|The renovated house, unlike its flanking neighbors, disguises its residential roots.|
When Rufus Wilmot Griswold moved back to New York City from Philadelphia in 1850, the 35-year old was firmly established in the literary world. Born in Vermont in 1815, he descended from two of the oldest families in America. He was the ninth generation from George Griswold, who arrived from Kenilworth, England in the 17th century; and his mother’s earliest ancestor in America was Thomas Mayhew, the first Governor of Martha’s Vineyard.
Although Griswold had received a theological degree, he chose instead a literary profession. As a young man he had worked with Horace Greeley at the New-Yorker; then in 1842 accepted the position of editor of Graham’s Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia. Now back in New York he had compiled and published Histories of American Literature, The Poets and Poetry of America, The Prose-Writers of America and The Female Poets of America, among other works.
The block of West 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was seeing the rise of elegant, wide mansions equal to any along Fifth Avenue. Griswold moved into the newly-completed home at No. 22 West 23rd Street where his wealthy neighbors would include William Schermerhorn, George Frederick Jones, and Benjamin Nathan.
Griswold’s wealth was reflected in his expensive furnishings. John Henry Belter had established his high-end cabinetry shop on Broadway in 1833; and by now he was experimenting in elaborate Rococo Revival furniture that came to epitomize ornate Victorian interiors. Belter’s rosewood furniture was not only of the highest quality, it was among the most expensive in the nation.
Griswold’s parlor was furnished in Belter pieces, and his bedroom included a “rosewood bureau, and two rosewood chairs with medallion backs.” On the walls were portraits of friends and eminent literary figures including the last portrait of Thomas Campbell to be painted from life, one of Edgar Allen Poe, of Fitz Green Halleck, of Captain John Sutter and of poet Alice Cary. His portrait of author Joseph Dennie was painted by Charles Wilson Peale.
The Griswold family, like all wealthy New Yorkers, left the city during the hot summer months. On October 15, 1853 Griswold returned “from his Summer residence…to superintend the preparation of his house for the reception of his family,” as reported in The New York Times over a week later. Griswold had had a bad summer, the newspaper saying he had “been suffering several months from consumption.”
The complicated and time-consuming process of re-opening a Victorian residence included the removal of dust covers from all the costly furnishings, artwork and mirrors; restocking the pantries, and engaging a team of workers to re-attach the gas lines to all the lighting fixtures. Many families spent a week or longer in hotels while their homes were readied for their return.
On October 20 a 12-year old girl, a neighbor from 19th Street, visited Griswold as the work continued. The following day The Times reported “In the early part of yesterday the chandeliers, &c., were attached to the gas-pipes, and the gas turned on from the meter; but, towards night, it was evident that gas was escaping from some of the burners.” Perhaps Griswold’s illness had blunted his thinking; but he did what most would agree was a very foolish thing.
Taking the little girl with him, he “proceeded with a candle from room to room, to ascertain whether the gas was, in all cases, turned off.” A closed room on the third floor had slowly filled with the explosive gas. “On opening the door of a small apartment in the third story, a tremendous explosion occurred instantly, destroying two of three windows, breaking a partition, and consuming curtains and other furniture in that part of the house. Dr. Griswold, who was very feeble, with the child, was thrown back upon the floor of the adjoining room, but he quickly recovered himself, and emerged with the child from the flames.”
Griswold’s actions nearly resulted in the destruction of the new home. The workers quickly turned off the supply of gas to the residence and were able to extinguish the fire. He was badly burned, especially around his hands from his efforts to put out the fire which had “wrapped” the little girl. She was taken home where she was attended to by nearby doctor. Griswold was taken to a friend’s home on 14th Street where “up to a last hour last evening, [he] suffered the intensest agony.”
The damages to the house were estimated at about $300 to $400—about $12,600 today.
On the evening of September 27, 1857 Rufus Griswold died in the West 23rd Street house. With florid Victorian prose The New York Times announced “The sun of an American literary celebrity has set. Rufus Wilmot Griswold is no more. A lingering illness, under which he has labored for a number of years, last evening assumed a fatal termination, and he breathed his last at his residence in this City.” Griswold was just 42 years old.
Griswold’s will included specific gifts of important papers and books, article of furniture and artwork. But when it was made public, a tantalizing caveat in the newspapers warned “It is understood that the Will will be contested by the two persons claiming to be widows of the deceased.”
At the time of Griswold’s death J. Phillips Phoenix was living far downtown near Bowling Green. A wealthy merchant, he had also served in the U.S. Congress in 1843 and again in 1849. He was married to the daughter of another wealthy New Yorker, Stephen Whitney. Following Phoenix’s death on May 4, 1859, at least two of his family moved into the former Rufus W. Griswold mansion.
Stephen Whitney Phoenix graduated from Columbia College the same year his father died. Appleton’s Encyclopedia noted that from his father and grandfather (Stephen Whitney) “he inherited a large fortune.” He studied and traveled abroad and, upon his return in 1863, purchased the 23rd Street house. His brother, Philips Phoenix, was living with him here when on September 3, 1864 Philips was drafted into service in the Union Army.
Stephen devoted himself to the study of history and genealogy. He paid for the copying of the epitaphs on the Trinity churchyard tombstones so they would not be lost; and “gave attention to the neglected portraits of old New Yorkers, many of which he caused to be engraved,” according to Appleton’s. He collected everything he could obtain on New Amsterdam and old New York and amassed a collection of nearly 3,000 drawings and prints. He also paid for the copying of all the records of the Reformed Dutch and 1st and 2nd Presbyterian churches.
Stephen W. Phoenix was highly interested in the impressive genealogy of his mother’s family, which traced their origins in America to Henry Whitney of Norwalk in 1665. In January 1874 The New England Historical and Genealogical Register noted that Phoenix was writing a history of the Connecticut Whitneys and “would be glad to receive the names and addresses of any members of the family with whom he has not already corresponded.” His efforts resulted in the 1878 publication a book with a most cumbersome title: The Whitney Family of Connecticut, and its affiliations; being an attempt to trade the Descendants, as well in the Female as the Male Lines, of Henry Whitney, From 1649 to 1878; to which is prefixed some account of the Whitneys of England. He also published The Descendants of John Phoenix, an Early Settler in Kittery, Maine.
Stephen Whitney Phoenix died on November 3, 1881. His vast wealth was evidenced in the $600,000 he bequeathed to Columbia. The extensive collection of documents, engravings and manuscripts went variously to Columbia University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Historical Society. Ownership of No. 22 West 23rd Street remained with his estate, managed by to his brother, Philips.
But Philips Phoenix would not live in the house. By now West 23rd Street was quickly transforming into a commercial district. Phoenix leased the mansion to Nathan Clark, deemed by The Sun “the best known caterer in this city.” Clark converted the house to a high-class restaurant. The fashionable eatery was also a favorite for annual group dinners and other meetings. On May 28, 1883 Theodore Roosevelt joined other members of the New-York Free Trade Club’s annual dinner here. He spoke that night on ”The Tariff and Politics.” Later that year, in December, Prof. J. S. Newberry of the School of Mines read his paper on “Agnosticism in Science” to the Phi Beta Alumni here.
For years the Clark’s was the favorite spot for dinner meetings of organizations like the Quill Club, for wedding receptions, and receptions like that held for Joseph B. Foraker, Governor-Elect of Ohio in 1885. One of the most interesting dinners, perhaps, was that of the Arctic Club on December 26, 1896. The club was “an organization consisting entirely of men who have been members of expeditions to the north polar regions.”
Following Nathan Clark’s death, the restaurant suffered a decline in business. On January 1, 1899 The Sun noted “One of his sons continued the business until his death last August. Since then the restaurant has practically been closed, although for a few weeks an outsider attempted to run it on the old lines.”
Philips Phoenix was faced with a decision. Following the lead of other property owners on the block, on December 6, 1898 The Sun reported that he had hired architect Robert Maynicke to renovate the old house into “a photographic gallery and restaurant” at a cost of $25,000.
A month later the newspaper announced “Clark’s restaurant, in Twenty-third street, west of Fifth avenue, is a thing of the past. The building is being torn down and another one suitable for mercantile purposes will be erected on the site.” The newspaper overstated the conversion, which involved removing the brownstone front and replacing it with a modern cast iron façade. The interiors—once furnished in Henry Belter parlor pieces and hung with portraits—were remodeled into retail and office space.
While some of the neighboring houses, converted for business, still revealed their residential facades above the first few floors; Maynicke’s transformation would engulf the building. His highly-attractive and reserved Beaux Arts design made full use of the strength of the cast iron to enable vast areas of glass. He divided the structure into three parts by framing the first two floors; flanking the third and fourth stories with two-story fluted Ionic pilasters; and separating the fifth by a wide paneled frieze. The delicate decorations stopped far short of the over-exuberance of many Beaux Arts commercial structures at the time.
The conversion was completed by October 1899 and the building quickly filled with a variety of tenants, including the Imperial Hair Regenerator Parlors, which moved here from No. 292 Fifth Avenue. An advertisement on October 29 promised “One application of this marvelous, absolutely harmless preparation will restore gray hair to its natural color, or make bleached hair any desired shade.” The treatments cost $1.50 and $3.00 and were guaranteed to last months. “Privacy assured.” The salon also sold its Imperial Vigorosis—“a marvelous hair grower and tonic” for $1.50.
The building also became home to the Woodbury Dermatological Institute which promised it could correct “every kind of facial disfigurement and correct every form of facial defect.” An advertisement in The Sun on April 14, 1907 boasted “Unshapely Noses are restored to pleasing lines in a few minutes.”
The first sign of trouble for the institute came on August 9, 1907 when its president, Robert Buggeln, was arrested in his office. He was charged with practicing medicine without a license. The Public Health Defense League, which had instigated the arrest, hoped that it would “affect the practice of medicine by corporations of quack doctors.”
A year later, on September 17, 1908 The Times reported “The troubles in the Woodbury Dermatological Institute of 22 West Twenty-third Street, which has been advertising for many years various devices and specifics supposed to confer beauty on the purchasers have reached in interesting stage.” The newspaper said the board of three directors ‘is now divided on the question whether or not it is bankrupt or flourishing.”
In the meantime, two corset manufacturers had moved in. In 1908 the Delong Rubber Corset Company was here, marketing itself to sports-minded women. “It is without equal for tennis, golf and all outdoor sports, especially for horseback riding, as it is absolutely non-rusting and gives great freeness of motion,” said an advertisement that year. The ad said it “induces a natural perspiration, reduces fatty tissue, and restores a free and healthy circulation by leaving firm, healthy flesh in proper proportion.”
Freud’s Corsets was one of the original tenants and would remain in the building at least until 1909. By the time the company arrived on 23rd Street it had joined the Consumes’ League of the State of New York. Among the progressive concepts of the League were that no saleswoman 18 years of age or older should receive less than $6 a week in salary; the minimum wage of “cash girls” was $3.50 a week; and that saleswomen were provided with a stool or chair and “the use of seats” was permitted.
|An early trade card deemed Frued's Corsets "The Best in the World!"|
Another of the original tenants was stationary and engraving firm of Dempsey & Carroll. Calling itself “The Society Stationers,” it provided the essentials in stationary required by the carriage trade. Upon moving into No. 22 in 1900 the firm announced a new “line of marriage invitations.” Other essentials available here were “at home and tea cards” and “church cards.”
Seasonal stationary was also a popular draw. Dempsey & Carroll advertised “Personal Greeting Cards for Christmas and New Year’s” saying “These beautiful novelties, when appropriately printed with senders’ name and address make most attractive and artistic mediums for conveying the Good Wishes of the Season.”
It was during the Christmas season that Dempsey & Carroll suffered a terrible loss. A devastating fire broke out in the establishment on December 9, 1910. Realizing the need to quickly reopen, the owners leaped into action. The New York Times reported “An interesting evidence of quick business activity was shown yesterday during the fire which destroyed the stationery and engraving establishment of Dempsey & Carroll…when the firm immediately secured a lease of the ground floor on the Twenty-third Street side of the new Fifth Avenue Building.”
Damages to the building were placed at a staggering $75,000. The structure was repaired and Phillips Phoenix commissioned architect Charles H. Richter to design new show windows at an additional cost of $1,000. Upon the completion of the repairs and renovations, Dempsey & Carroll moved back in.
The building would continue to house upscale firms--both retailers and manufacturers--like Guzy Freres and M. Fox & Co. A high-end retailer, Guzy Freres sold dresses and also stored and repaired furs. Their crepe-de-chin afternoon dresses advertised in 1913 for $18.50 would be in the neighborhood of $475 today. In the meantime, M. Fox & Co. was manufacturing cloaks and suits upstairs in the building until it moved to No. 127 Madison Avenue in 1914.
By the 1920s the upscale shopping district had left West 23rd Street. In June 1923 Frank M. Katz & Co., “direct factory agents handling fancy goods and novelties,” leased the entire building for its operation.
Throughout the decades the building saw tenants come and go, with little change to Robert Maynicke’s façade. Other than replacement windows, even the 1911 storefront survives with some expected updating.
photographs by the author