Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1891 Garfield Flats - 104 Forsyth Street


A coat of chocolate-colored paint covered the checkerboard terra cotta tiles and polished stone columns of the first floor.
A North Carolinian, Lt. Colonel Benjamin Forsyth was based in New York State during the War of 1812.  He was killed in action in June 1814 and became a hero in both his native state and in New York.  North Carolina named Forsyth County after him and in 1817 New York City changed the name of an eight-block stretch of 2nd Street to Forsyth Street.

The block of Forsyth Street between Broome and Grand Streets would be lined with prim brick-faced Federal style homes.  No. 104,  was a 25-foot wide, two-and-a-half story home with a wooden dwelling behind.  (In the rear yards of nearly each house on the block was be a small building--either a second house, a stable or a shop.)

The quiet residential block began to change in the years before the Civil War as thousands of immigrants poured into the Lower East Side.  Between 1859 and 1880 the number of Jews who settled in New York City had doubled--from 40,000 to 80,000.  Little Forsyth Street saw the construction of several synagogues, and private houses were either demolished to be replaced by tenements, or were converted to shops.

No. 104 had a store on the first floor in January 1890 when Albert Stake bought the property.  While he lived on Staten Island, he made his livelihood in Manhattan, buying and selling real estate as well as insurance.

Stake wasted no time in setting his plans for the Forsyth Street property in motion.  Twelve days after the purchase architect A. I. Finkle filed plans for a five-story "brick and stone flat" to cost $17,000, or about $475,000 today.

Mostly forgotten today, Finkle was busy in the 1880's and '90's designing, for the most part, tenement buildings.   Aimed at low income families, the buildings offered little in amenities but were often lavished on the outside with overblown ornamentation.  Finkle did not disappoint with his design for No. 104, and threw in a heavy splash of patriotism and sentiment.

Nearly a decade had elapsed since the assassination of President James A. Garfield, but public emotions were still strong.  Stake dubbed his building The Garfield and Finkle announced its name in a flowing banner in the pressed metal cornice, along with a patriotic shield.



A centered stone stoop let to the entrance under a portico upheld by polished stone columns.  A quilt of Queen Anne style terra cotta tiles graced the upper portion of the first floor facade.  Finkle did not hold back on the succeeding levels.  A burst of colors and materials graced the second floor--brownstone, limestone, terra cotta, and brick.  Winged faces upheld floating pairs of Corinthian pilasters, the tympana above the windows were decorated with delicate vines, and the spandrels were filled with multicolored tiles.  Carved Renaissance Revival panels formed the bases of the three-story piers above, which terminated in terra cotta Corinthian capitals.

Albert Stark was an operator, not a landlord, and as soon as the building was completed he sold it, in February 1891, to Frederick J. Seelig for $45,500--a hefty $1.25 million today.

The basement level contained two stores, one on either side of the stoop, with living space behind.  H. S. Eisler opened his "houshold furniture" store in 1891; and Victor Cohen moved his family and shoe shop into the other.

Colorful tiles and carved angel heads on the outside could not change the fact that life on the inside of tenements was often miserable.  Apartments were either drafty and cold in the winter or stiflingly hot in the summer.  There was no hot water if there was running water at all, and sanitary conditions were poor.  And landlords were notoriously cold-hearted.

The landlady of No. 104 in 1895 was Sarah Davis.  She grew impatient when Victor Cohen fell behind on his rent.  Cohen and his wife had five children, the youngest just a year and a half old.  After running his shoe store here for nearly four years, business had dropped off.  Sarah David ordered the family out.

She hung a "To Let" sign on the storefront and rented the space to another tenant.  Cohen was told he had to be out by February 1.  But his youngest child was seriously ill and a doctor warned against moving him.  When the family was still there on the first of February, Sarah was enraged.

What happened next prompted The Evening World to run the headline "DYING CHILD EVICTED / Sad Case of Victor Cohen, a Poor Cobbler."   The article told that Sarah Davis got a dispossession notice from the court giving the Cohens five days to move out.  Fearful of moving the boy and with nowhere to go, they stayed.  Sarah took her next move.

"The next day Marshal Hirschfield evicted him, although Dr. Shenkman said it would be dangerous to take the child out of doors," reported the article.  Neighbors took the family in until Cohen was able to find rooms nearby on Hester Street.

In 1899 Bennett & G signed a lease for one of the stores.  The firm ran a string of soda fountains around the city.  The Bennett & G soda fountain would remain for several years.

In the meantime, things had not improved for tenants who were paying about $13 a month rent (around $390 in today's dollars) for three rooms.  On May 4, 1900 the Tenement House Commission made an "inspection tour" of Lower East Side buildings.  The inspectors found that there were no hallway lights in No. 104 Forsyth Street, in violation of city law.  "Tenants have to grope along it and stumble as best they may up the staircase," reported The New York Times.

Among those who groped along the hallways was John Sullivan.  While others in the building made their living as blue collar laborers or tailors and such, Sullivan preferred an easier method--robbery.  Around 1:00 in the morning on November 13, 1901 he and two cronies, John Shea and Frank Lynch, saw a lone sailor at the corner of New Chambers and Oak Streets.  They attacked, knocking him to the ground.  While two held him down the other went through his pockets and took all the money he had--25 cents.  The New-York Tribune reported "They then gave him several kicks and went on their way."

The sailor, Swan C. Carlsen, did not call for a policeman (despite being only steps from the 5th Precinct Station House).  Instead he following the Irish toughs from a safe distance.  Just as they reached Catherine and Cherry Streets, Henry Moore walked out of Andy Horn's saloon.  He became their second victim.

"They knocked him down and were going through his pockets when his yells reached the ears of Detective Hahn and Patrolman Frank Sheridan," who were around the corner.  The officers ran to the scene where "a desperate struggle ensued."  The Tribune happily reported "The highwaymen were subdued."  Swan Carlsen went to the station house both as a complainant and a victim.  John Sullivan and his cohorts were charged with highway robbery.

G. Sucher moved his barber shop into one of the basement stores in 1903 and, like the soda fountain, would remain for years.

The conditions upstairs were no better, or perhaps were worse, than they had been.  In 1907 the owner was ordered to correct conditions which made the building a "public nuisance."  The catch-all phrase often referred to foul odors, garbage, rats and vermin, or other conditions that made the property a problem to the neighborhood.

Behind No. 104 was the Eldridge Street Police Station.  On the afternoon of Friday, March 12, 1910 officers were playing handball in the yard of the station house when a fire in Minnie Brennsilber's kitchen on the second floor erupted.  The men looked up to see flames licking out of the apartment window and jumped the fence.

Patrolman Martin Owen was the first to enter the burning building.  The New York Times reported "Owen rushed to the second-floor hall, and, bursting into the apartment of Mrs. Minnie Brennsilber, found her and her two young children cowed with fright."  The way down was blocked by flames, so Owen headed up.  He grabbed the youngsters and directed their mother to follow to the roof.  There he took them to the roof of the building next door.

In the meantime, Officer August Schimp had brought 60-year old Rose Flitzer to the roof.  The two policemen went back into No. 104.   On the third floor the heat burst a window and the resulting back draft overtook the men.  With their uniform coats ablaze they managed to scramble back to the roof where they fell unconscious.  They were found by other policemen who carried them to the street.

At the same time, a fireman from Truck 6 was "found staggering through a lower hallway, almost overcome by smoke, but was revived by an ambulance surgeon," according to the newspaper.  Another responder, policeman John Stanford, dodged serious injury when a blazing mattress thrown from an upper window landed on him.  Another policeman managed to push the mattress aside before it could burn Stanford.

Both Officer Schimp and Owen were honored for their bravery the following year by the mayor and police commissioner.

Close inspection reveals the once colorful tiles, now significantly damaged, and the quirky winged faces.
Hyman Grossman moved his grocery store into the basement of the repaired building.  He found himself in trouble in November 1911 when health food inspectors fined him $100 for violating the pure food laws.  The New York Times reported the fine was "for having bad milk."

World War I had a personal effect on at least one family in The Garfield.  Six residents of Forsyth Street were drafted on the same day in March 1918, including Samuel Wasserman who lived at No. 104.  The men were ordered to leave "for Camp" on April 3.

One tenant of The Garfield was not enthusiastic about his military service.  On June 9, 1921 the War Department published its list of "draft deserters."  Included was Leib Merkin of No. 104 Forsyth Street.

A grisly discovery was found in front of The Garfield on July 28, 1956.  Police had been looking for Frances DiZinno's 1955 Buick sedan since it was reported stolen the night before.  At around 8:30 Detectives Edgar Brennan and Joseph Byrnes spotted the car parked in front of No. 104.

"When the detectives opened the door of the car they were assailed by an unpleasant odor," reported The New York Times.  "On the floor of the rear seat was an unwieldy tarpaulin bundle tied with heavy cord in a way that indicated to them that it contained a human body.  When they opened the trunk compartment they found an even larger bundle, wedged against the spare tire."

Before long the street was filled with Homicide Squad detectives, the Police Department mobile laboratory truck, and officials from the Medical Examiner's office.  "Meanwhile crowds of excited residents of the densely populated area made Forsyth Street impassable," said the article.

The bodies were identified by fingerprints as two of the three men wanted by the FBI for jumping bail in a fur hijacking case.   James Joseph Roberto was a former prizefighter known as Jimmy Russo, and the other was Richard Michael Langone.  Both had been killed by ax blows to the head and had been dead for as long as three days.

As the search intensified for the third defendant, Louis Joseph Musto, a shocking twist in the case came to the surface.   James T. Ryan had joined the New York Police Department on February 1, 1947 and was promoted to detective in January 1949.  Then, in November 1955 he was demoted to patrolman "for the good of the service."  Now, three days after the bodies were discovered, he was pulled off his post and arrested for receiving stolen property in connection with the fur heists.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the Forsyth Street neighborhood, once filled with German Jews, then Italians, was increasingly becoming part of New York's Chinatown. 

Nevertheless, Seymour Anczelowitz operated his store, Sy's New and Used Clothing, at No. 104 here in 1982.  Just before 1:00 on the afternoon of January 31 that year a man and a woman came into the store and told the 47-year old he was being held up.  Whether Anczelowitz fought back or not is unclear; but the crooks shot him in the head.  They escaped with as much as $2,000 in cash.  Anczelowitz was taken to Bellevue Hospital in critical condition, where he later died.


Despite its often sketchy history, the suffering of its early tenants, and the unfortunate coat of brown paint on the stone and tile of the first floor, A. I. Finkle's patriotic and exuberant Garfield is still an attention grabber.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Soon to Go - McMahon's Oyster House 499 3rd Avenue


Behind the orange-painted stucco is the 1850 clapboard house.

Broker E. H. Brown's office was at No. 71 Wall Street when he began construction of his rather modest home at No. 499 Third Avenue in 1850.   It was barely completed when he offered it for sale.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on January 21, 1851 said the 24-foot wide house "has Croton water throughout, and [is] in every respect well built."  The advertisement noted it had been "finished by the present owner for his own occupation, and sold because of a change in business."

The mention of "Croton water throughout" referred to running water; a significant convenience in the first half of the 19th century.  Whether Brown decided to sell because of a "change in business" is debatable.  He was still carrying on business in the same office for several more years.

The two-story wooden house was quickly renovated with a business on the ground floor.  George Ricardo was issued his innkeeper's license on July 21, 1857.   It cost him $30.

By 1861 the restaurant-saloon was called The National, run by John Sherman, who was also the secretary of the Empire City Regatta Club.   In reporting on the club's upcoming "rowing regatta" The New York Clipper added on September 7, 1861, "The club meets every Saturday evening at the National, 499 3d Avenue."

In 1875 the Coutant family--brothers John S. and Thomas J., and their sisters Emily T. and Elizabeth J.--purchased nearly the entire eastern Third Avenue blockfront between 33rd and 34th Streets, including No. 499.    Architect James E. Ware was commissioned to add a rear extension and alter the front.  It was most likely Ware's update--which cost the Coutants $3,500--that resulted in the Eastlake style window treatments and updated cornice.

The geometric, toothy decorations of the window cornices were up-to-the-minute in the 1870's.
A much more significant change was to come.  At the time Walter Silsbe and his son ran an oyster saloon at the corner of 33rd Street.  In 1880 Silsbe purchased No. 499, putting the title in the name of his wife, Hannah.  Before he moved his restaurant, he jacked up the wooden house and built an additional floor under it.  "I spent improving that property probably $1,200," he recalled in 1895.

Following the death of Silsbe's son in 1887, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that "Silsbe's Oyster Saloon" had been rented to Terence McMahon for $3,000 a year.   The McMahon family moved into the upper floors and little Willie was enrolled in P.S. No. 16.  Although the lease was for 5-1/2 years, an early agreement was reached and on June 2, 1890 McMahon paid the Silsbes $30,000 for the house and business--nearly $835,000 today.

The New York Times later described McMahon's Oyster and Chop House saying "The floor was luxuriously carpeted and the tables and chairs were of solid mahogany.  In the center of the restaurant was a large fish tank which usually contained about 200 fish of varying size and species."

A disagreement with a waiter landed an off-duty policeman in hot water in the fall of 1889.  Roundsman Thomas Cassidy of the 21st Precinct had dinner with a friend on the evening of Friday October 27.   He got into a quarrel with the waiter, Hugh Kane, over what The New York Times described as "a trivial matter connected with the meal."   After finishing he ordered brandy and, after paying for it, arrested Kane "for violation of the excise law on the ground that McMahon's license was only for the sale of beer and light wines."

Terence McMahon was close on the heels of the pair.  At the station house he not only provided his liquor license that proved Kane had done nothing illegal; but complained to the Inspector that his arrest "was actuated by malice" and described the argument that led to the arrest.  The tables were now turned and the Inspector ordered a complaint filed against the policeman.

In 1895, when Terence McMahon took the Manhattan Railway Company to court over the Third Avenue Elevated train, he gave a superb description of his property.  "The building has two floors over the store.  It is made of wood, except the extension...The back part, the extension part, the walls are brick; the front part is wood.  The ground floor is a store.  There are two stories over that used for dwellings.  I occupy those myself.  There is a cellar used for coal and stuff...The store is used for a restaurant.  The upper floors are used by myself as apartments for myself and my family."

McMahon's complaint with the Railroad was the platform it built directly in front of his oyster saloon.  He complained to the court that even on the brightest days he had to burn "from four to six, and sometimes twelve to sixteen lights in the middle of the day."  In addition, "Sometimes there is quite a bad smell.  If we leave our windows open there is quite a quantity of dust and cinders [which] blow in there."

Despite the cinders, noise and shadows of the elevated train, McMahon's Oyster and Chop House was a favorite meeting and dining spot for politicians and judges.  Mayors George B. McClellan and Seth Low were regulars, as were Tammany Hall bigwigs Richard Croker and Charles F. Murphy.

Terence McMahon died in 1900.  Although his will suggested that the property be sold, it gave his widow a life tenancy.  The family decided to continue the business until 1911 when the restaurant was leased to Peter and Ida M. Maucher.

McMahon's widow continued to live upstairs until her death in 1936, leaving the property to her four sons.  Through the years the old restaurant space had been used for a variety of different purposes. A layer of stucco now disguised the clapboards.  When the family put the property on the market in order to settle their mother's estate in 1938, Lee E. Cooper of The New York Times waxed nostalgic, saying it "deserves a bit more than cursory notice."

"For one thing," said Cooper, "the three-story building itself is of frame and stucco, and frame structures are becoming rare in Manhattan...But the history of occupancy of the building is of more romantic interest."

The article recalled how "the little structure was raised to three stories" by George Silesbe, whom it said "will be remembered by some old-time New Yorkers as the 'wholesale oyster man' who also conducted an oyster and chop house in the Third Avenue property."   Turning to the McMahon years Cooper added "Theodore Roosevelt is said to have been host at a dinner here to nearly a score of his Rough Riders shortly after the Spanish-American War."

The little anachronistic building changed hands several times over the succeeding decades.  The former oyster saloon was home to the Columbia Lighting showroom in the 1970's and '80's; then became Blockheads Mexican restaurant in 1997.  The eatery was a neighborhood staple until it was forced to close in 2017.

In July 2016  Extell Development had announced plans to build a 13-story mixed-used building on the site of No. 501 and 499 Third Avenue.   In March 2018 demolition permits were granted, signaling the end of the 168-year history of the little wooden  house.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The 1904 Hotel Walton - 104 West 70th Street


One of the most important design elements, the elaborate cornice, is conspicuously absent.
At the turn of the last century developer Elizabeth A. Wilcox held her own among her male counterparts.  She was responsible for erecting large office buildings and hotels, most often working with builder Ranald H. Macdonald & Co.

In May 1903 the two teamed up for another project--the Hotel Walton on the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue and West 70th Street.  Elizabeth's architects, Israels & Harder, filed plans for a "12-story apartment hotel" to cost $600,000--a significant $17.2 million today.

Completed the following year, the architects' toned down design was a bit of a surprise.  At a time when other Beaux Arts-style residence hotels were overladen with a profusion swags and wreaths and other frothy decorations, the Hotel Walton was shockingly restrained.  Its red brick facade above the two-story stone base included limited stone embellishments.  Two-story copper clad projecting bays graced the fifth and sixth floors, adding interest and dimension.

Nevertheless, Israel & Harder let loose Beaux Arts resplendence on the entrance (located on the side street).   Carved bell flowers dripped from the banding of the double-height fluted Corinthian columns of the entrance.  A French-railed balcony sat on scrolled brackets, and a feathery fan filled the semi-round pediment.   Eleven stories above, the elaborate metal cornice sat on heavy brackets.



Ranald H. Macdonald defended the scaled back decoration in June 1908.  He told a journalist from The Real Estate Record & Guide, "The exterior of the building is certainly plain, but I consider it in good taste.  It is not so expensive as some in the city, but the result of giving people something worth while for their money has borne fruit.  I believe there is a waiting list of about forty families desiring to rent suites there."

Residence hotels like the Walton were designed to relieve well-to-do families of the necessity of maintaining a large domestic staff.  Meals could be taken in a common dining room and the building management provided basic services like cleaning, "hall boys" (who delivered packages and handled small chores), and such.   Families could make do with a single maid in most cases.

The Hotel Walton was designed with income-producing stores along Columbus Avenue.  A handsome cornice finished the design.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The tenants of the Hotel Walton were financially comfortable, if not wealthy.  Among the early occupants was Althea Randolph Bedle, the widow of former New Jersey Governor Joseph D. Bedle.   Her grown sons had both gone into the legal profession.  Randolph had graduated from Princeton University and was a practicing lawyer, and Joseph was a former judge.

Althea suffered some public embarrassment in December 1910.  A year earlier she had been concerned that Randolph had a drinking problem.  Therefore, on October 6, 1909 she and Joseph had him committed to the New Jersey State Asylum for the Insane in Morris Plains.  Their belief was that "the close confinement there would assist in saving him from a too strong craving for alcoholic liquors."

Randolph felt otherwise.  He pleaded with friends to help in his release and told Robert O'Donnell, for instance, "Because I drank too much fourteen months ago is not a good reason for keeping me locked up with lunatics.  During the first few days I was a prisoner here I was ill from the effects of the drinking I had done.  As soon as I recovered I realized that unless I was released I was doomed to a living death of horrors."

Randolph's friends rallied to his cause and hired lawyer Alexander Simpson to fight for his release.  Newspapers in several states carried the story as the case played out in court and the Bedles' good name was loosely linked with insanity and alcoholism.

Pianist and writer Harriette Moore Brower lived in the Hotel Walton at the time.  The wrote the column "Page for Pianists" in The Musician and contributed articles to Musical America.  Eventually she would publish ten books, like The Art of the Pianist and Home Help in Music Study.

The rent for the least expensive apartment listed in this 1915 would be equal to about $1,050 a month today.  New-York Tribune, September 12, 1915 (copyright expired)
Nobel McConnell was a partner with his brother in the dry goods commission agency Edward A. McConnell & Co.  But it was his wife, the former Adelaide Dorn, who drew attention.  Adelaide held a physician's degree; although she does not appear to have ever practiced nor used her title.  Instead, she focused on philanthropy and music.

She was the founder and president of the New York Mozart Society, which staged concerts and musicales that often featured some of the most recognized soloists in the country.  Possibly to maintain enthusiasm among the younger members she hosted a monthly dance during the winter seasons.   On October 29, 1916, for instance, The Sun reported "Mrs. Noble McConnell will resume her monthly dance for the choral members, bachelor girls, junior cabinet and ushers of the New York Mozart Society, of which she is president, on the first Wednesday in December at Bretten Hall."

Adelaide McConnell was a visible presence in the Hotel Walton.  Musical Courier, December 25, 1919 (copyright expired)

The McConnell's country residence was upstate and that particular winter season they kept it open.  Although they were back in the Hotel Walton, The Sun noted "but [they] will keep their country home at Scarsdale open throughout the winter and will entertain week end parties there."

Another colorful resident was Colonel N. B. Thurston of the 74th New York Regiment.  Thurston had enlisted in the National Guard in 1877 and saw action in the Spanish-American War.  He assumed command of the 13th Regiment of the Coast Artillery in June, 1914.  In 1902 he had been appointed First Deputy Police Commissioner by Mayor Seth Low.

Rather surprisingly, given his age, he was sent to the Mexican border after President Woodrow Wilson ordered 117,000 National Guardsmen to reinforce U.S. Army garrisons along the border line in 1916.  His wife received devastating news on September 9.  Major George H. Robinson's succinct telegram read "Thurston died tonight of dysentery.  Every one broken-hearted."

In 1910 Manuel Quevedo, Sr. was appointed Cuba's vice-consul in New York City.  He partnered eight years later with his son, Manuel Quevedo, Jr. and J. A. Arroyo to form the Havana Hotel Corporation.  On June 22 that year The Hotel World reported that the new group had taken over the lease of the Hotel Walton and purchased its furniture and equipment.

Little changed in the operation of the Hotel Walton under the Cuban organization.  It did, however, become home to notable Cuban nationals who split their time between New York and their homeland.  Among them was Gabriel Menocal, who owned sugar plantations and a cattle ranch.  The brother of former Cuban President Mario Garcia Menocal, he was here with his wife, Marie, and five children in the winter of 1922.  Four days after he contracted influenza on February 9 the 53-year old died in his apartment.

On June 30 that year 35-year old George Hill entered the dining room of the Hotel Walton with another man and two women.  When their meal was nearly over, Hill called over the head waiter, Alexander Haggis, flashed a shield, and identified himself as a Prohibition agent.  He pointed to the two drinks sitting on the table.

The waiter staunchly denied he had served the drinks, and later told Haggis he had seen Hill remove a flask from his pocket and pour the whisky himself.  As Hill wrote out two summonses, the two waiters continued to protest their innocence.  Then the agent "indicated that everything might be 'fixed up' for $200."

Unwilling to be bullied into paying for a crime that was not committed, Haggis and the Hotel Walton management went to authorities.   As it turned out, Hill was not a Government employee at all.  He was arrested at his home on Amsterdam Avenue on the night of August 26, charged with extortion and impersonating a Federal agent.  The following day The New York Herald reported "in about twenty cases [he] got money from waiters by similar threats."

In 1928 Cuba President Geraldo Machado brought an end to the republic by declaring himself the only legal candidate, thereby ensuring his uncontested election.   His dictatorial actions, including the assassination of revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella, led to a revolt in 1933.

Albert Barreras had been President of the Cuba Senate and was a close friend of the ousted dictator.  He and his family left Havana for their safety.  When his daughter, Sofia, and her husband Carlos Montalvo arrived in New York on August 24, 1933, they moved into the Hotel Walton, well-known among Cubans for decades.

But New York had a substantial community of anti-Machado Cubas, as well; and they quickly discovered where the Montalvos lived.  On the night of September 8, Carlos was standing in the lobby with "two other refugees," as described by The New York Times, when they were "set upon by a group of young Cubans."  There were six or seven in the angry group, but they were bested by the three hard-hitting refugees.   The Times reported Montalvo and his friends "stood off the attacking party with their fists," and that "after an exchange of fisticuffs the assailants fled."

Residents were understandably shaken and one called the police.  The newspaper said "Senor Montalvo...ignored a police warning that he remain indoors until the unrest in Cuba subsides.  When the excitement had died down he took up a post at the hotel's entrance.  Conspicuous in his linen suit, smoking a long, black cigar, he admitted he was waiting for his assailants' return."

He told a reporter "I took care of three of them myself.  They are cowards.  They cannot fight."

The Hotel Walton played a minor part in world politics again in 1946 when one of the store spaces became the offices of the Political Action Committee for Palestine, Inc.  Despite its unassuming headquarters, the group was significant.  In June that year it announced the appointment of a board of seven to investigate conditions in the prison camps of Palestine and the concentration camps of Eritrea, Africa.  Concurrently it announced the appointment of eight new members of the executive board, including Governor Lester C. Hunt of Wyoming, Joseph E. Davis, former United States Ambassador to Russia, and Dr. Wallace W. Atwood, president of Clark University in Massachusetts.



In 1950 a renovation resulted in 13 apartments per floor.  Among the residents in the now-smaller spaces in 1955 was Marie Monell.  Although her second floor apartment contained just one bedroom; she still brought her 12 year old niece, Olga Cassanova, from the Virgin Islands to live with her.

The two managed for two years.  In 1957 Olga was enrolled as an eighth grade student at the Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic School on West 70th Street.   But on the night of May 20 that year, she and her aunt got into a serious argument.  Olga stormed out of the apartment and, unknown to Marie, headed upstairs rather than to the street.

At about 9:15 someone noticed the 14-year old girl standing on the edge of the roof.  Police arrived and pleaded with her not to jump as a growing crowd assembled on the street.  The police worked with Olga for about 20 minutes.  The Times reported "Several hundred persons watched as the girl threatened to jump.  She plunged from the ledge at 9:42 o'clock."  Olga died instantly.

In 1958 Cuba was once again on the brink of revolution.  And once again the Hotel Walton played a small part.  Despite its tradition of being a refuge of the Cuban establishment--or perhaps because of it--it was the scene of a press conference by Dr. Mario Lierena, chairman of the Committee in Exile of the 26th of July Movement, and Judge Manuel Urrutia, Fidel Castro's choice for Provisional President to replace President Fulgencio Batista.

During the event, the men predicted "that President Batista would fall from power by the end of the month," according to The Times on April 4, 1958.  "At the same time, the spokesman also declared that the 26th of July Movement, headed by Senor Castro, would reject any cooperation from Communists in Cuba."

As the decades passed, the Hotel Walton settled into a much less political role and disappeared from the news.  It was to most just another brick apartment building.   In 1980 another renovation resulted in eight apartments per floor, and an added penthouse level that includes three apartments and half of a duplex which extends to the 11th floor.  Sadly, the cornice--all-important to the 1903 design--was removed, leaving a decidedly unfinished appearance.

photographs by the author

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Lost Adolph Lewisohn Mansion - 9 West 57th Street


The original appearance of the 1870 house was similar to the houses on either side..  The Architectural Record, July 1900 (copyright expired)
On March 29, 1895 Ernest Rudolph Gunther hosted what The New York Times described as "a very pretty 'stage dinner.'"  The guest of honor was Russian Prince Lubecki.  The newspaper added, "Covers were laid for ten persons."

Gunther's four-story brownstone rowhouse at No. 9 West 57th Street was well-known for such entertainments.  The New York Tribune remarked that same year that Gunther was "a clever conversationalist and extremely popular among club men and the people who comprise what is known as the best society in New York.  An invitation to one of the frequent musicales, given at his residence, is prized very highly by members of the New York smart set."

The house was new when Gunther's father, German-born furrier William H. Gunther, purchased it for $100,000 in 1875.  The price--nearly $2 million today--and the 30-foot width reflected the exclusivity of the neighborhood, just steps from Fifth Avenue.  Following the senior Gunther's death, the family sold the house in March 1897 for $165,000.

Seven months later, on October 24, the New York Journal and Advertiser reported that Adolph Lewisohn had filed plans "for alterations costing $50,000" to the house.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide added more details, noting that the architects would be Brunner & Tryon and the work would include "extensive interior and exterior alterations, including new front."

The project was an early example of the sweeping remakes of outdated homes in fashionable neighborhoods.  The architects removed the stoop and facade, lowering the entrance to two steps above the sidewalk.   Drab brownstone was replaced by white limestone and the matronly 1870's personality gave way to modern French exuberance.

The columned entrance portico supported a one-story faceted bay which morphed into a blustraded balcony at the third floor, accessed by sets of French doors.  Another stone balcony graced the third floor.   A stone balustrade perched above the bracketed cornice.

The interiors of the Lewisohn home were decorated by well-known artists.  Edwin H. Blashfield painted the ceiling of the music room with a fresco entitled "Music," as well as other decorations; and he painted "Dance" in a hallway panel.  Joseph Lauber's "Psyche at the Spring" adorned a window panel.

Like William Gunther, Adolph Lewisohn was born in Germany.   Three years after his father's death in 1872 he came to New York City at the age of 16 to assist his brothers in their mercantile business, Adolph Lewisohn & Son.  He quickly became the moving force in the operation.

Not long after arriving in America he had met Thomas Edison.  The meeting led to Lewisohn's realization that the conductive properties of copper would make it vital in electrifying the country.  The Lewisohn brothers were among the first investors in western copper mines.

On June 26, 1878 Adolph married Emma Cahn.  The couple had four children, Clara, Adele, Sam and Julius.  By the time he purchased the former Gunther house Lewisohn had branched into banking as well, and had amassed a vast fortune which enabled him to indulge his love of the arts.  He filled the residence with a notable collection of paintings (his favorites being of the Barbizon School and later Impressionist works) and modern sculptures.  The Lewisohn were ardent patrons of the musical arts, as well, and were important supporters of facilities like the Metropolitan Opera.

The renovations to the 57th Street mansion were completed just in time for a major event.  On April 26, 1899 The New York Times reported "Alfred Rossin and Miss Clara Lewisohn were married yesterday afternoon at 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."

The bride's parents spent lavishly on the floral decorations.  "The ceremony was performed in the drawing room, beneath a canopy formed of white roses.  Garlands of the same flowers, pink in color, festooned the windows, mantel, and doorways.  The music and dining rooms were gay with American Beauty roses.  Palms were plentifully used in the decorations."

The Lewisohns were well known for their generous philanthropies.  On October 16, 1904, for instance, the directors of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Orphan Asylum announced that Adolph had contributed $25,000 to its building fund.  The New-York Tribune added, "The Lewisohn family has been liberal in contributions to the asylum, Adolph Lewisohn having given previously $15,000."

Three years later, on August 11, 1907, the newspaper noted "although  he has been exceedingly liberal in his donations to other charitable and education institutions, the Sheltering Guardian Society is said to be his pet.  He contributed $140,000 to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, where children of poor people may learn useful trades and fit themselves to earn a living."

By the time of the article he had also given $50,000 to the Jewish Protectory, erected the chapel for the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver, and built a "large annex to the Jewish hospital at Hamburg, Germany, where Mr. Lewisohn was born." He he also had completed a complex of free housing in Hamburg for the needy, donated a chemical laboratory to Dartmouth College, the Pathological Building to Mount Sinai Hospital, and the School of Mines Building to Columbia.

The Lewisohns became unwitting participants in a scam in 1906.  The first indication of the scheme came early on the morning of February 9 when the butler answered the servants' bell.  He opened the door to what The New York Times described as "a shabbily dressed young woman."  She told him, "I've come to work.  Mr. Lewisohn has engaged me as cook."

The butler checked, then informed the woman she was mistaken.  Ten minutes later another woman appeared, then another.  Before noon at least 30 would-be cooks had rung the bell.  Lewisohn learned of the parade of women appearing at the servants' entrance and complained to the police.

An investigation quickly uncovered the swindle by a "Mrs. White."  The Times explained "Mrs. White's game is to call upon women advertisers for situations and tell them that they are to be employed by some well-to-do person.  Mrs. White then finds that she has lost her pocketbook and needs $10 temporarily, of course.  In many cases the money was paid."

In 1906 architects Coutler & Westhoff were commissioned to design Lewisohns' 20-bedroom summer home.  The following year, on October 6, 1907, the New-York Tribune reported "The new week-end home of Adolph Lewisohn on his 315-acre farm at Ardsley, N.Y., is rapidly nearing completion, and when all the plans have been carried out it will probably be one of the show places of that part of the country."

Landscape architect James L. Greenleaf designed the grounds, which included greenhouses, tennis courts, and a private golf course.  The Tribune wrote "Mr. Lewisohn's family will have an excellent attraction for week-end parties and an objective point for automobile trips."

Press coverage of the Lewisohn family was routinely positive, most often reporting on generous gifts.  An notable exception to that came about in the summer of 1908.  On August 11 the wife of mechanical engineer James W. Ellis was standing with her children on a street corner in Perth Amboy, New Jersey when Lewisohn's chauffeur, James Pettit, lost control of the limousine.

The "unmanageable" vehicle, as described by The Sun, ran into the family.  The newspaper reported that "Mr. Ellis's daughter had her leg broken and the other members of the family were bruised."   On December 1 a summons was served on Lewisohn in his Broadway office "to recover $107,000 damages."    Included in that amount was $10,000 "for the loss of his wife's services during the time she was recovering from the accident."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
In March 1913 The New York Times devoted nearly an entire page to the Lewisohn collections.  The article said in part "Among notable American collectors of literary and artistic treasures is Adolph Lewisohn, whose city mansion, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, and country home at Ardsley contain many rare books, manuscripts, and pictures, the result of their owners' activities as a collector during the past twenty or more years.  On every floor of Mr. Lewisohn's urban residence the art lover will find objects that will surely hold his or her interest."

The article listed rare volumes, like the "beautifully illuminated Persian manuscript of seventy-three folio leaves entitles 'Marvels of the World'" with its more than 50 miniatures, and the 1466 volume of Cicero's Offices.  Other books pointed out included a first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, a third folio Shakespeare, and the 17th century works of Ben Jonson.

While public attention tended to focus on Adolph, Emma was active in philanthropic work as well.  Among her favorite causes was the Penny Lunch program in public schools.  Underprivileged children were provided with wholesome, hot lunches for one cent; the actual cost of the meals coming from donations from people like Emma.

By now the once-exclusive neighborhood around No. 9 West 57th Street was becoming increasingly commercial.  As they had done nearly two decades earlier, in January 1915 the Lewisohns commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to renovate a brownstone house at No. 881 Fifth Avenue into a modern mansion.  But before their new home was ready, Emma died at their Ardsley estate on July 28, 1916 at the age of 60.  She had been ill for several months.

In what may have been a gesture to his wife's concern for feeding the poor, Lewisohn provided the 57th Street mansion for a meeting of women on March 5, 1917.  According to The Times, "Sarah Goldstein and other Brownsville women and East Side women will tell what they suffer from the high cost of food."

It would be the last event in the mansion as a private home.  The following month Lewisohn leased it for 21 years to Tappe, Inc. milliners.  The Sun reported on May 1 "The building is to be completely changed.  A new facade will be built and the interior altered to suit the needs of the tenant."

In its June 1917 edition, Millinery Trade Review reported that "Tappe has outgrown its present quarters to such an extent that a removal to the former residence of Adolph Lewisohn has been necessitated, and will be accomplished in the near future...An entirely new entrance is to replace the present one, in the style of the Early Italian Directoire, and the interior arrangements will display the Early Victorian characteristics."
The dapper Herman Patrick Tappe was considered on par with Henri Bendel  Millinery Trade Review, June 1917 (copyright expired)
Before Herman Patrick Tappe set his contractors loose on remodeling the interiors, he gave his employees "a very noteworthy ball" in the mansion.   His female workers dressed in 1830's gowns and officers from a French warship anchored in the Hudson River were invited for "added zest to the affair."

Interestingly, while Adolph Lewisohn retained ownership of what was now called "the Tappe Building," he began buying up other properties on his former block as investment.   On January 11, 1919 the Record & Guide reported he had purchased the two houses at Nos. 27 and 29 West 59th Street, adding "he already owns 10 and 12 West 57th street, known as the 'Bendel Building," as well as No. 31 West 57th Street and, of course, his own former mansion.

Like his landlord, Herman Tappe was an avid art collector.  His second floor apartment at No. 555 Madison Avenue was described by The New York Times as being "furnished in Victorian style with hundreds of valuable objects of art" including "oil paintings of great value, tapestries and needle-point lace curtains."  When fire broke out on the first floor of that building on November 7, 1927, Tappe "had some anxious moments."  Among the belongings he personally carried out to the street was a Rembrandt valued at $150,000.

Tappe's upscale shop was still at No. 9 West 57th Street at the time, but he would soon be gone.  In 1930 it was home to the art gallery of Julius H. Weitzner.  He dealt in masterworks like the self portrait of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, purchased by the Smith College Museum of Art in December that year.

It may have been the Great Depression that resulted in Weitzner's stay in the building to be short-lived.  For whatever reason it closed in 1933.  On April 13 The New York Times reported "With the assistance of Ed Wynn, Harry Herschfield and other stars of the theatre, Thrift House, a new venture in raising funds for relief work and other philanthropic activities, will be opened today at 9 West Fifty-seventh Street."  The store sold contributed items, both old and new, ranging from"wearing apparel, pins and bird cages to kitchen equipment and furniture."  The proceeds went to the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies.

The Lewisohn family continued to buy properties along the 57th Street block.  Following its purchase of No. 42 in April 1946, The New York Times noted "The Lewisohns figured in many deals on Fifty-seventh Street which resulted in development of a shopping center there."  At the time of the article, No. 9 was being leased to the Pepsi-Cola Company.

The much altered mansion survived into the second half of the 20th century.  Finally billionaire Sheldon Solow commissioned architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a skyscraper on a site engulfing the property.  Completed in 1974 the sloping, 50-story Solow Building is a landmark in its own right.



Saturday, April 14, 2018

The 1865 Germania Building - 175 Broadway




At the end of the Civil War, thousands of working class New Yorkers returned home.  Construction of new buildings, which had ground to a near halt during the war, surged.  On May 17, 1867 The New York Times commented on "the extraordinary transforming" going on below Canal Street and said few "who have passed through the streets...can have failed to express astonishment."

The article pointed out the extravagant amounts owners were expending on the new structures.  "This change has been going on since early in 1865.  The vast fortunes accumulated during the war by down-town traders have here built themselves a lasting foundation, it is to be hoped, in iron, marble, and brown-stone."

Included in the article's long list of new structures was the Germania Fire Insurance Company building at No. 175 Broadway, commenced in May 1865 and completed just six months later.  The cost was placed at $40,000--around $621,000 today.

Organized on March 2, 1859, the Germania Fire Insurance Company catered to, for the most part, the German-speaking immigrants who were more comfortable doing business in their native language.  It was one of several organizations that served the German community, including the Germania Life Insurance Company and the Germania Bank.

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 4, 1898 (copyright expired)

The architect of the Germania Building, whose name has been lost. created a four-story office building in the up-to-the-minute French Second Empire style.  A stoop led to the first floor above the store space in the basement level.  Three bays wide, the structure featured the trappings of the new mid-Victorian style--elaborate Corinthian capitals, foliate brackets, and an eye-catching decorative balcony.  Urn-shaped finials graced the parapet which included the building's name and construction date.

While the main office of the Germania Fire Insurance Company was here, the firm continued to maintain a building on the Bowery in the German neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland.  Sharing the building with the insurance firm was the New York Underwriters' Agency.  It had been organized by four insurance companies, including Germania, to provide "the property owner one single policy in a combination of four companies."

Offices in the upper floors were leased out.  The rapid growth of railroads In the mid-1870's led to the formation of dozens of small freight lines.  On March 31, 1875 The New York Times laid out the various types of railroads--the "fast freight lines," the "trunk railways," and the "commission lines," for instance.  The article noted that at least two railroad offices were located at No. 175 Broadway--The Commercial Express and The International Line.

About that time a competitive tenant moved in--the Commerce Fire Insurance Company.  But the fledgling firm did not fare so well as its landlord.  On May 7, 1878 The Times reported that its directors "have been discussing and considering the advisability of closing up the business of the company."

In the spring of 1890 Germania Fire Insurance Company left Broadway, selling its former headquarters to J. B. Lounsberry in May for $205,000, nearly $7 million in today's dollars.   Lounsberry's tenants on the lower levels were the upscale Gotham Restaurant in the basement, the North River Insurance Company in the former Germania Fire Insurance space on the first floor, and gentlemen's tailors Tappen & Pierson on the second.  The jewelry district was encroaching into the neighborhood as evidenced by the Equitable Jewelry Company and the Silver Novelty Company on the third floor., and diamond dealers E. Karelson & Co. on the fourth.

At around 11:00 on Christmas Eve 1891 fire broke out in the building.  The New York Times reported that it "burned stubbornly for over an hour before it was subdued."  The top two floors were gutted and the tenants on the lower floors suffered damage from smoke, water, and falling plaster.  The Gotham, which The Times described as "an expensively-furnished restaurant," had about $2,000 in damages.  Damage to the building itself was estimated at $4,000.

In May 1898 the building was leased by the German-American Real Estate Title Guarantee Co.  In announcing the move, the Record & Guide opined "This is an important move and one that real estate interests will appreciate."  The firm had operated from No. 34 Nassau Street, but had outgrown that space and "the management has though it advisable to get upon the thoroughfare of main business travel."

The German-American Real Estate title Guarantee Co. was a multi-service organization.  It not only examined and insured titles to properties, it supplied loans and mortgages.  Unfortunately, the Record & Guide's optimism for the firm did not hold true and in 1902 it declared bankruptcy.

In its place the Oriental Bank moved in temporarily, while it completed construction on its building across the street and the southeast corner of Broadway and John Street.  A variety of businesses took offices in the upper floors, including jewelry merchants, one of which was the W. F. Doll Manufacturing Company.

On Saturday evening, December 20, 1903, thieves broke into W. F. Doll's shop at around 6:00.  They broke open a showcase and made off with three dozen watches, four "watch bracelets," and about six watch fobs.  The value of the goods was about $500.  Newspapers reported "the police have no clue to the thieves."

Jewelry firms occupied the upper floors in the early years of the 20th century.  The stoop survived at the time of this photograph.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Another Saturday night theft happened on November 9, 1912 when four crooks broke into the Bennett Manufacturing Company.  This time the haul was enormous--the jewelry and silverware they took was valued at $10,000, more than a quarter of a million dollars today.  Police were fairly certain it was committed by the same gang who had pulled off two large diamond burglaries on Maiden Lane.  One of the men left behind a bottle which held a distinct fingerprint--a relatively new form of forensic evidence.

A week later detectives made two simultaneous raids on apartments in the Bronx and arrested the suspected gang.   Theirs was no small operation.  Police found burglars' tools, an "outfit for tapping telegraph and telephone wires," a wireless radio apparatus, two revolvers, and check and date stamps.  The Times reported "Inspector Fauor took the fingerprints of the four men and compared them with the marks on a bottle which was found after the burglary at the Bennett Manufacturing plant.  The impression on the bottle, he said, tallied with the print of the index finger of 'Little" Alter's right hand."

By the time of the latest burglary, No. 175 had been owned by John G. Wendel for years.  He operated his real estate office from the building, as well.  A near hermit, he lived with his unmarried daughters in a mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street, constructed in 1856.  He had amassed an extraordinary amount of Manhattan real estate and, subsequently, a massive fortune.  But his eccentric and reclusive ways made him "a curious and impressive figure," according to one newspaper.

When he died in December 1914, leaving and estate of some $60 million, The Times said he was often dismissed as "an old fogy, a stand-patter, a foe of progress."  It recounted the often-told story of his refusing a $1 million offer on the garden lot next to his outdated mansion.  He needed it, he said, "for his dog."

Wendel's daughters were no less eccentric.  They wore old clothes, hung their laundry in the garden, and, according to The Times two months after their father's death, “The sisters never ride in a street car and never in their lives have they been in an automobile.  They never shop in the fashionable district, for things are too expensive there.  They buy all their groceries and supplies in the inexpensive little shops over on Sixth Avenue and make their purchases personally, seldom letting them be delivered but carrying them home themselves and paying for them with cash.  They are quick to see bargains and watch for them like the poorest housewife.”

In 1923 No. 175 (left) still retained its rooftop finials, but a show window now took the place of the stoop and former first floor.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Wendel Estate continued to manage its vast real estate holdings from No. 175.  Georgia Wendel was now the owner of record of the property.

Several tenants in the building encountered problems in 1929.  Attorney Stanley Shirk (a distant relative of the Wendel family) met a client, Josiah H. Scott, at the pier on May 6 as the ocean liner California docked.  Shirk stood by while customs officials checked Scott's bags, then was "outraged" when a bottle of liquor was confiscated.

Shirk fired off a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, which said in part "Because of his illness his physician had prescribed liquor and Mr. Scott had the prescription filled in California...I hereby respectfully request that you instruct your subordinates to return this medicinal liquor without delay."

It turned out that getting the bottle back was not so simple.  The Assistant Collector of the Port explained Scott would have to get a permit for the liquor from his local Prohibition Director and present that to the authorities in order for it to be released.

Another tenant in the sights of Customs officials that year was diamond broker Sidney Sherman.  On the night of September 18 Charles Eechleirs arrived at Sherman's home on  Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.  Why the 44-year old diamond dealer would have business with an employee of the Red Star liner Belgenland was explained when Customs agents raided the house.

In Eechleirs's shoe was $12,000 worth of unset, smuggled gems.  The agents had focused in on Eechleirs after a long investigation, and followed him to the Sherman home.  Not only were both men arrested, but the following morning agents went to No. 175 Broadway and arrested Sherman's 26-year old stenographer, Nina Silverstein.  All three were charged with "conspiracy to violate the tariff and customs laws."

Nothing was out of the ordinary in the second floor jewelry store of Bennett Brothers two months later on December 19,   Gail and Herbert Bennett's dozen employees were at work at 7:00 when the owners did their customary check of the stock.  Everything was in place as it should have been.

But then, when they checked again at 9:30, a tray of rings was missing from a showcase.  The Times reported "During the two and a half hours in which the tray must have been taken, customers were coming and going.   At all times there were eight employes on duty, and customers were in the store in groups of from six to eight."  The tray held 24 solitaire diamond rings, valued at $15,000.  Police were called, but "there seemed to be no clue to its disappearance."

Earlier that year, on January 18, Georgiana G. R. Wendel had died.  Calling the 79-year old an "aged spinster," The Times reminded had reminded its readers that she and her sister, Ella, "lived in seclusion" in the anachronistic mansion on Fifth Avenue.  Stanley Shirk announced that the control of the estate would be handed over to Ella.

It would be a short-lived arrangement, however.  Ella V. Von E. Wendel, "the last of her line," died in the old brick mansion in March 1931.  In reporting her death, The Times ran a sub-headline that read "Huge Realty Holdings Valued at $100,000,000 Are Left With No Kin to Claim Them."

The mansion had slowly been closed up, room by room, over the years.  The newspaper said "When Ella died, she had been using only her bedroom and the dining room, wandering only occasionally into a big front room on the top floor, where she and her five sisters had once learned the reading, writing and arithmetic which their father thought was the sufficient education of a young woman at the time of the Civil War."

The massive real estate holdings, including No. 175 Broadway, passed to the Wendel Foundation, with offices in No. 175.  Ella's personal fortune of more than $36 million, went mostly to "public bequests."

No. 175 was home at the time to Patrick Francis Murphy's Mark Cross leather goods store.  The Rosenstein Brothers operated their fabrics business from an upper floor.  They were honored in 1933 by supplying the silk for gown Eleanor Roosevelt wore to the Inaugural Ball in Washington.

In the 1930's  the low block of 19th century buildings survived among towering modern structures.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

But as the decade wore on, a far different set of tenants would occupy the aging cast iron building.  It was home by 1939 to the socialist group, the Workmen's Circle, "a national labor and fraternal organization."  Within the decade the Yiddith Writers Union had moved in.   A letter to its president, Dr. Louis Herdin, arrived on March 22, 1945 from President Franklin Roosevelt.   The president lauded the standards of the Yiddish press, saying it had fostered and strengthened "the ideals of freedom and democracy for which we fight today."

As the end of the 20th century neared, No. 175 had become an unlikely Victorian survivor in a neighborhood filled with soaring skyscrapers.  In 1997 it was joined internally with No. 177 and the two lower floors were seriously vandalized with a modern storefront engulfing both properties.


The window glass of the upper floors have been pained to match the facade and the decorative finials above the parapet were lost long ago.  But the beleaguered beauty of the structure still peers down on Broadway after more than a century and a half.

photographs by the author

Friday, April 13, 2018

A French Facelift - 17 East 83rd Street



Edward Livingston entrusted his contractor, John H. James, with two $1,200 checks on November 7, 1895.  James, who lived in Cornwall, New York, was doing work for him and told Livingston that he was staying with "Mrs. Woods" at No. 17 East 83rd Street.  James left with the checks--worth nearly $75,000 today--and headed for the Bank of America.  That was the last time he was seen.

On November 11 The New York Times reported "The brownstone residence at 17 East Eighty-third Street was closed when a reporter called there yesterday, and it appeared as if it were not occupied.  A card showing that it is for rent is displayed.  A ring at the bell brought two servants from the basement.  They said that Mrs. Woods had gone to Cornwall."

The home of the mysterious Mrs. Woods was identical to others on the north side of 83rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.   Two bays wide, it was faced in brownstone.  A stone stoop rose above the high English basement.   Molded architrave frames embraced the openings of the upper stories and a handsome bracketed cornice completed the design.

Following the turn of the century No. 17 was owned by David Lydig, who used it as an investment property.  His fascinating tenant was attorney Abram Jesse Dittenhoefer.  Born in Charleston, South Carolina to Jewish-German immigrants Isaac and Babette Dittenhoefer in 1837, he had moved to New York prior to the Civil War.  He was now a member in the firm of Dittenhoefer & Gerber.  His wife, the former Sophie Englehardt, died in 1900.  The couple had had five children, Estelle, Belle, Edith, Blanche and Irving.

Abram J. Dittenhoefer - original source unknown

Living with her father was Estelle, who had never married.  The 50-year old spinster was a member of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York in 1912.  Her interests in things political was understandable, given her father's background.

Abram Dittenhoefer first garnered attention during the Civil War.  A Jewish Republican leader and staunch abolitionist, he lived on West 34th Street and Eighth Avenue and was instrumental in directing Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaigns.  He first met Lincoln on the night of February 27, 1860 after the candidate's famous speech at Cooper Union.

When the Draft Riots broke out in 1863.   On July 12 a mob formed in front of the house. shouting "Down with the abolitionists" and "Death to Dittenhoefer."  According to Dittenhoefer years later, a messenger who was spirited out of the house ran to the police.  Their "active club work" managed to dispel the crowd.

Dittenhoefer worked closely with Lincoln and the two men became friends.  He described the President in a letter to Isaac Markens which said in part "While an air of melancholy seemed always to suffuse his features, I always regarded President Lincoln as the most genial of men."  He later said, "He was a very awkward man, but after he began to talk, he was awkwardness deified."

Lincoln was not the only President whose career was boosted by Dittenhoefer.  In 1880 James A. Roosevelt brought his nephew, Theodore Roosevelt, to Dittenhoefer's office "and said that the young man desired to embark upon a political career," according to The Sun years later.

"Mr. Dittenhoefer said he was interested in young Roosevelt and promised to help him along in the politics of the Twenty-first Assembly district.  A little later Theodore Roosevelt got his first nomination and went to the Assembly after a comparatively featureless campaign."

In 1913 David Lydig renewed Dittenhoefer's lease for another 10 years.  That same year he commissioned architect John H. O'Rourke to do minor renovations to the house, amounting to $700.

Dittenhoefer published his highly popular How We Elected Lincoln: Personal Recollections in 1916.  The following year on March 17 his home was the scene of a brilliant reception in honor of his 80th birthday.  The Emanu-El Review reported "The revered celebrant received more than two hundred letters and telegrams of congratulations, as well as numerous gifts and other attentions."

On the night of February 23, 1919 Abram J. Dittenhoefer suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage in the house.  The Sun not only called him the "last surviving elector of President Lincoln," but "one of the best known authorities on international copyright law."

The following year the estate of David Lydig sold No. 17 to real estate operator James W. Bulmer for $55,000--about $673,000 in today's dollars.  Bulmer was manager and a director in the real estate office of Harris & Vaughan.  The New-York Tribune reported on February 10, 1920 that the firm planned to make "extensive alterations into American basement."

The "American basement" plan had replaced the English basement with its high stoop years earlier.  While the stoop was removed and the entrance lowered, the completed renovations did not change the floor levels.  The doorway was now at the former basement level, several steps below the sidewalk, and the original entrance was only slightly disguised as a baluster-fronted window.  Fussy French-style cartouches and a swan neck pediment above the doorway gave the old rowhouse a Beaux Arts touch.

The original appearance of the upper floors can be seen in No. 17's next door neighbor.
The renovated house became home to heiress Llewellyn S. Parsons.  The daughter of Charles and Sarah Johnson Shepley Parsons, Llewellyn never married.   While the house appears to have been rarely the scene of entertainments, Llewellyn's name (always reported as "Miss") regularly appeared in society columns.  Her summer home was in Kennebunk, Maine.  Following her death at the age of 81 on September 27, 1956 she was buried in the Hope Cemetery there.

Within months of Llewellyn's death No. 17 was converted to apartments--a duplex on former parlor and second floors and two apartments on each of the top two.  The ground floor became the Aaron Furman Gallery.  Among first exhibitions here, in October 1957, was of "various interpretations of animal forms by pre-Columbian, African and ancient Chinese artists," according to The Times.  The newspaper said "It is the kind of show that should be seen piece by piece rather than style by style."

Change came to No. 17 once again in 2003 when it was re-converted to a single family home.  It was the scene of a "major gift dinner" hosted by Louis and Patrice Friedman on November 4, 2010 for Stanford University alumni.

The Library paneling appears to be original.  photo via 6sqft
The house was back on the market in 2015 with an asking price of $24.5 million.  While decades of renovations eliminated much of the 1920 interiors (and certainly nearly nothing of the original 1870's detailing remains), some rooms survive surprisingly intact.  And outside little has changed since James Bulmer gave the mundane brownstone a new French personality.

photographs by the author

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The 1897 Rawitser Building - 380-384 Canal Street



As the 19th century drew to a close, the architectural firm of Brunner & Tryon was busy designing commercial structures throughout the city.  On August 20, 1897 they filed plans for a six-story "brick store and loft" at the southeast corner of Canal Street and West Broadway.  The description gave little hint of the striking structure to come.

Developers S. & H. Rawitser may been somewhat cost conscious, for the Rawitser Building would be almost entirely clad in brick--a cheaper alternative to stone.  Nevertheless, the large structure, which occupies a 75 x 100 foot lot, cost $100,000 to construct, more than $3 million today.

Brunner & Tryon chamfered the corner, allowing for a prominent storefront entrance crowned with a round opening surrounded by exuberant carvings.  Three identical entrances were interspersed along West Broadway on and another on Canal Street.   Cast iron show windows between the banded limestone piers of the ground floor flooded the retail space with natural light.

The upper floors, divided into three sections by prominent cornices, were faced in buff brick which mimicked the banded stone of the ground floor.  The fifth and sixth floors exploded in Beaux Arts gusto with frothy carved decorations.  Arched pediments interrupted the straight line of the fifth floor cornice, which dripped lions' heads, blind roundels, and flowers down the facade.   The round windows above the entrances were mimicked at the sixth floor, uniting the overall design.

Horse-drawn vehicles fill the streets in front of the newly-completed building. Architectural League Catalogue, 1898 (copyright expired)  
The building filled with a surprising array of tenants, including window shade manufacturer Richard J. Cullen, here in 1899.  His advertisements suggested his shade for use by builders and architects for "estates, hotels, apartment houses and office buildings."

Before the turn of the century, The International Arithmachine Co. of Chicago opened its New York office in the building.  The firm manufactured a single, astounding product--an early example of the hand-held calculator.  The company would remain in the building at least through 1903.

from Meyer Brothers Druggist magazine, December 1900 (copyright expired)

The early years of the 20th century saw, among other tenants, an influx of high-end pen manufacturers and sellers.  George W. Heath & Co. advertised its Masonic-themed pen in 1907.  Customers could order "emblems of all the leading fraternal societies," which were "a beautiful combination of gold and enamel."  The pricey pens retailed for $4--about $110 today.

Other tenants, too, dealt with gold and gems.  S. L. Van Wezel employed 61 men in his diamond cutting establishment in 1913.  At the same time Isidore Kottle, whose shop turned out gold and silver umbrella and cane handles, had 20 men and one boy on its payroll.

State factory inspectors recorded that Van Wezel's huge workforce worked 62 hours per week in 1913.  advertisement from The Sun, May 16, 1915 (copyright expired)

In 1916 two more pen makers moved in, the Liberty Pen Co., and the Commercial Pen Manufacturing Company.  Century metals Products Company took the top floor that year as well.

A far different sort of company was J. P. Gorman Co., which marketed its E-Z-Way "demountable wheel sets" for Ford motorcar owners in 1918.  A replacement for the standard Ford wheels, they were touted as much easier to change.  The Motor Age commented on the invention on September 5 and noted the set included "four complete wheel changes with inside flanges, extra Ford wheel, spare wheel carrier and socket wrench."

The Automobile Trade Directory, 1918 (copyright expired)
Making expensive pens required an inventory of  gold and silver, a tantalizing cache for thieves.  Late on the night of November 29, 1920 burglars climbed the rear fire escape and broke into the Liberty Fountain and Pen Company.  The Evening World dipped into the jargon of hoodlums to describe the crime.

"In a room near the office in front of the building they drilled the big safe, put in the 'soup,' lugging a heavy filing cabinet from the offices and using it as a 'blanket' to deaden the noise and force of the explosion.  The explosion, however, did not do the full job and the burglars were compelled to drill a bigger hole and finally tear the door off with a 'drag.'"

Ignoring the silver and the cash in the safe, the crooks loaded $1,800 in gold bullion into their bags.  They were unable to crack the "burglar-proof receptacle" within the safe, despite numerous attempts.  "This receptacle contained $6,800 worth of gold, used in the manufacture of pens," said The Evening World on December 2.  Nonetheless, the heist netted the robbers about $22,000 worth of bullion in today's dollars.

The diverse tenant list was exemplified by the Parr-Loichot Engine Corp., whose offices were in the building at the same time.  The firm dealt in motor boat engines--about as different from gold fountain pens as a product could be.


By the early 1940s Henry C. Roberts had opened Roberts Art Gallery and bookstore on the ground floor.  Far south of the established gallery district of Fifth and Madison Avenues, it presaged the numerous galleries that would engulf the Tribeca district half a century later.

In October 1946 Roberts opened a permanent display of modern American art that included promising amateurs.  The New York Times reported on October 12 it encompassed "the remaining paintings of the Federal Art Projects; wood sculpture by Nicholas Mocharniuk; American genre paintings by Harry Roseland; original drawings of GI art, from Yank Magazine, and water-colors by Carl Benton Compton."

About two decades earlier Roberts had stumbled across a bust of Abraham Lincoln in a Salvation Army storeroom.  He paid $5 for the piece, and then began studying the president and collecting Linconiana.  As it turned out, the bust was the first ever made of Lincoln, executed by Leonard W. Volk in 1860 from several live sittings.

In 1860 Volk posed with his unfinished bust.  original source unkown
Roberts added to his collection with an 1849 campaign photograph.  An inscription on the back said it was presented to Lincoln by Pole Lewis on November 6, 1860, the day he was elected to the presidency.  Roberts purchased it following the owner's death in 1937 for $20.

On July 28, 1947 Roberts put his entire Lincoln collection on display in the gallery.  Along with the exceedingly rare bust and photograph was a copy of Lincoln's death mask; a plaster cast of his right hand, made before his presidency; and engravings and lithographs created during his term in office.

The New York Times wrote an article about the opening of the exhibition, giving special attention to the bust and printing a photograph of it.  It drew nation-wide attention, especially since Roberts mentioned in the article that he would eventually like to donate the collection to a national institution.

Letters from across the country arrived at the Canal Street gallery and bookstore.  Then, in February 1949. one arrived from Frank T. Gartside, assistant superintendent of the National Park Service.  In it he said his department "would be happy to receive the bust to be placed in the Lincoln Museum housed in the Ford Theatre."  It was the sort of place Roberts had envisioned for the item and he donated it--valued at about $50,000 at the time--to the museum.

The colorful Henry C. Roberts was interested as well in other-worldly things.  He sometimes gave lectures on the 16th century seer Nostradamus and once explained "My aim in life is to help people help themselves by developing their psychic powers.  I've got extra-sensory perception developed to a very high degree.  I found these powers through studying Nostradamus.  Some people say I am Nostradamus Redivivus, which means Nostradamus revived."  In 1947 he published The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus.

Roberts's unusual personality drew a reporter from The Times to his shop in 1949.  He commented "in the dimmest corner of an age-haunted room Mr. Roberts sat at a battered desk, doddling with a quill pen.  The grudging glow of a brass lamp picked out a bronze skull on the desk."

Roberts pointed to a hanging planter of ivy and said "I can look at that bowl and see things."  His wife was less impressed than was the reporter.  "See if you see a steak.  You didn't eat all day," she retorted.

In 1951 Roberts announced he would be retiring.  The New York Times commented "The rambling place was a sort of combination bookstore and curiosity shop.  Its proprietor himself sometimes seemed uncertain of all it contained."  No doubt the most interesting character to lease space in the building's history, Roberts died in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Brooklyn on January 24, 1966 at the age of 76.

In 1980 the space where Roberts had operated his gallery and bookstore was transformed into a restaurant-bar.  For a decade it was home to Smoke Stacks Lightnin' bar which Moira Hodgson of The New York Times called "a restful place for a late-afternoon drink" in 1981.  She added "It is popular among artists who can no longer afford to live in SoHo and have moved down to TriBeCa."

In 1990 the space became Tsubaki House, a jazz-oriented cabaret.  Today the entire ground floor is vacant, a condition that could cause locals and preservationists trepidation.


Because the Rawitser Building sits outside the Tribeca Historic District, its intact facade--including the amazingly surviving storefront level--is unprotected.  Owners or tenants have no restrictions on altering the building and potentially vandalizing Brunner & Tryon's striking 1897 building.

photographs by the author