now directly at sidewalk level and the second floor was dominated by three sets of handsome leaded glass French windows below transoms.  They were protected by Adams-style wrought iron railings and separated by Ionic columns and pilasters.  Directly above the hefty cornice at this level was the matching iron railing of the sleeping porch.  Rather startlingly, the renovations stopped here.  The stylish Edwardian transformation stopped short, giving way to the old 1884 facade.

Earlier in 1911 Charlotte celebrated Oscar's birthday.  On January 18, 1911 The Musical Courier reported "Mrs. Oscar Saenger gave a very unique entertainment on Sunday evening, January 8, to celebrate her husband's birthday.  First a dinner served twelve old friends...then later in the evening other friends were bidden.  A program consisting of a dramatic presentation written by their daughter was offered."  It was a foreboding of things to come.

Oscar Saenger's teaching studio was in the 81st Street house and the stream of operatic luminaries who came and went through its doors was impressive.  Many of his students went one to illustrious careers, including Leon E. Rains, the leading basso of the Royal Opera of Dresden; Joseph Regneas (who was so indebted to his coach that his professional name was Saegner spelled backwards); Joseph S. Bernstein; Florence Hinkle; Riccardo Martin; Berenice de Pasquali; and, Metropolitan Opera star Marie Rappold.

Marie Rappold quietly married Rudolf Berger of the Berlin Royal Opera Company (described by The New York Times as "the Kaiser's favorite tenor) on July 2, 1913.   While friends anticipated a wedding on July 3, the groom "objected to a formal wedding" and the couple sneaked away to be married a day early.

Instead of attending a wedding, the newlyweds' friends arrived at the Saenger house "where an informal reception in the gardens on the roof awaited the bride and bridegroom on their return from New Jersey," reported The Times.

The soprano told reporters that the hurried affair caused at least one near disaster.  In rushing to New Jersey, Berger had forgotten the ring.  A friend, Rudolf Witrofsky of Berlin came to the rescue.  "He was wearing a heavy gold band ring, and he suggested that I borrow the ring for the occasion," Marie explained.  "It was a little large, but I took the ring, and then the man married us."

In 1916 Oscar Saenger devised an ingenious marketing scheme to teach vocal lessons to the masses.  He teamed with the Victor Talking Machine Co. to produce a set of ten records, described as "a complete course in vocal training."  A separate set was offered for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass.  A Victrola advertisement noted "The Oscar Saenger Course in Vocal Training for any of the voices mentioned above, may be procured from any Victor dealer at $25--the cost of a one-hour lesson at the Saenger Studio in New York."

In 1917 Oscar Saenger posed with his own Victrola player between him and a student in the second floor studio here.  Note the small-paned leaded windows which survive.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.

The income from his private sessions and his Victor records was much needed.  The Saengers' daughter, who had taken the professional name of Khyla St. Albans, still had dreams of being a famous playwright and actress.  Oscar funded elaborate productions, none of which made his daughter a star.

The Saengers had a houseguest in the form of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda who established his headquarters here for a some time.  The mystic guri arrived from India in 1920 to introduce westerners to eastern meditation and philosophy.  He attracted a following among the opera set, including tenor Vladimir Rosing, soprano Amelita Gali-Curci, and aspiring singer Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, daughter of Samuel Clemens.  And, obviously, Oscar Saenger.

As Charlotte and Khyla traveled in their expensive attempt to establish Khyla's career, Oscar was diagnosed with cancer in 1927.  Reportedly at the Swami's suggestion he was moved to the Washington Sanitarium in Washington, DC.   He died there on April 20, 1929 at the age of 60. His body was returned to the 81st Street house where Swami Yogananda performed the funeral services.

Music lovers nationwide were most likely shocked when, a month later, the details of Saenger's estate were publicized.  While the famous and beloved instructor had left generous bequests--like the $2,000 "equivalent of a year's salary, to 'my faithful secretary,' Lillian Suwalsky"--Khyla's dreams of acting fame had drained the family's finances.  The New York Times reported "The estate of Oscar Saenger...may be too small to carry out bequests."  It noted that Charlotte "may receive not more than $500."

Charlotte and Khyla left East 81st Street, which was sold for unpaid taxes.  Khyla never gave up; and eventually reinvented herself as an American born Russian ballerina with the name Zara Alexeyewa Khyva St. Albans.

The Depression years were not kind to the former Saenger house and in 1935 it was repossessed by the Bank for Savings.  It was vacant six years later when a builder purchased it "for remodeling into a ten-family house," according to The New York Times on October 20, 1941.  The announcement placed the cost of renovations, resulting in two apartments per floor, at $25,000.

Among the residents here in 1973 were 20-year old Linda Rubin and 35-year old Robert Antonelli.  The pair joined a daring scheme in September that year when they and three others climbed a drain pipe and broke a window to the second floor apartment of Peter Salm at No. 9 East 68th Street.  An heir to a Standard Oil Company fortune, Salm owned an impressive art collection.

Salm was gone during the weekend of September 22 and 23; giving the burglars plenty of time.  The heist, spurred by art dealer Jean Zimmerman, who owned the Gregoire Galleries on Madison Avenue, totaled 32 paintings.  The crooks did not enjoy their spoils long.  A week later police recovered seven of the paintings, valued at $200,000, and arrested all six persons involved.

In 1998 the Saenger residence was reconverted to a single family home.  The house with the colorful history and a split personality facade survives much as it looked when one of America's most notable operatic coaches made his mark on it in 1911.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Steve Best for suggesting this post

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Edmund P Shelby House - 116 West 74th St

In 1886 architects Thom & Wilson designed an ambitious row of 14 upscale homes on West 74th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues for Margaret Brennan.  Completed the following year, the houses presented an exotic potpourri.  While basically Renaissance Revival in style, they were generously splashed with Gothic, Queen Anne and Moorish elements.

Among the row was No. 116 which, like its neighbors, displayed a medley of historic styles.  At four stories above a high basement level and with 21 rooms, the 20-foot wide home was intended for a well-to-do family.

The rough-cut stone of the basement and parlor levels smacked of Romanesque Revival and starkly contrasted with the refined, fluted pilaster of the double windows and the highly unusual entrance.  Here engaged columns wrapped in Moorish arabesques supported a neo-Classical cornice and pediment with delicate carved draping.

Three openings in the planar-faced middle section featured carved half-bowls which almost doubtlessly sprouted decorative iron railings.   A sedate classical caryatid separated the central openings of the second floor, and two portrait panels of cavaliers decorated the third.  The keystone of the central opening was carved with a Rod of Asclepius, the single serpent entwined staff often used as the symbol of medicine (not to be confused with the double-snaked caduceus).  The two windows on either side were crowned with Moorish horseshoe arches. 

The engaged bowls originally held iron railings.  Note the interesting carved central panel that mimics shingles.  The transoms once glowed with colorful stained glass.

Above a projecting stone cornice the top floor was distinguished by recessed, arched windows.  Their deep hoods protected what, at first glance, appear to be shell carvings.  Closer inspection reveals they are flame-like sunbursts, a favorite Queen Anne motif.  Panels of Romanesque griffins and a neo-Classical garland peacefully coexist.

The house became home to William G. Crenshaw, Jr. and his wife, Mary.  William was a Southern transplant.  His grandfather, Jonathan Graves, had purchased a 3,000-acre plantation, Hawfield, in Virginia in 1847 for William's mother, Fannie Elizabeth, and his father.  Young William grew up in the 1790 house.

The Crenshaws were visible in Upper West Side society, attending, for instance, the "musical and literary entertainment" given by Elizabeth Kones of No. 153 West 70th Street on the evening of March 3, 1892.  The unusual program not only included the expected piano solo and singing; but a lecture by Miss Jessie H Bancraft on physical culture and "Delsarteanized" Swedish and German gymnastics.

By 1897 the Crenshaws had moved to Baltimore and were leasing the house to Captain Frederick Ford.  They sold it on 1900 to Fannie and Victor Cadieux for $30,000--about $875,000 today.  The terms of sale mentioned occupancy was "at completion of lease."

Captain Ford apparently not only left West 74th Street, but New York City in general.  An auction was held in the house in May of "all the rich furnishings and appointments."  The Stuart Art Gallery's advertisement gives an insight into the upscale nature of the house and the neighborhood.

This residence is superbly furnished in every detail and contains the very best to be found in an upper west side elite home.  The drawing-room contains many works of art, forming a choice selection of rare and costly bric-a-brac, gathered from all parts of Europe and from many of the art sales.  Roccoco drawing-room sets, Vernis-Martin cabinets, ivory miniatures and bronzes, marble statuary, superb clock sets.

A gallery of modern oil paintings by eminent artists of many of which Capt. Ford was justly proud.  Dining-room shows exquisite taste in selection of cut crystal and china...massively carved sideboard, table, chairs, cabinets, &c.

The ad went on to describe Persian and Turkish rugs, elegant bedroom furniture, a piano and mahogany tall case clock among other high-end items.

Fannie and Victor Cadieux would not hold the property long.  In 1903 they sold it to Dr. Edmund P. Shelby, who moved in in June.  Like William Crenshaw, the 36-year old bachelor had Southern roots.  He was born at Grassland, the Shelby ancestral home in Lexington, Kentucky.  He studied at Kentucky University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University and New York University.  By now he was widely respected in the medical community.

Three years before Shelby purchased the house, Gertrude Singleton married author John L. Mathews in Evanston, Illinois.  Gertrude was, herself, an author and would make a significant name for herself.

In 1917, two years after John L. Mathews died Gertrude married Edmund Shelby.  The couple's broad-minded socio-political views were reflected in their activities and in Gertrude's writings and lectures.  She was a founder of the International Society of Women Geographers, wrote heavily about "Negroid peoples," according to The New York Times later, and about the folklore of Africa and Dutch Guiana.  During World War I she was managing editor of The New Letter of the Woman's Council of National Defense.

In 1921 Edmund took a stand against Prohibition by adding his name to the newly-formed 1776 Society.  The New-York Tribune explained "The society is organized especially to promote interest in the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and the enactment of laws encroaching upon the rights of the sovereign states to regulate and police their internal and domestic affairs."

Gertrude sometimes used fiction as a vehicle to expose racial discrimination and stereotypes.  Such was the case with her 1930 Po' Buckra.  The literary magazine America in Fiction described the "story of the penniless heiress to an unproductive plantation who marries a 'po' buckra,' who, unknown to her, has both Negro and Indian blood."

In 1931 the Shelbys moved to Venice, Florida, where Edmund became a member of the consulting staff of the Florida Medical Center.  Gertrude died there of a heart attacked in November 1936; and Edmund died in Lexington at the age of 76 in 1943.

In the meantime, while other former mansions on the block were converted to apartments or rooming houses during the Great Depression years, No. 116 continued as a private home.  It was not until 1971 (after being declared an unsafe building the year before) that it was converted to a duplex apartment in the basement and parlor level, and one apartment on each of the upper floors.

Sadly, all of the leaded and stained glass panels were lost when personality-free replacement windows were installed recently.  But on a happier note, the stoop, removed most likely in the 1971 renovation, has been recreated; rescuing Thom & Wilson's surprising doorway from floating in air.

photographs by the author

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Lost Claremont Inn - Riverside Dr and 124th Street

Horse drawn carriages and one motorcar await outside the Claremont Inn in 1901.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The high knoll known as Strawberry Hill, in Bloomingdale, with its breathtaking views of the Hudson River was part of the extensive land holdings of Dutch farmer Adrian Hooglandt in the 18th century.  By the time he sold his vast property to Nicholas de Peyster in 1784 wealthy merchants and military officers were erecting lavish summer estates far north of New York City's crowded and sweltering conditions.  De Peyster erected his own summer residence at "114th Street and the river," according to historian Hopper Striker Mott in his 1908 The New York of Yesterday.

In 1796 de Peyster sold the Strawberry Hill section, located along the Hudson River bluff around what would become approximately 121st to 127th Streets.  It was purchased by Irish linen merchant George Pollock.

Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1762, Pollock arrived in New York with two of his brothers, Carlisle and Hugh, shortly after 1780.   George partnered with Richard Yates to form Yates & Pollock.  The business relationship became a familial one when George married Yates's daughter, Catherine in Trinity Church on March 17, 1787.  In 1792 the couple had a child, St. Clair (sometimes spelled St. Claire), who was baptized in Trinity Church on November 11.

Gilbert Stuart painted portraits of the Pollocks in 1793.

Pollock was a respected member of the Chamber of Commerce and Valentine's Manual of 1855 remembered him as one of New York's "wealthiest residents" in 1795.  That year he was listed in the New York City Directory as doing business as 11 Whitehall Street.

George Pollock erected his summer estate, called Monte Alta, on the Strawberry Hill knoll.  But the family would not enjoy the elegant house and the breezy location for many years.

The house as it appeared in 1812.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On July 15, 1897 little five-year old St. Clair met tragedy.  The New-York Tribune described it decades later saying he "in satin breeches, silk hose and starched ruffles, took the air on the banks of the Hudson."  The article explained "evading the vigilance of his nurse, the boy ventured too near the edge of the cliff, fell over and was killed."

Rather than bury his child in Trinity churchyard, as might have been expected, George Pollock interred him on the ground of Monte Alta.  He erected an elegant marble marker topped with a classical urn.  On one side was inscribed:



the memory of

an amiable child


died 15 July, 1797, in the 5

year of his age

On October 21, 1799 Pollock conveyed Monte Alta to Gulian Verplanck, "excepting the plot 51-1/2 feet wide and 142-12 feet deep, containing the grave of their five year old child," according to New York Legislative Documents.    Verplanck died a month later, on November 30 and the property was transferred to his widow, Cornelia.

Pollock quickly changed his mind about retaining the grave site.  He wrote to Cornelia saying in part:

There is a small enclosure near your boundary fence which can be extended to join it, within which lie the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument.  I had intended that space as the future cemetery of my family.  The surrounding grounds will fall into the hands of I know not who, whose better taste or prejudice might remove the monument and lay the enclosure open.

He conveyed the burial lot to Mrs. Verplanck on January 24, 1800, trusting her to maintain his son's grave.  Soon afterwards the Pollocks moved to Philadelphia, where Catherine died in 1805.

Beginning in 1803 the property changed hands at dizzying speed.  It was transferred to John B. Provoost, former City Recorder, who sold it to Joseph Alston the same year.  According to Hopper Striker Mott "From Alston the property passed in 1806 to John M. Pintard, subject to a purchase money mortgage, and on sale under foreclosure was bid in by Michael Hogan for $13,000."

Hogan's purchase price would equal more than a quarter million dollars today.  A famous navigator in his younger years, he was now "one of the most notable figures among the great merchants of his day," according to The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society in 1910.  The Journal pointed out "He divided his property, calling the southern portion Monte Alta and the upper part Claremont."  The name Claremont most likely paid homage to his native County Clare, Ireland.

Historians disagree about Hogan's residence here.  Like some, Mott believed he "built the mansion known as 'Claremont'" on the property.   But others insist that Hogan "had the house moved to its present location," according to The New York Times later.

According to The Times, "Here Hogan lived with an Indian princess, a scandalous matter to the local gossips."    Scandal or not, The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society wrote "During Michael Hogan's occupancy of Claremont, as a summer residence it was the scene of some of the most brilliant social festivities in the city."

Hogan's glittering entertainments would not last especially long.  Financial problems arose and he was essentially wiped out during the War of 1812.  He managed to maintain possession of Claremont, however, leasing it to a succession celebrated tenants.

In 1809 Lord Courtenay, Earl of Devon, moved in.  Wealthy but eccentric, he reportedly lived alone with only two servants--a manservant and a cook.  Interestingly, the next tenant was its former owner, Joseph Alston.  The future governor of South Carolina was married to Aaron Burr's daughter, Theodosia.  Described as "brilliant" and "beautiful," she disappeared along with all passengers aboard the sailing ship Patriot during a storm in January 1813.

Hogan leased the house in 1815 to Joseph Bonaparte, ex-king of Spain and brother of Napoleon.  He lived here two years.  Other celebrated tenants included Viscount Courtenay, later Earl of Devon, who reportedly kept an "almost princely household," and Francis James Jackson, who would become British Minister to the United States.

In 1821 Hogan was finally forced to liquidate Claremont, deeding it "for the benefit of creditors."  It was sold by trustees to Joel Post, an ancestor of famed architect George B. Post.  Joel Post died in 1835, and his sons sold the old mansion.

Within the decade the house was converted to a roadhouse known variously as the Claremont Inn or the Claremont Cottage.    The vintage house was Victorianized with verandas that girded the lower floors, affording vistas across the lawn and river.  The New York Times later described it as "an inn, one of the most fashionable in New York, where one could sip wine at $40 a bottle while watching the sun set behind the Palisades."

The inn as it appeared in 1899.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The quiet get-away for the well-to-do would change to a popular spot for a somewhat more democratic crowd in the years after the end of the Civil War.  In 1866 the State Legislature approved a bill to convert the Riverside precipice into Riverside Park; and in August 1872 the entire parcel that had been George Pollock's summer estate was "taken by condemnation proceedings by the City," as recorded in the New York Legislative Documents.

The city leased the inn to a succession of proprietors who continued to operate it as a restaurant and gathering spot.  It was a favorite place for luncheons and receptions.   On October 18, 1886, for instance, the New-York Tribune noted "J. A. Copleston, press agent for Wilson Barrett, entertained a small party of friends at luncheon at Claremont Cottage on the Riverside Drive, yesterday afternoon."

And on May 13, 1892 The New York Times reported "The fourth and last of the Claremont teas took place yesterday afternoon at the Claremont Cafe, at the head of Riverside Drive.  In spite of bad weather there was a large attendance of society notables and a good showing of fashionable gowns and turn-outs."

Celebrited guests included President McKinley, who had lunch here; and Admiral George Dewey who was guest of honor at a breakfast in 1899 after his victorious return from the Spanish American War.

The proprietor in 1912 was R. H. Gushee, who lived with his family in the upper floors.  There were about 200 patrons in the inn on the afternoon of July 20 when people sitting on the veranda noticed smoke.  Suddenly someone yelled "the prairie's afire!"

The New-York Tribune described the approaching blaze as "a genuine prairie fire...with whirling clouds of smoke, the leaping, snakelike flames and all the other trimmings of the real article."  Gushee, "seeing that he was in danger of losing all his patrons," sent word to the kitchen for help.  The newspaper reported "A moment later the cook, the chef, the underchefs, the bottle-washers and kitchen mechanics poured forth, armed with frying pans, broiling irons, mops and dish rags."

While the staff of the Claremont Inn beat the flames with their kitchen implements, the fire department was called.   Hoses were laid out along three blocks of Riverside Drive, and the "prairie fire" was finally extinguished before reaching the Inn.

Before long Gushee would have to address another threat to his business, Prohibition.   When he renewed his $20,500 per year lease he wisely had a clause inserted which "permitted him to abrogate the agreement if prohibition ever became effective."  And it did.

In July 1918 Gushee's gross bar business had amounted to $10,628, giving him a profit that month of $6,056.  The following July he was selling only lemonade and other soft drinks.  His gross take fell to $2,400.

When the city refused to lower his rent, he opted out of his lease, which was not due to expire until 1924.   The city doubtlessly regretted its decision.  When it could not fine another proprietor, the rent was reduced to $9,200 from Gushee's $20,500.  The new renter, F. R. Wood received "the exclusive right to dispense milk on the premises."

The Sun was bitingly sarcastic in reporting on the new five-year lease.  "Just imagine starting out in your car for a week end trip down East and when you get to Riverside Drive, just below 127th street, saying to whoever happens to be in the bus with you:

'Come on! Let's drop off in the Claremont for a couple of shots of milk and a lettuce sandwich.  I've had a big week and I need a milk or two to clear my old bean.'

"And you and your companion drain a couple of beakers of 100 percent, cow milk and emerge from the Claremont Inn with a new interest in life and a keener zest for the delights of a week end down East."

The newspaper longed for the times under Gushee's management when "you could get a misses' size highball for as little as 75 cents and a grilled pork chop for a mere $2."

Prohibition ended in 1933, the year before Mayor Fiorello La Guardia took office as mayor.  Among his first acts was a remodeling of the Claremont Inn coupled with his insistence that its traditionally high prices become affordable.  On May 1, 1935 The New York Times reported "The Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive...which Park Commissioner Robert Moses converted last year into a popular-priced restaurant reopened last night to a crowd of about 500 patrons.  The weather was too cool to open the outdoor terrace, so Fred Starr and his eleven-piece orchestra played on the new west veranda dance floor."

The renovations under Moses and La Guardia coupled the afternoon gathering place with a nightclub.  Lunch could be had for $1, "50 cents for tea dancing," and $1.50 for dinner.  There was no cover or minimum charge.  The restaurant stayed opened until 1 a.m. during the week and 1:30 on Saturday nights.  The Times noted "It can accommodate about 350 persons inside and about 1,000 on the terrace."

The Claremont Inn became a swinging night spot.  collection of the State Historical Society of Colorado

The Columbia Spectator gave the reopened Inn a tepid review, saying "The food is pretty good and the view is grand.  Despite the arrival of the industrial revolution in the form of Ford factories and whatnot on the other side, the Hudson is still a pleasant river to look on."

It was not the arrival of automobile plants spoiling the view that annoyed neighborhood residents.  It was those 1,000 patrons dancing to "an open-air jazz orchestra" in the wee hours of the mornings.  On October 11, 1938 a suit was filed in Supreme Court "to ban the further operation of Claremont Inn at Riverside Drive and 124th Street on the ground that it was a public nuisance interfering with sleep and the peaceful enjoyment of their homes by residents of the surrounding area."

A 1930s postcard depicted the outdoor entertainment section, an annoyance to the neighbors.

In addition to the Riverside-Claremont Restaurant, Inc. which leased the inn from the Park Department, Robert Moses was personally named in the action.   The neighbors listed "laughter, applause and boisterous talk by the patrons of the inn; the clanking of dishes, silverware and garbage cans after the inn is closed for business, and the racing motors and grating gears of motor cars, taxicabs and buses."

Justice Samuel Hofstadter imposed a curfew on the inn--11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Saturdays.  The restrictions ruined business and the Claremont Inn was closed.  When it reopened in May 1941, the Park Department's announcement described the former nightclub as "a cafe."

That arrangement lasted until about 1947, when the city abandoned hope for the old inn.  On July 18, 1949 The Times complained, "That once lovely landmark, Claremont Inn, is boarded up and neglected by the city fathers as it suffers fallen arches and other infirmities of age.  On the front door are a heavy chain and lock."  The article described chipping paint and grime-covered walls.  The crescent shaped drive, "a vestige of carriage days," was in disrepair and the once verdant lawns were weedy and blotched with bare patches.

The Parks Department explained that repairing the several building code violations would cost $100,000 or more.  To demolish the inn and replace it with an "overlook sitting park" would cost around $80,000.  The Times set forth a third possibility--turning over the historic property to a private organization like the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society to be restored as a museum.

Astounding to modern readers, the problem was that "while the Claremont has grace and picturesqueness on its side, it is found wanting for a place in the nation's history."  The long list of associations including European nobility, a President, and a military hero was not enough for mid-20th century preservationists.

Around 6 a.m. on March 14, 1951 fire broke out in the "rotting" inn, as described by journalist Robert Alden of The Times.  Exactly one week later, on March 21, a second fire erupted.  There were several theories concerning the causes, but the Columbia Daily Spectator was frank when it reported "many believed [the fire] to have originated at the hands of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses."

On the site of the ruins a playground was erected.  A plaque placed by the Parks Department in 1952 is all that is left to remind visitors of the historic house.

But down the hill, surrounded by an iron fence, is the tomb of little St. Clair Pollock, still maintained by the city as his father had so hoped in 1799.

many thanks to reader Michael Diamond for requesting this post

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Elbridge T. Gerry Stable - 41 East 62nd Street

In 1914 the old brownstones to the right had been demolished for a modern structure.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

William H. Tillinghast and his wife, Phoebe, moved into a newly-completed, Queen Anne style home at No 26 East 64th Street in 1882.   Two blocks south, at No. 41 East 62nd Street, was their private stable.

The Tillinghasts' architecturally up-to-date house signaled changes to come in the blocks east of Central Park.  As millionaires moved north of 59th Street, the old post-Civil War brownstones were giving way to upscale residences.  Few, however, would compete with the massive brick and stone chateau of Elbridge T. Gerry.

The completed chateau was "simply comfortable."  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The millionaire lawyer was, perhaps, best known for founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Construction of his immense mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st Street commenced in 1892 and would continue for four years.  Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, it would be one of the largest and most lavish of Fifth Avenue residences.  Nevertheless, Gerry insisted it was "simply a comfortable modern home."

As the Gerry mansion took shape in April 1894. William Tillinghast sold his brownstone-fronted stable to S. Fischer Johnson.  The price was listed at "about $19,000."  That amount with be equal to about $547,000 today. 

Johnson soon purchased the 17-foot wide house directly next door at No. 39.  But his interest in the properties appear to have been purely in their lucrative possibilities.  On April 20, 1896 he bought two other houses along the row, Nos. 35 and 37.  On that very day he sold the old Tillinghast stable along with No. 39 to Elbridge T. Gerry.  Gerry paid $20,000 for the stable and $25,500 for the house--a total of $1.34 million in today's dollars.

Four weeks later architect Alfred Zucker filed plans for a "three story brick stable" with a "slate and tile roof" for Gerry.   The $50,000 projected cost, $1.47 million by today's standards, and more than equaled the price of a new home for most well-to-do families.

Zucker produced a sophisticated blend of neo-Tudor and Gothic Revival.  The centered carriage bay sat below an elliptically-arched Gothic drip molding.  The Tudor-inspired openings of the upper floors were framed in stone and the slate-tiled mansard was overwhelmed by a massive gable.  Here an oculus sat within a carved stone wreath.  Zucker returned to Gothic for the crowning detail--a carved heraldic shield which upheld a stone crocket.

The expansive upper floor would have been home to the most important of Gerry's stable staff--his coachmen and their families, for instance.  Although, on one hand, being provided with living quarters could be considered a perk of the job; on the other it was a concession to the wealthy employer.  Having one's carriage drivers living above the stable meant they were on call 24 hours per day and millionaires like Gerry did not need to worry about getting around whatever the hour.   Another down side for the families living here was the noise and the odors wafting upward.

The operation of a private stable like this one required a large staff--stable boys who changed the hay and cleaned the stalls, grooms who bathed, fed and otherwise maintained the horses, and workers who cleaned and repaired the many vehicles.  The Gerry carriage house would have been a bustling hive of activity.

Elbridge and Louisa Gerry remained in their Fifth Avenue mansion for the rest of their lives; Louisa dying first in March 1920.  By then horse-drawn vehicles were nearly gone from the streets of New York City.  The following year the Gerry stable was converted to a garage, with a "dwelling for one family" on the top floor.

It was probably Robert Livingston Gerry, the oldest son, who was responsible for the make-over.  His father was 83-years old at the time and most likely little interested in such projects.   The top floor apartment became home to Robert's chauffeur, Archibald Day.

Robert Gerry was married to Cornelia Averell Harriman, the daughter of railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman.  On Tuesday night, January 29, 1924 Cornelia and their nine-year old son were in the family's limousine as Day drove them through the rural roads near Beacon, New York.

Further up the road 22-year old Gaeto Denze's automobile had broken down in the roadway.  He and another man were attempting to fix it as the Gerry car approached from behind.  Day was unable to pass on the left because of an approaching truck.  Rather than stop and wait, he passed on the right.  Denze, perhaps trying to get out of the way of the truck, suddenly moved directly into the path of the Gerry limo and was struck.

Cornelia Gerry jumped from the car and helped to give first aid to the injured man.  She had Day put him into the limousine and take him to Highland Hospital.  His injuries, however, were severe.  He died of a fractured skull the following day.
Archibald Day was charged with homicide and paroled to Cornelia's custody.  She appeared as a witness in his defense on January 31.  She told the Coroner's Court that Day did not see Denza dart from behind the stalled car until it was too late.  "It was dark and we did not see any light," she said.

The Gerry garage in 1926 was hemmed in by taller structures.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1944 the Gerry family ceased using No. 41 as its garage and leased it the Central Synagogue Congregation for use as its Community House.   Exactly 10 years later the Gerry family commissioned J. B. Snook Sons to design a replacement.

photo via Google Street View

While the Landmarks Preservation Commission calls the project a remodeling; the gut renovation apparently left nothing of the original structure but party walls and foundation.  So sweeping was the project that the Department of Buildings deemed it a "new building."  Whichever, the architectural firm replaced the handsome carriage house with an extremely handsome neo-Federal residence.  It was briefly home to Robert L. Gerry's son, Elbridge T. Gerry, before being converted to offices in 1948.  Today is is home to the Gerry Foundation.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Independence Flagpole - Union Square

In 1928 Union Square was demolished.  Trees were removed, the bronze statues crated and stored, and the entire park bulldozed flat.  The project was necessary to create the new underground concourse for the subway.  When the park reopened the following year, it was several feet higher than before, requiring visitors to climb stone steps to enter.  The statues were relocated, a new Mediterranean style bandstand had appeared at the northern end, and the pathways were redesigned.

And a dramatic and controversial new monument was nearly ready for unveiling.

Directly across from Union Square, at the corner of Park Avenue South and 17th Street, the new Tammany Hall headquarters was being completed.  For more than two decades, from 1902 to 1924, Charles Francis Murphy had headed the organization.  Known popularly as "Silent Charlie" or "Boss Murphy," he worked relentlessly to restore Tammany's corruption-stained reputation to one of respectability.

On April 25, 1924 Murphy suffered an attack of what The New York Times deemed "acute indigestion" which affected his heart.  The symptoms of indigestion were, most likely, the signs of a heart attack.   He died at his home and he was given an impressive St. Patrick's Cathedral funeral.

Tammany Democrats almost immediately laid plans for a monument to Murphy near its headquarters building.  On March 21, 1926 The New York Times reported "A flagstaff probably will be erected in Union Square as a memorial to the late Charles F. Murphy in recognition of his services to the city as a leader of Tammany and as a Dock Commissioner."  The newspaper noted "It is proposed to make the flagpole an ornamental affair, with a plaza at its base."

Murphy's son-in-law, Surrogate James A. Foley, had suggested the idea of a flagstaff rather than a statue or "showy memorial."  The Times reported "It was considered that the erection of a statue might bring about criticism and would not be in keeping with Mr. Murphy's taste."  The article also noted "The flagstaff always has been a favorite form of memorial with Tammany, which has erected several at various times, including the one in City Hall Park."

By the 4th of July that year the plans had been finalized.  Italian born artist Anthony de Francisci had received the commission for the sculptural work.  Five years earlier he had designed the new "Peace" silver dollar.  Architect Perry Coke Smith would design the granite base and plaza.

Tammany announced that three steps would rise from a circular platform.  "From the platform will rise a circular sculptured bronze frieze six feet six inches in height.  Above this will be a slightly sloped and stepped pediment top to bear the flagstaff.  On the south front of the frieze will be placed a decorated brass panel bearing the text of the Declaration of Independence."

The entire text of the Declaration of Independence was included in the large plate, executed in bronze rather than brass as originally reported.

De Francisci designed the frieze in two parts.  Starting from the rear, one procession of figures represented the victims of "the forces of oppression."  Moving toward the right, they struggled desperately to reach the Declaration panel.  To the left, a procession "of figures suggestive of the blessings of freedom and the enjoyment of happiness" and inalienable rights marched toward the panel.  Around the base were to be bronze coats of arms of the original 13 states.

The original 1926 plaster model highlighted the fasces above the base.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As work proceeded on the monument, public opinion began to sour.  For one thing, the monumental 120-foot total height of the pole itself became an issue.  Patriotic New Yorkers were opposed to a memorial to a Tammany Hall politician that overwhelmed the park's statues of George Washington, Lafayette and Abraham Lincoln.   Others complained about such a grand memorial to a Tammany Hall figure in general.  Despite Murphy's efforts to clean up Tammany, the taint of corruption still hung on.

James A. Foley, in August 1929, tried to quell the grumbling.  He insisted that the flagpole "is patriotic rather than personal."  And Robert W. de Forest, the head of the Municipal Art Commission, stressed that, according to his understanding, the flagpole would not "subordinate the existing statues in the square."

The renovated Union Square opened in 1929.  Anthony de Francisci had worked three years on his bronze sculptures.  The Charles F. Murphy Memorial Committee chose to dedicate the $80,000 flagpole (around $1.2 million today, all of which was paid for by Tammany donations) on July 4, 1930.  The date would be especially appropriate; the 154th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The project "which aroused protests when it was announced as a memorial to Charles F. Murphy" as described in The Times on May 22, 1930, had taken a different route by now.  The newspaper's article carried the partial headline "To Commemorate Independence, Not Murphy."

Newspapers as far away as the tiny town of Canadian, Texas picked up on the story.  The town's Canadian Record reported "On a second thought, the memorial committee decided that Mr. Murphy, although a powerful Tammany leader, was not greater than the three others in Union square, so the flagpole is to commemorate American Independence."

The article ended "Mr. Murphy, who had a sense of humor, would approve of that change."

Victims of tyranny struggle towards Liberty on one side of the monument (above); while those enjoying freedom approach the Declaration on the opposite side.

The soaring flagpole, one of the tallest in the state, with its monumental base became the center of the new Union Square.  Carved into the granite above the sculptures was a quotation from Thomas Jefferson.  "How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of and which no other people on earth enjoy."

Tammany Hall was able to manage one unnoticeable nod to Charles F. Murphy.  High above Union Square, at the very tip of the pole was a gilded bronze finial "in a design showing a liberty cap," according to the Central Mercantile Association's president, C. Stanley Mitchell, just prior to the dedication.  The liberty cap was the symbol of Tammany Hall.

The dedication of the Independence Flagpole took place in unhappy times.  The Great Depression had put thousands of New Yorkers out of work.   The steps of the monument immediately became a spot for down-and-out men to sit or sleep.

Victims of the Depression, out-of-work men sleep and sit on the steps.  photo by Arnold Eagle from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Government's Works Progress Administration, which provided employment to artists, construction workers, and writers, initiated a restoration of the flagpole around 1934--despite the fact that it was essentially brand new. 

For several years the Society of Tammany held Independence Day ceremonies at the flagpole.  On July 4, 1936, for example, exercises began at 9 a.m. with the raising of the flag and the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner."  That morning naturalized citizens were invited to attend and Tammany was apparently determined not to leave any group out.

The Times reported "In addition to the sachems and members of Tammany, there will be present several hundred members of the Naturalized American Citizens Association with children of Armenian, Carpatho-Russian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian origin."

Also included was one Native American.  Chief White Eagle, a full-blooded Cherokee and World War I veteran, was present.

On November 10, 1938 syndicated journalist Charles B. Driscoll's "New York Day by Day" column described the unemployed population who gathered daily at the base of the Independence flagpole.  One group of men, he said, were engaged in a heated political debate.

"I got close enough to hear the two principals tossing billingsgate at one another, but I could not understand a word either one was saying.  The dialects were so much at variance that I don't think either of the contestants knew what the other was talking about.  The crowd was out for blood."

But Driscoll was more interested in another man.  "Amid all the excitement I observed an elderly man in clean, well-mended clothes, sitting on one of the steps, darning his socks."  Driscoll estimated his age about "past 60" and said he wore a windbreaker and winter cap with pull-down flaps over the ears.

"The socks he was darning were bright blue and white.  They were as clean as any you ever saw, and he had another clean pair on his feet...Maybe he was homeless, but if so, how did he stay so neat and clean?  In any case, his quiet industry and ability to mind his own business obviously commanded respect.  There were no wisecracks from the neighboring derelicts, out for their sunning."

By 1944 trees were growing again.  An aerial photo by the U.S. Government reveals the stunning height of the Independence Flagpole.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By the 1970s Union Square was the haunt of addicts and drug dealers.  Its once-manicured lawns were weedy and overgrown and trash littered the walkways and shrubbery.   The flagpole had been removed from its base and by the early 1980s most New Yorkers had forgotten the purpose of the stump-like granite and bronze drum that remained.

The first phase of an $8 million renovation of the park was completed in the spring of 1986.  But it did not include the Independence Flagpole, which, according to Martha Lagace of New York Magazine on April 14, "is ringed with moss-covered reliefs."

Lagace was indignant that the reopening did not include a flagpole.  "What seems like a strange, stubby sculpture in the center of Union Square Park is, in fact, an ornate bronze base that once held a flagpole," she reminded readers.

"When the southern end of the park was reopened, last May," she wondered, "why wasn't a flagpole an opening-day priority, as it has been in other parks?"

Manhattan Borough Commissioner of the Parks Department, Pat Pomposello, offered an indifferent reply.  "At least there are no junkies here anymore.  So we can certainly live without a flagpole."

Although the inscription gives the dedication date as July 4, 1926, the 150th anniversary of the Declaration's signing, the monument was still in the earliest stages of development at that time.

Finally, in 1987 the Independence Flagpole was restored at a cost of $100,000.  The restoration came at another price, as well.  The liberty cap finial--the only evidence of Tammany involvement in the monument--was replaced with a gilded sunburst.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Abbott Bakery Bldg - 236 8th Avenue

In 1816, just five years after the Commissioners' Plan laid out the streets and avenues above Greenwich Village, Eighth Avenue was extended northward.  It ran essentially along the eastern border of the Moore country estate, Chelsea.  Within only a few years the avenue would see development.

The Drake family purchased the land at the northeast corner of Eighth Avenue and 22nd Street around 1829.  By the 1840s they erected a three story house-and-store building that reflected the emerging Greek Revival style.  Faced in orange-red brick laid in running bond, its attic level featured squat openings under the dentiled cornice, rather than the peaked roof with dormers found in the Federal style.

The store level became a bakery.  Its proprietor decided either to retire or simply move on in the spring of 1855.  An advertisement in The New York Herald offered "For Sale--A bakery, on one of the best avenues in the city, occupied by the present proprietor nearly seven years...Cheap rent."

The Drakes, who would retain ownership of the property for more than a century, were looking for a new tenant again in September 1861.  A succinct advertisement in The New York Herald offered simply "To Let...No. 236 Eighth avenue.  House and Store."

It is unclear who occupied the store space for the next few decades.  The proprietor advertised a "stylish bay horse, for road and business purposes" for sale in October 1874; suggesting that he offered delivery services.  And whoever lived upstairs in 1883 was doubtlessly crestfallen when his petition "to keep chickens" in the yard was denied by the Health Department.

In 1888 Thomas Burnett received his license to operate a newspaper stand outside the store.  And the following year Charles E. Abbott opened his new bakery.

Born in South Londonderry, Vermont in 1859, he came to New York in 1878, taking a job in the bakery of H. B. Cushman.  Six years later he went into the restaurant business.  By 1889 he had two successful restaurants, but sold them that year to open his bakery.

Unmarried, Abbott lived just a block to the north, at No. 279 West 23rd Street.   His bakery initially offered only bread, and then branched into pastries.  Before long he advertised "wedding cakes a specialty."

Like his predecessor, Abbott provided delivery service to hotels and restaurants.  The bakery's horses and delivery wagons were housed in a stable at No. 341 West 21st Street.  Business was so successful that in 1893 Abbott invested in a new oven that cost him $377--more than $10,000 today.  

Abbott employed 13 men who worked about 69 hours a week. Bakeries, unlike grocery stores or hardware shops, for instance, remained opened on Sundays.  The staff had the option of working either Saturday or Sunday (those shifts were 10 hours long).

In 1898 Abbott hired architect P. F. Brogan to enlarge the building to the rear.  The two-story brick extension cost $2,000 (nearly $60,000 in today's dollars).  Brogan nearly matched the original brick color, and created a handsome utilitarian structure embellished with brick panels below the egg-and-dart ornamented cornice, and pleasing terra cotta ornaments.  The bakery proper took up the ground floor of the new building, and the offices moved into the second story.

Abbott's two-story extension houses a ground floor restaurant today.

The property was owned by Mary Drake at the time.  The wealthy widow now lived in Philadelphia.  In 1899 she renewed Abbot's lease for another eight years at what would amount to about $12,000 a year today.

Charles E. Abbott in 1900 -- Wilmington, Vermont (copyright expired)

In the meantime, Charles Abbott was doing very well for himself.  An active Mason, by 1900 he was a member of the exclusive New York Athletic Club.  He enjoyed taking his carriage to the Harlem River Speedway--so named because slower vehicles like sulkies, drays and bicycles were prohibited.  In 1900 John Hill Walbridge noted "Mr. Abbott is a member of...The Road Drivers' Association, being owner of Alverna, a fast black pacer, which, with his neat bicycle wagon, is a turnout well-known to the Speedway and other fashionable New York drives."

The sidewalk newstand was still out front, having been operated by Israel Goldfarb for several years.  Each year he applied for his permit, since sidewalk "encumbrances" were strictly monitored by the City.  In 1901, for instance, Abbott applied for and received permission to erect a "storm-door in front of his premises."   Similar to temporary structures still erected today to protect restaurants and stores from cold air, it would have protruded several feet into the public sidewalk.

But labor problems to the west would soon give Abbott and other bakers greater problems to think about.  Bakers' ovens required vast quantities of coal daily.   In September 1900 coal miners went on strike, returning to work only after their wages were increased.  A 1901 report of the Congressional Industrial Commission pointed out "Eighty-five per cent of the cost of producing anthracite coal goes to the wages."  Naturally, those increases were passed on to the consumer.

On the evening of September 30, 1902 the Retail Bakers' Association met in Abbott's offices to discuss the crisis.  Abbott forewarned a reporter from The Evening World "While I do not like to pose as a pessimist, I must confess that at present it looks as if many of the smaller bakers will have to close down unless there is soon a decided change in the coal market.  In many cases small bakeries are buying coal daily, just enough to keep going for twenty-four hours, not knowing where or how the next day's supply may be obtained."  The newspaper projected that the price of bread might go up one or two cents a loaf.

Abbott was president of the Retail Bakers' Association, so when a city-wide strike of bakery workmen was declared in October 1904, a meeting was held in Abbott's 21st Street stables.  The union men were requesting salaries of $18 a week for foremen, and $15 for "underhands."  The union wanted $3 per day for temporary workers, brought in for day work.   The wages requested for the foremen would be equal to about $495 a week today.

Not all the bakery owners were pleased.  George E. Millspaugh ranted "I think that I should be the judge of what they are worth and pay the accordingly, and not on the basis of any union scale."

Although Abbott had paid for the extension in 1898, Mary Drake shared the expenses with him in updating the windows in 1906.  The total cost was $675.  That same year the lease was extended for another 10 years.

Although this photograph, taken around 1908, is documented only as "8th Avenue Bakery," it very well could be the Abbott Bakery.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The remarkable success of Abbott's business was reflected in his staff.  In 1913 he employed 37 bakers and one office worker.  Two years later the numbers had risen to 45 bakers and 8 clerical staff.  In 1914 Abbot incorporated, the firm becoming Abbott Bakeries, Inc.

The following year Mary Drake, who was in Italy at the time, hired architect L. S. Beardsley to renovate the storefront.  The elements of the extensive, $2,500 upgrades were almost exclusively for reinforcing--"Lally columns, steel girders, cement mortar pier and blue stone"--suggesting structural problems in the aging building.

In 1916 the Chelsea neighborhood was plagued by a con artist.  On October 19, 1916 The Sun wrote "salesmen in cigar stores, bartenders and almost every sort of employee who stands behind a counter are looking for a Chinaman, Lee by name.  He sells tickets covered with strange hieroglyphs that he says are sure to win in a big Chinese lottery he runs somewhere in Fourteenth street."

Lee's scam was cleverly devised.  He would walk into shops looking for a "wall rack" that listed the name of employees.  He would ask for a particular worker and if told that man was not there, he would reply "That's very bad.  He won $50 in the lottery this week and I wanted to give it to him."

Having peaked the interest of those in the store, he explained how the lottery worked.  Tickets cost $2 each; but for an additional fee Lee secretly guaranteed he could arrange it so the buyer would win.  "Then he passes on to another place, never to be seen again," explained the article.  "After a few days the victim rushes down to 228 West Fourteenth street, the address on the lottery ticket, and finds it to be a boarding house where Chinese are not admitted."

Lee was confident in not being caught.  Buying lottery tickets was a misdemeanor, so his victims were unlikely to notify police.  He hit the jackpot when he visited Abbott's Bakery.  The Sun reported "One of his chief sources of revenue recently was Abbott's bakery, at Twenty-second street and Eighth avenue.  The employees there bought $40 worth one evening because he said Jim, a day man, had won ninety dollars."

Following Mary Drake's death in 1920 the property was conveyed to Millicent Drake.   Charles Abbot transferred the presidency of Abbott Baking Corporation to Sam Greenwald at about the same time. The output of the bakery was staggering at the time.  In 1922, according to Baking Industry magazine, it was producing "35,000 loaves daily in addition to rolls and cakes and so on."

Charles E. Abbott died on March 18, 1929; but the Abbott Baking Corporation remained in business.

On July 8, 1938 Sam Rosenthal went to the Merchants Bank and Trust Company and returned with the week's payroll.  Employees were paid in cash until the latter years of the 20th century and keen-eyed thieves were routinely on the lookout for likely targets.   Rosenthal turned over the $3,000 in cash to manager Emmanuel Rosenthal.  There were, in total, seven employees in the second floor office.

Rose Silverman, the bookkeeper, heard a knock on the office door.  When she opened it she was confronted with a pistol and told to "keep quiet."   Three men pushed into the office.   Described by The New York Times as "young thugs, all armed," they forced the employees to lie on the floor, then bound them with wire.    An unwitting messenger boy who walked into the office was bound, too.

The newspaper reported "The money had been placed in pay envelopes ready for distribution.  The thugs scooped it up and ran down the stairs."  The Depression Era heist would amount to more than $50,000 today.

After her family had owned the property for more than a century, Millicent Drake sold No. 236 Eighth Avenue in 1952.  By now the Abbott Bakery had given up the retail store, while still operating the bakery portion in the 22nd Street extension.   But within a decade the business that had filled the corner of Eighth Avenue and 22nd Street with the tantalizing aroma of baking bread for generations was gone.

In 1964 the building was renovated to accommodate a restaurant on the first floor, two apartments each on the second and third floor, and one apartment on the fourth.  Today a restaurant extends from the store front into the extension.  Few passersby, other than veteran Chelsea residents, realize that for about three quarters of a century the Abbott Bakery was a fixture on the corner.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Alexander Thompson House - 452 Greenwich Street

Around 1819 Alexander Thompson completed construction of a house at the southwest corner of Greenwich and Debrosses Streets.  The prim Federal style dwelling was two and a half stories tall and faced in Flemish bond red brick.  Incised brownstone lintels were an added touch.

An especially pleasing recessed, arched doorway at the southern end of the structure was fully paneled and, possibly, included a stylish fanlight.  The architect's attention to this feature is more remarkable because it appears that it originally provided access to the rear yard and not to the house proper.

Thompson apparently built No. 452 Greenwich Street as an investment, for soon after its completion it was home to Archibald Sommerville.   By the mid-1840s it was being operating as a boarding house; home to respectable tenants like S. A. Jenkins.  Jenkins was the sole teacher in Public School 37, almost directly across the street at No. 457 Greenwich Street.

Another boarder that year was Martha E. Walker.  She had left her husband, Thomas, who was verbally abusive and unfaithful.  Her animosity was apparent in a letter she wrote from the Greenwich Street house on January 28, 1847 asking for the return of her miniature portrait.  She said in part:

I am happy, and will continue so in spite of all that you can do.  I have plenty of friends, although you have said I was so vile...Your miniature I enclose, and again demand mine; the likeness of a villain I feel no inclination to retain.  Your face brings only the remembrance of your baseness to my mind."

Martha's description of her husband as a villain was apparently not overly-dramatic.  He was tried on June 4, 1849 for her murder.

By 1852 the house was owned by William B. Howenstine, who remodeled it to four floors and installed a shop at ground level.  It was most likely at this time that the arched doorway was converted to the entrance to the upper floors where about five families would rent rooms.  Howenstine and his wife, Julia, lived on Broome Street, several blocks to the east.  

Close inspection reveals the change of brick from Flemish bond to running bond at the third floor window sill level.  The angled corner entrance was added in 1892.

The tenants of No. 452 Greenwich Street were working class families.   The daughter of one, who lived in the "second floor, front room," was looking for a job in October 1859.  Her advertisement in The New York Herald read "Wanted --By a respectable girl, a situation as chambermaid and waitress in a private family."

Peter Hussey immigrated to New York in 1862 and moved into No. 452 Greenwich Street.  Unable to read or write, he was guided through the process of registering to vote in the election of 1867; but when he showed up at the polls he was arrested for election fraud.

In court on February 6, 1869 he pleaded innocence.  "I made a mark on the paper at the Vanderbilt House," he explained.  "There were plenty of men present who knew me when I got my paper, but they might not have seen me at the time."  It appears that Hussey had fallen victim to unscrupulous election meddlers.

Also living in the house at the time was the Ginn family.  Teen-aged boys of working class families were expected to help with finances and James Ginn worked in construction.  On April 21, 1869 The New York Herald reported "A boy named James Ginn, who resides at No. 452 Greenwich street, fell a distance of twenty feet from a ladder in West street and was severely injured.  He was taken to his residence."

In the meantime, Richard Dawson lived here while he operated his saloon downstairs.  On April 7, 1870 he was granted permission by the Board of Aldermen "to place a watering-trough in front of his premises."  The trough would be a convenience to to his customers; however the Aldermen's resolution was quick to point out "such permission to remain only during the pleasure of the Common Council."

Dawson's heart was apparently not in the saloon business.  He tried to sell his business several times.  On February 6, 1871 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:  "The best corner liquor store in the Eighth ward, doing a splendid trade; good reason for selling."

There were apparently no takers, for Dawson still ran the saloon when he was picked for jury duty in 1873.  His was no small case.  The trial was to decide the fate of "Boss" William M. Tweed of Tammany Hall.   Tweed was accused of 220 counts of corruption and fraud.  His immense power and wealth was evidenced in the $8 million bail he provided--equal to about $166 million today.

The jury failed to come to a verdict in January 1873.  One of the hold-outs was Richard Dawson, who told a reporter "I may say that I was one of them that was for acquittal, as I would convict no man on an informer's testimony...The Judge's charge did not make much impression, as we thought it biased and one-sided."

Despite Dawson's sympathetic views about Tweed, the politician was retried that year with much different results.  He was convicted on 204 counts and sentenced to 12 years in prison.  (That sentence was later reduced to one year.)

Living above the saloon the following year was Thomas Stephenson.  Early on the morning of April 6, 1874 he and two cohorts, Thomas Coffey and Owen Short, laid in wait for John Devins to lock up his store at No. 280 Watts Street.  They then "knocked him down and robbed him of $190 in money and a diamond pin valued at $150," according to Devins's complaint.

The haul, worth about $7,400 today, would have been a windfall had the three not been quickly arrested.  They were held on $5,000 bail and charged with highway robbery.

Dawson's saloon was on the market again in October 1875.  His advertisement seemed near-desperate.  "A Rare Chance.  For sale--A first class liquor store, 452 Greenwich street, corner Desbrosses, with lease; to be sold cheap."

It was most likely Dawson's ill health that had prompted the urgent need to sell.  But once again, there were no takers.  Somewhat sadly, four months later, on February 20, 1876 an advertisement offered "For Sale--in consequence of the death of owner, the Stock and Fixtures of a nicely fitted up bar and back room, with good cellar...two years' lease can be had from May next."  The ad was placed by the executor of Dawson's estate.

The surnames of the upstairs tenants by now were mainly Irish.  Among them was Thomas H. Campbell.  He stood talking to a friend, Patrick Sweeney on Saturday night, July 26, 1879 at the corner of Charlton and West Streets when, according to The New York Herald, "a drunken tramp, named John Trainor, came up and, without a word of warning, stabbed Sweeney twice in the left breast."

The New York Times described the attacker as "a tall, heavily-built man of slovenly appearance," and reported that Campbell had noticed the stranger remove something from his coat jacket, but had thought nothing of it.  Sweeney grappled with the man until a policeman saw the fight and knocked the knife from Trainor's hand.

The New York Herald described the weapon as "an oyster knife, [which] had been filed down and sharpened."  Sweeney was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in very critical condition.

In August 1881 Howenstine leased the saloon to William F. Curry.  His two year lease carried an annual rent of $1,020, or about $2,000 per month today.

Among the Irish immigrants living upstairs that year was the hooligan John Clancey who found himself behind bars on June 28.  That Saturday night Clancey was among a group of men loitering around a Hudson River pier.  When a police officer intervened, things got ugly.

The New York Times reported "Officer Daniel Flynn...endeavored on Saturday to disperse a crowd of roughs from Pier No. 34 North River.  The loafers turned upon him and he was thrown violently to the ground, breaking his leg in the fall."

While Flynn lay helpless, one of the mob kicked him in the face, "knocking several of his teeth down his throat."  Other policemen came to the rescue, finally, and three of the gang were arrested, including John Clancey.

Charles Mooney also lived here.  New Yorkers suffered an especially severe heatwave in the summer of 1882.  While the wealthy escaped to breezy resorts like Newport and Bar Harbor, the working class suffered.  On July 11 The Times wrote on July 11, "The furnace-like blasts that greeted the earliest risers yesterday gave promise of a day that would try the endurance of those who were forced to remain in the City."  Among those overcome by the heat that afternoon was Charles Mooney, who was taken to the Chambers Street Hospital.

John McMahon had taken over the saloon by 1886.  He and his wife lived upstairs, as did McMahon's brother, Edward, who worked as a bartender.  That year Edward applied for a job with the police department, but (possibly because of his current occupation) his application was denied.

McMahon's wife delivered a baby boy in their apartment directly above the saloon in January 1887.  Only 18 months later, on June 7, 1889, she gave birth to two twin girls.  The premature infants were born ten minutes apart and severely underweight.  According to The Evening World a few days later, "Miss Catherine McMahon tipped the beam at two and a half pounds exactly.  Kitty weighed three and a half."

Immediately upon their births, McMahon called for a priest. He told the reporter who interviewed him on June 11, "They were both baptized as soon as they were born almost.  I was afraid they might die and had the priest come right away."

Now, with his daughters four days old, he held out hope.  "But now I don't know but they will both live.  They certainly keep me pretty busy feeding them.  All last night I was busy with them.  I feed them from a spoon."

The girls' mother was, perhaps, more realistic.  "They are as much trouble as any children.  Still, if they were not to grow up strong and healthy I would almost rather have them die while they are babies."

The World reporter repeatedly described the vigorous attributes of the parents as genetic hope that the girls would survive.  He mentioned that when he entered the apartment, "the stalwart father of the twins was resting his large proportions on a lounge.  He is a broad-shouldered, deep-chested fellow, with a blonde mustache and ruddy cheeks."

He described the McMahons as "splendid specimens of physical humanity" and ended his article noting that the twins "are a little handicapped by their lilliputian dimensions, but the children of such strong parents must have a good deal of vitality in them."

In the spring of 1892 McMahon hired architects Horenburger & Straub to renovate the saloon.  The plans, filed on May 4, called for "walls altered and new front."  The $750 in renovations included the new entrance, chamfered into the corner with a stylish cast iron column.   Large windows were cut into the brick walls on both the Greenwich and Desbrosses Street sides.  They most likely included leaded and stained glass, so popular in 19th century saloon decor.

In the meantime, the neighborhood around Greenwich and Desbrosses Streets had totally changed in the more than 70 years since No. 452 Greenwich Street was built.  The patrons of McMahon's tavern were the laborers who worked in the massive loft and warehouse buildings that had since closed in around it.

John McMahon still held the lease on the saloon in 1897, but he sub-let it that year to brewers Bernheimer & Schmidt.  Brewery owners often operated saloons in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They were thereby able to sell only their own beers and ales, cutting out the competition.   Bernheimer & Schmidt leased the space through 1903.

That year William G. Howenstine (apparently William B.'s son) and his wife, Minetta, sold No. 452 Greenwich Street to William F. Grell.  Active in politics, Grell ran for sheriff as the German Democracy Party's candidate that year; but, according to the New York Tribune on November 4, "received comparatively few votes."  Instead he went on to become a Park Commissioner.

Grell made a few improvements to the property, including a new cornice and conversion of the back portion for a small factory.   He leased the entire building to Henry A. Ficke beginning on August 1, 1904.  His ten-year lease, including the saloon, cost $2,500 per year in rent.

The shop in the rear was home to the American Steel Wool Mfg. Co. in 1913.

Ficke was apparently a good tenant, for when Grell renewed the lease for five years in 1914, he did not raise the rent.  Ficke collected the upstairs rents and operated his saloon throughout his lease, which ended in 1919.  If he had anticipated extending the arrangement, the ratification of the 18th Amendment on January 29, 1919 put an end to that.  The legislation paved the way for the enactment of Prohibition  on January 16, 1920.

The space that had been a working man's saloon for half a century became a luncheonette.  The upper floors continued to be rented throughout the century.  Photographs from the last quarter of the 20th century shows the time-worn building slathered with metal advertising signs, like "Coca-Cola."

The corner luncheonette was no doubt popular with workers in the surrounding factories and warehouses; but it was apparently not always the best choice.  On April 28, 1984 the Food Shop Fountain was cited for failing to correct earlier Health Department violations.

The changing personality of Tribeca from gritty industry to a trendy residential and shopping district arrived on the corner of Greenwich Street and Desbrosses Street in 1998.  Architect Daniel Kohs purchased the property for $499,000 and designed extensive renovations to create a single family house with a garage in the former shop section at the rear.  

When he put it on the market early in 2001,  Braden Kell, writing in The New York Post on February 25 commented "The 5-bedroom, 7-bathroom house also features large bay windows, steam showers, a 3000-bottle wine cellar, 1,500-square-foot roof deck with water views and an elevator."

Life upstairs in 2013 was much different than that experienced by John McMahon's family.  photo via March 12, 2013

It was purchased by Sean McCarthy, who paid $5.65 million, and listed it again in 2014 for $24.5 million.  The price was apparently a bit steep and McCarthy relisted it the following March for a more affordable $19.5 million.

The modern renovations over-restored the brick facade, giving it an artificial, reproduction appearance.  Nevertheless, the nearly two-century old survivor is an important relic from the earliest days of development in this section of Tribeca.

photographs by the author