Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Sarah R. Jenkins House - No. 615 West End Avenue


In January 1888 ground was broken for an ambitious row of ten upscale homes at Nos. 601 through 619 West End Avenue, between 89th and 90th Streets.  The architectural firm of Thom & Wilson was well known for its residential work on the Upper West Side, but this project was personal.  Partner Bernard Wilson had purchased the plots and doubled as the developer.

Construction was completed that October.  Thom & Wilson had created highly ornamented Renaissance Revival brownstones, each four stories above the high English basement level.   Like its neighbors, No. 615 offered a profusion of visual delights.  The box stoop took three turns before arriving at the arched entrance.   The broad, parlor window was broken by a carved talemon below a stained glass fanlight.   A bowed oriel distinguished the second floor; while above Renaissance style carvings enhanced the pilasters and spandrel panels of the third and fourth floors.

The complex stoop was Escher-like in its angles and directions.

The original owner fell on hard times as the century drew to a close.  On June 6, 1898 the house was sold at foreclosure, with an outstanding balance of more than $25,000 due.   The new owners were were a complex, unusual, and uneasy family group.

In the early decades of the 19th century the Jenkins family lived on a sprawling estate in Harlem area, then peppered with farms and summer estates.   George W. Jenkins, a commander in the U.S. Navy, and his wife Charlotte had two daughters, Margaret and Sarah.  Charlotte, who held title to the property, died in 1862.  Her will included a demand which would prove uncomfortable at best for her family.

George would receive income from her estate "as long as he remained unmarried and that he and the children were to live together in the Jenkins homestead."  The arrangement proved workable until Margaret married Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Kopper, of the 71st Regiment, in the early 1880s.  The New-York Tribune described him as "tall and well proportioned and looks every inch a soldier."

In order to maintain his new wife's interest in what The Evening World described as "the vast Jenkins estate" which "embraced a large part of Harlem," Kopper had to move into the family's home with his father- and sister-in-law.  The newspaper later explained "Shortly afterward the marriage Commander Jenkins died."

Colonel Kopper was not only every inch a soldier in his regiment, but also in the Jenkins homestead.  Nearly 20 years later Sarah admitted that he "kept the household in constant terror" and "soon had the management of the entire estate in his hands."

Margaret relinquished all control of her portion of the properties, and her husband bullied Sarah into signing papers to sell of portions of the Harlem estate against her mother's final wishes.   She would tell officials later that he frequently placed papers before her and forced her to sign them at the "point of a loaded revolver."

By the time Sarah purchased No. 615 West End Avenue at the June 1898 foreclosure auction, Margaret and Frederick had three children, now young adults--Minnie, E. Caroline, and Frederick Jr.  Four months earlier the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, resulting in the United States sending troops to Cuba.  Kopper was deployed, initially, to Camp Black, New York, before being ordered to duty in Florida.  Frederick Jr. was a private in his father's unit, and he too was sent south.

Margaret and her daughters moved into the West End Avenue house with Sarah, and the women did their parts for the war effort.  The New York Times ran a headline "Wealthy Young Army Nurses" and reported that the two Kopper sisters had been accepted as nurses of the Red Cross Society, and "expect to accompany an invading expedition as such either to Cuba or the Philippines."  Sarah served as Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Women's Relief Corps of the 71st Regiment.

Frederick Koppel distinguished himself in service, and was "one of the active combatants at San Juan Hill," according to The Evening World.  But when he returned, so did the terror he held over Margaret and Sarah.

When he was sued for an outstanding $198 debt in 1901, he claimed poverty and said that Sarah, "supplied all that he needed for clothes and living expenses."  Hoping to hide the uneasy situation at home, Sarah supported his testimony.  "Miss Jenkins's testimony enabled the Colonel to evade payment," reported The World.


But the horrifying details inside the West End Avenue house became public in 1911 when a creditor sought to recover a $5,597 note which Kopper had forced Sarah to co-sign.  On August 12, 1911 The Evening World said the "old debt...bobbed up yesterday in the Supreme Court, [one] which the military man has neglected some fourteen years."

By now Margaret had died and only Frederick Jr. lived with Sarah.  Kopper had remarried in 1909 and disappeared, possibly to Vermont or Canada.  So Sarah had to explain that she was coerced to sign the note.  The Evening World said "Sensational charges are made by Miss Jenkins in her motion to vacate the long standing judgment.  The charges related to the Colonel's alleged disposition to wave a revolver in her face and to force her to sign papers and documents, which, she swears, were unknown to her because of fear of the loaded revolver."

Sarah told the court that even after Margaret died and Kopper had remarried, "he came to her home, moved out some furniture and again terrorized the household with his gruff and belligerent attitude."  She admitted, according to the newspaper, "A desire to conceal the family tribulations restrained her from exposing the Colonel years ago."


Sarah R. Jenkins died in January 1926.  The West End Avenue block had seen astounding change by now.  A year earlier the houses at Nos. 607 through 613 were demolished for a 16-story apartment building designed by Rosario Candela.  The homes at the opposite side, Nos. 601 and 603, had been replaced in 1916 by an Emery Roth-designed apartment building.

Real estate operator Louis Schwebel purchased No. 615 in October 1936.  Highly active on the Upper West Side, he was best known for operating tenements and rooming houses.  In 1940 the house was converted to two apartments per floor on the basement through second floors; and furnished rooms above.

Among the tenants here in 1954 was Thomas Netterville, who worked as the night manager of the Bickford's cafeteria at No. 390 East Fordham Road in the Bronx.  The chain of Bickford's restaurants was organized in 1921 and by now was a familiar presence throughout New York City.  Netterville would be witness to a brutal murder early on the morning of November 20.

Just after 5:00 a couple parked their automobile outside and the man entered the cafeteria to get coffee.  While he waited, two young men, 19-year old John Ruggieri and 20-year old Gildo Cuccuru, stopped by the car and "made insulting remarks," according to The New York Times.

The man left to tell the thugs to leave her alone.  They followed him back inside where they turned their aggression to him.  When Thomas Netterville attempted to intervene, he was knocked to the floor.

It was about this time that the morning manager, Patrick Crotty, arrived to relieve Netterville.  He, too, tried to intervene, but was also overpowered.  "After he was knocked to the floor, a sugar bowl was hurled at close range at his head," reported The Times.  "His skull was fractured."

Crotty died on the floor of the cafeteria and his assailants were arrested shortly afterward.  They were charged with homicide and held without bail.

The second floor retains original details like the delicate plasterwork and inlaid floors.  photo via StreetEasy

Squashed between soaring apartment houses, the Jenkins house contains two apartments today.  Considering its use in the second half of the 20th century, a surprising amount of interior details survive.

photographs by the author

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Lost Riding Club - Nos. 9-13 East 58th Street


The striking English facade was added in 1905.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Following the completion of Central Park, riding clubs and academies cropped up nearby.   Among the first was the New-York Riding Club, organized in 1873.  Its elegant club rooms were located in Durland's Riding Academy at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.  Seven years later a group of members splintered off, creating the Gentlemen's Riding Club, deemed by James Grant Wilson in his 1893 The Memorial History of the City of New York, "a worthy rival."

The Fortnightly Review explained that it "owes its existence to the fact that ladies were dependent for their instruction on the riding schools, which were not always as exclusive as might be desired.  So a great many of the best known men in New York clubbed together and bought property in Fifty-eighth Street, where they put up a club-house at a cost of $60,000."  (The price would be in the neighborhood of $1.5 million today.)


The property, between Fifth and Madison Avenue and stretching through the block to 59th Street, was owned by the Astor family.  The Riding Club's headquarters was as much elegant social club as stables and riding space.  The Fortnightly Review said "It consists of a large ring two hundred feet square, on which an immense general sitting-room looks out through a partition wall of glass; a general dining-room; separate dining-rooms, drawing-rooms, and reading-rooms for ladies and gentlemen, and private dressing-rooms where the ladies can keep their habits and dress at the club.  The stables are very fine and complete in every way."

The Riding Club's founders successfully set out to make theirs the most exclusive in the city.  Membership was limited to 400, "and election to the club is a very difficult matter," said the magazine.  "The club is most particular about the social standing of its members, and also makes a high standard of horsemanship a necessary qualification."  Members paid an initiation fee of $200 and an annual dues of $100.

Although women would not become members, wives, unmarried daughters and children of members were admitted.  Shortly after moving into the new clubhouse the group removed the word "Gentlemen's" from its title.  Fortnightly Review opined "The club has contributed in an incalculable degree towards raising the standard of woman's riding in America."

Wallace's Monthly, in April 1888, wrote "The swellest coteries of lady riders are, of course, the guests of the Riding Club on Fifty-eighth Street" and noted "The ladies, in a great variety of plain colors, flock to the club from morning until evening.  They have their own lockers, dressing-rooms and bath-rooms."  The magazine added that the clubhouse was "distinguished by butlers and stewards in knee breeches, and with their calves so padded that the prince of Wales would feel quite at home with one to wait upon him."

Women wore ankle-length riding habits and rode, of course, side-saddle.  New-York Tribune, July 19, 1896 (copyright expired)

The New York Tribune, on June 7, 1891, described the women's accommodations.  "To begin with, hallboys and liveried footmen guard the double entrances on the Fifty-eighth st. side.  The ladies' parlor and reception room...is a long room, beautifully furnished, with rich carpeting and rugs, and handsomely decorated and ornamented."

The article mentioned the dressing and locker rooms "which are fitted up with an elegance that puts to shame the highest efforts in like rooms of any other club in town," and described the grand dining room on the third floor with its mahogany table that could be extended to more than 70 feet.  There were also areas strictly for men-only--like the billiard room.

Children of members could ride and receive instruction during the day, before 4:00  Harper's Young People, June 3, 1884 (copyright expired)
Not only did the millionaires enjoy luxurious surroundings, so did their horses--many of which, according to National Live Stock Journal in 1888, "are valued at $2,000 each," or around $52,000 today.  An innovative ventilation system removed the "foul air" in the stalls and riding ring; there were clipping rooms, feed rooms, stalls for 300 horses, and a "hospital" on the top floor.

Members enjoyed afternoon "music rides," from 4:30 to 6:00, during which an orchestra played. The New York Times noted on January 18, 1897 "These rides are enjoyed not only by wives and sons and daughters of members, but many of the gentlemen drop in on their way home from business for a refreshing spin around the ring before the dinner hour."

Those not riding could indulge in the afternoon tea, from 5:00 to 6:30.  The New-York Tribune explained on July 19, 1896 "Members and their guests may quaff tea while watching the evolutions of the equestrians, and listening to the orchestra, led by Martin J. Schligg."

When the club signed a renewed 20-year lease in 1896, the its membership  had grown to 500 with names that read like the Social Register.  Among them were John Jacob Astor, William E. Dodge, Elbridge T. Gerry, Elihu Root, James A. Roosevelt, William Rockefeller, Odgen Goelet and C. Oliver Iselin, to name only a few.

The appearance of automobiles did not affect the Riding Club.  The horses here were for sport, not for transportation.  And although the neighborhood immediately surrounding its property was now filled with massive mansions and first class hotels, the club not only stayed put, but updated its club house.

On May 7, 1905 The New York Times reported that a "battalion of workmen [had] piled into the building with axe and saw and hammer and began the work of translating the old familiar environment into memory."  The club had commissioned architect Bradford Lee Gilbert, best known for designing train depots, to renovate the old structure into an even more lavish one.

The newspaper said "the building will be of early Norman design, with all the pointed wall effects, the tessellated balconies and entrances, and bay windows that this type of architect suggests."  Gilbert paid special attention to the color scheme of the facade.  The brick was contrasted with warm yellow caen stone, and the metal elements were given an antique green patina.  The Times said "The combination as seen in the model presents nothing less than a symphony of soft, delightful tones."

The $200,000 renovations were completed in November that same year.  The Riding Club had the appearance of an English manor house.  And the interiors, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, were spectacular.

Among the new features was a "terrace scheme" that spilled down from between the second floor sitting rooms, smoking rooms and library to the ring.  An indoor garden, The Times described it as being "treated in accordance with the utmost art of the landscape gardener, and, merging with the space immediately surrounding the entire ring, which will be treated in old Venetian garden effect."  The newspaper opined that it formed "a picture not to be seen anywhere in this city, if indeed in the world."

Equally dazzling was the third floor with its "immense billiard room and cafe."  There were dressing rooms and baths for the females here, as well.  The fourth floor housed two large dining rooms, "separated by a palm garden, with fountains and statuary."

The ventilation system had been completed overhauled, so that now the air in the stalls and the ring was changed every eight minutes.  The Times noted that "to all practical purposes the riders will exercise in open air."

The building became headquarters for the Red Cross in 1917, following the country's entry into World War I.  The elegant fourth floor, with its fountains and statues, now became a factory of sorts.  The Sun explained on December 30 "the top floor of the Riding Club has been converted into a workroom where surgical dressings will be made.  The facilities of the club are open to members and their Red Cross friends."

A limousine waits outside the Riding Club around 1915.  photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

With peacetime the Riding Club returned to its high-end norm.  On December 20, 1919, for instance, Mrs. Frederic C. Thomas held the debutante reception for her daughter, Mary, here.  And the years-old tradition of indoor polo matches resumed as well.  On January 23, 1921 The New York Herald announced that the West Point cadets, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell would all be participating in polo matches in February.

Abutting the 59th Street side of the Riding Club was the Hotel Savoy, erected in 1892.  Early in 1924 the Boomer-du Pont Properties purchased the leasehold on the hotel.   The group had already purchased the Waldorf-Astoria in 1918 and the Willard Hotel in Washington DC in 1920.  Now it expressed interest in replacing the Savoy with a 33-story hotel estimated to cost $18 million.

On April 18, 1924 it was announced that Vincent Astor had sold the property occupied by the Riding Club for $2 million.  The buyer was Boomer-du Pont Properties.  But the new owners were faced with a problem:  the Riding Club held a long term lease on the land.

For two years things continued as normal.   On January 29, 1926 the annual Riding Club Hound Show was held in the club.  The high-end dog show was a favorite of the fox hunting class.  But pressure mounted.  On November 6 that year The Times reported that the recently formed Savoy-Plaza Realty Corporation "has been eager to purchase the lease held by the Riding Club."  Negotiations for the purchase of the old Durland Riding Academy property on West 66th Street near Central Park, it was rumored, were being held.

A postcard pictured the new hotel.  The site of the Riding Club was directly behind, in this shot, to the right.

When the Riding Club moved out, the real estate operators wasted no time in demolishing the handsome structure, just two decades old.  The new 31-story Savoy-Plaza opened on September 29, 1927.  It survived until 1965 when it was replaced by the full-block International Style General Motors Building.

photo realtytoday

Saturday, February 25, 2017

From Horses to Grace Jones and Andy Warhol--76 Wooster Street




It is possible that the house at No. 76 Wooster Street, between Spring and Broome Streets, always had a shop on the first floor.  As early as 1844 the "provisions," or grocery business of John Field & Co. shared the building with carpenter Isaac Ward, who lived at 192-1/2 Varick Street.

Shortly following the end of the Civil War the entire neighborhood around the converted house was transforming into a vibrant commercial district.  Highly instrumental in replacing old dwellings with modern business structures was M. & S. Sternberger.  On February 9, 1894 The Record & Guide mentioned "M. & S. Sternberger are great believers in the future of New York realty, and specifically business property."

By the time of that article the developers had produced several structures in the neighborhood, often using the services of architect Henry Fernbach.  Among their first collaborations had been the remake of No. 76 Wooster Street, in 1871.

The small-scale project would pale in comparison to other Fernbach buildings like his lavish Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, co-designed with Leopold Eidlitz and completed in 1868; his Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue, finished just a year after the Wooster Street building; or the cast iron faced New York Mutual Life Insurance Building in Philadelphia, completed in 1873.

The contract for the work was given to builder Sam Cochran.  Construction began on June 5, 1871 and was completed less than three months later.  Fernbach did little to disguise the building's residential beginnings.  A scar of header bricks above the second floor windows suggests an earlier cornice and the raising of the former attic floor to a full story.  M. & S. Sternberger wasted no money on the no-nonsense conversion.  While other downtown buildings at the time featured cast iron bases; early photographs reveal the first floor piers were of brick.  A simple wooden cornice graced the eave line.

By 1880 Solomon Jessurun and two of his five sons (both of whom still lived in the family home at No. 335 West 50th Street) leased the building.  Jessurun, who had arrived in New York from London in 1848, listed his business as "agent."  He dealt in real estate and managed the properties of wealthy owners like the Van Ness family.

His sons' businesses could not have been more different.  Albert Jessurun was listed in directories as an "olive" dealer in 1880 (changed to "produce" in 1883); and Elias dealt in "rags."

In 1871, the year that No. 76 was renovated, Daniel Tyrrel was living at No. 41 Bedford Street.  He was listed as a "carpenter and builder of office cabinet-work" with his shop located at No. 57 Elm Street.  In 1886 he leased the Wooster Street building and spent $150 on "new openings, beams."  It was possibly at this time that the enlarged second floor window with its heavy block and tackle was installed. 

Advertisements for William A. Dawson's sign shop cover the upper floor of the building in 1898.  A note on the back of the photo reads "showing an old three-story house made over for business." photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Tyrell sublet the ground floor to William Markle, who operated an "express" company.  Horses and drays--delivery wagons designed to transport heavy loads--would had been housed here.  Upstairs William A. Dawson took space.  Having started his business in 1873, he advertised it as "makers of signs of all kinds" as well as "house, store and office painting."

Decades earlier, in 1860, Daniel Tyrrel had hired John Sweeney to work in his carpentery shop.  When the Civil War erupted, Sweeney left to serve.  When he returned in 1866 Tyrrel rehired him; although Sweeney's military service had left its scars.  Court papers later noted he was "somewhat injured from the happenings in the battlefield; his eyesight was seriously affected, and he had a painful wound in one leg."

He stayed with for Tyrrel for eight years until his failing eyesight made work impossible.   With no income and rapidly going blind, Sweeney took to peddling pencils on the streets.  Tyrrel never forgot his former employee and, later The New York Times remarked "Whenever Sweeney would go into the carpenter's shop he was sure of several dollars for a few pencils."

Someone realized that blind veteran was most likely eligible for a soldier's pension and urged him to apply.  He was approved and received a check with back pay.  Oddly enough, as the payments came, he deposited them into the Seaman's Bank for Savings, refusing to use the money and relying only on his pencils for income.

On October 31, 1891 he came to Tyrrel's carpenter shop on Wooster Street and asked for a $10 loan (about $270 today).  For security he handed Tyrrel his two bank books, which showed savings of nearly $1,000.   He left with Tyrrel's son, who accompanied him to a nearby saloon for a drink.  Nearly a decade later, on October 4, 1900, The New York Times reported "Sweeney left the saloon then, and from that day to this not another trace of him has been found."

For nine years Daniel Tyrrel held the bank books in safe keeping.  Now, at the turn of the century, the aging carpenter's once-thriving cabinet making business was struggling.  But in order to access Sweeney's bank account, he would have to prove the man was dead.

A court case began in April 1901 during which Tyrrel described the condition of his business.  "I do not employ any men now," he said.  Instead, he handled the commissions personally.  "The last man I was working for was Baxter, who keeps [a store] at Wooster Street, between Broome and Grand streets.  He is a drygoods man.  I worked about a day for him...He paid me five or six dollars for two men's work."

Tragically for Tyrrel, who was deeply in debt, the courts ruled in favor of the bank in 1903; saying that there was no proof that John Sweeney was deceased.

The little brick building would be a component of another court case two years later.  Tyrrel had leased the building from millionaire Pierre Lorillard Ronalds, who owned vast amounts of Manhattan real estate.  The Evening World described the elderly man saying "in his days [he was] a noted club and sporting man."

Ronalds and his wife had been separated for years.  She lived in London where she was close friends with the royal family.  In 1886 good friend, Gustavus A. Blake, died while visiting Ronalds in his country home in Bartow, New York.   Ronalds took Blake's daughter, Elizabeth, into his home.  She never left.

When the 71-year old died in 1905 The Evening World noted "It appears that beside the servants in the Thirty-fifth street household Miss Blake and Mr. Ronalds were the only members."  She told reporters that their relationship was "nineteen years of daughterly devotion."

That devotion was profitable.  Between November 1901 and December 1904 Ronalds transferred the deeds of multiple properties--including No. 76 Wooster Street-- amounting to about $1 million in value to Elizabeth (more in the neighborhood of $27.5 million today). 

Pierre Lorillard Ronalds  The Evening World, October 26, 1905 (copyright expired)

Only when their father died did his two children, Reginald Pierre Lorillard Ronalds and Mrs. Fannie T. Ritchie, discover the transfers and they were quick to respond.  They suspected that Elizabeth's dabbling into Spirituality was partially behind the transactions.

Before the will could be probated the siblings sued.  Reginald claimed his father "was mentally incompetent to understand their meaning" and that "he was forced into the transaction by coercion of a psychic nature on the part of Mrs. [sic] Blake."  The Evening World wrote "Sensational as it may seem, Ronalds asserts that Miss Blake terrorized his father by representing this gift to her as the distinct command of his deceased relatives."

Elizabeth feigned shock.  When a reporter visited her on October 25, 1905, she exclaimed "The man who was supposed to have felt toward me as a brother has caused me the cruelest sorrow a woman can bear."  She explained "The property that Mr. Ronalds deeded me was his gift in recognition of my filial affection."  The World said "Here Miss Blake was so disturbed that she buried her face in the Oriental pillows and sobbed hysterically."

Elizabeth N. Blake -- The Evening World, October 26, 1905 (copyright expired)
The case was solved when ownership of the properties were returned to Reginald and Fannie, with a lump sum payment of $2,350 to Elizabeth and a trust fund of $200,000 "the income of which was to be paid to her during life."  After Elizabeth Blake's death in 1925, the remainder of the fund reverted to Reginald and Fannie.

It was Fannie F. Ritchie, who lived in London, who received ownership of the Wooster Street property.  Following her death it was sold in 1941 to the Anthony-Mary Corporation.  Assessed at the time at $9,500 (about $153,000 in 2017), it was described as "a three-story converted stable."

As the Soho neighborhood changed from industrial to trendy, the ground floor of No. 76 Wooster became Wings restaurant in the early 1980s.  The space where horses and wagons were housed now served Nouvelle-American cuisine like breast of duck with honey, and tenderloin of beef with truffles.

Wings was followed by singer Grace Jones's restaurant La Vie en Rose.  The minimalist interior included just one wall decoration--Andy Warhol's portrait of Jones.  As the restaurant prepared to open in September 1986, her partner Jean-Yves Lascombes promised "It will be a chic underground."

Twelve years later, as Manhattan reeled under the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, the Babylon restaurant prepared to open in the space.  A pre-opening benefit dinner was held on May 12, 1998 for the Irvington Institute for Immunological Research.

The term Soho was, by now, synonymous with contemporary art.  And so it was not surprising that No. 76 Wooster Street became home to an art space, frequented by the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel.  In October 2011 Yoko Ono borrowed it to stage "Gimme Some Truth, The Artwork of John Lennon," an exhibition of Lennon's artworks and songs. 


In 2015 the newly-formed Soho Arts Club took over the space with intentions of recreating an artist space like the one Warhol and Haring had enjoyed.  The wooden cornice is gone, the windows are replaced, and little remains to remind the passerby of the little building's non-glamorous history.

photographs by the author

Friday, February 24, 2017

The F. A. Ringler House - 1316 Madison Avenue


The entrance was originally above a high stoop, where the window over the awning is today.

On October 25, 1890 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that John Ruddell had sold the "three-story frame dwelling" on the northwest corner of 93rd Street and Madison Avenue to Frederick A. Ringler for $33,500.   The journal got its report more than slightly wrong.  The high price Ringler paid--in the neighborhood of $900,000 today--was certainly not for a wooden house; but for a substantial brick and stone residence.


Ruddell had begun construction of seven houses stretching west along 93rd Street from the Madison Avenue corner a year earlier.  Designed by Gilbert A. Schellenger, they were Renaissance Revival in style.  At 17 feet wide and three stories tall, the six houses on 93rd Street were targeted to the upper middle classes; their brownstone facades handsome but not exceptional.

The Ringer house at the corner projects beyond its narrower neighbors.

The Ringler house, however, stood apart.  Schellenger placed the entrance on Madison Avenue, creating a 68-foot wide frontage.   The 93rd Street elevation--almost three feet wider than its neighbors--bulged out in an eye-catching three-story bay.   The architect further divorced the house from its neighbors by cladding the English basement and parlor floors on the avenue side in undressed stone; and the upper stories in warm red brick.

Born in Friedwald, Germany in 1852, Frederick A. Ringler had come to America in 1866 with his brother, Charles.  He learned electrotyping in Chicago before moving to New York following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.   Frederick continued in the electrotype business, while Charles opened the Ringler Brewery.   When Charles died in 1888, Frederick took over management of the brewery; while simultaneously building his printing operation. 

Ringler had married Maria Stolz in 1858.  Their only child, Victoria Anselma, was born in 1880.  The family had lived in a free-standing house far to the north in what today is known as Hudson Heights.  By the time they moved into the Madison Street house, King's Handbook of New York claimed the F. A. Ringler Company "is called the largest printing-plate establishment in the world."

The F. A. Ringler building on Park Place engulfed a full block front.  King's Handbook of New York 1893 (copyright expired)
Seemingly indefatigable, Ringler reportedly increased the brewery business by 25 percent within a short time, and was president of the German Leiderkrantz (one of the oldest German singing societies in the city).


As Maria Ringler supervised the unpacking of household items, Frederick had a looming threat constantly on his mind: prohibition.  On March 8, 1891 The New York Times reported "The brewers here and elsewhere in the State are secretly laying plans to defeat the proposed prohibition amendment to the Constitution, which is to be submitted to a popular vote either next month or in November."

A "secret circular" had been printing by a joint committee representing groups like the State Brewers and Maltsters' Association and the Lager Beer Brewers' Board of Trade.  The distribution of the circular was no small project.  The Times noted "There are 40,000 persons in New-York State in the beer-brewing and allied industries."  The fact that Ringler, with his expansive printing plant, was on the committee is not surprising.

The prohibition amendment did not pass that year; but the threat, championed by the tireless temperance proponents, continued to cast a shadow over the brewing industry.  The brewers were also fighting for loosened restrictions on selling alcohol on Sunday.  F. A. Ringler was pro-active in the fight on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 25, 1895.

That day a parade was held by the United Societies for Liberal Sunday Laws.  Theodore Roosevelt, president of the Police Board, had been invited to the reviewing stands; however, as The New York Times pointed out, "Some doubt was felt as to President Roosevelt attending the parade, but it was dispelled when he stepped on the reviewing stand at 3 o'clock."

Members of the committee who organized the parade, including Frederick Ringler, were already in the stands.  When the "immense crowd" in front of the stands recognized Roosevelt, they turned and cheered.

"Brewer F. A. Ringler seized the opportunity to insert at this moment a button bearing the inscription, 'Liberal Sunday Law' in the lapel of President Roosevelt's coat."   Roosevelt was not fooled and "laughingly removed it."  He told Ringler he would keep the button as a souvenir.

The Ringlers' social lives most often involved the activities of the German Leiderkranz.  In May 1897, for instance, they accompanied the group on a six-week tour of Europe that included giving concerts in major cities like Vienna, Milan and Munich.  And in August 1903, for instance, they were among the 1,500 members who took over the Oriental Hotel in Manhattan Beach for the group's annual Summernight's Festival.

Social activities became more personal when the Ringlers announced the engagement of Victoria to Franz Victor von Marbach Provost on August 25, 1900.   Provost had recently graduated from the Cornell University Law School.  The couple was married in January 1901 and moved into the Madison Avenue house; but tragedy soon followed.  Franz, who went by the name Victor, died "of unknown causes" five months later at the age of 23.

Franz Victor and Veronica were pictured on the menu of the wedding dinner, hosted by Frederick and Maria, at the Savoy Hotel.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1904 Veronica married 37-year old William Cabble Provost.  He was treasurer and director in the William Cabble Excelsior Wire Works, founded by his grandfather.   The couple moved to Brooklyn where William became a member of the Brooklyn Yacht Club, the Bensonhurst Yacht Club and the Marine and Field Club.  Veronica was widowed again when he suffered a fatal heart attack on August 4, 1918.

The concept of non-discriminatory hiring was unheard of in 1918; so when Ringler placed a held-wanted advertisement in the New-York Tribune on June 29, he made his preferences clear.  "Christian Young Men between the ages of 16 and 18 to work as general helper in electrotype and engraving business with a prospect of learning the business."

Despite the brewers' decades of valiant opposition, Prohibition came to pass in 1920.  With the Ringler Brewery now shut down, Frederick focused on his printing business.  The following year he was presented with a handsome silver cup by the International Association of Electrotypers of America in tribute to his 50 years career.

By now Ringler was also a vice president of the Metropolitan Realty Company, president of the Maiden Lane Savings Bank, and a director of the Graphic Arts Realty Company and the Wysnock Publishing Co., Inc.


Maria died after a brief illness on July 13, 1924.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.  Frederick remained in the house until his death on September 8, 1929.  His substantial estate went to Veronica.

In 1935 owners George and Florence Kosmak had the stoop removed and the entrance lowered to street level.  The former basement, now the first floor, was divided into two commercial spaces; while the upper floors were converted to two apartments each.

A doctor's office opened in one of the lower spaces, while Charlotte Boardman Rogers operated her bookstore from the other.  After she declared bankruptcy in 1939, the space became a luncheonette.

By 1965 the ground floor had become Cisneros, a gallery that featured modern artists.  It was replaced when a 1981 renovation updated the apartments upstairs (still two per floor) and installed a restaurant in the ground floor.   New York Magazine critic Gael Greene described Devon House on February 1, 1982, saying walking into the restaurant, "past its anonymous uptown-on-Madison facade, you might believe you were in a country inn or a Caribbean guesthouse."

She was more taken with the ambience than the cuisine, however.  "If only the food were brilliant.  At $100 for two, it ought to be.  Instead, it is...good."  Despite Greene's tepid take, Devon House survived for several years, followed by Demi Restaurant.  The continental restaurant described itself as "charming and cozy."


Today the Ringler house is owned by The Claremont Group, developers and builders, and houses their headquarters.  Other than its lost stoop, it has survived more than a century and a quarter with little change since the afternoon when a brewer pinned a pro-alcohol button on the lapel of an unsuspecting Theodore Roosevelt.

photographs by the author

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Sittenham Bldg - 123 Fifth Avenue




In 1850 Joseph Sandford erected five upscale homes on the east side of Fifth Avenue, between 19th and 20th Streets.  Among them was No. 123, a 22-foot wide mansion that rose four stories above an English basement.

It became home to dry goods merchant Samuel Holmes and his family.  Holmes's wealth was evidenced in his support of Yale College.  He endowed scholarships of $5,000 each; and in 1868 gave the school $25,000 towards the construction of a new hall for the theological department--a gift worth about $430,000 today.  The Holmes family's interest in religion and theology was further reflected in son Stephen, who also lived in the house.  He was assistant minister at St. Ann's Episcopal Church by the late 1860s.

After nearly two decades in No. 123 Fifth Avenue, the Holmes family left in 1872, moving to Connecticut.  The mansion was sold at auction on Thursday, December 5 that year, advertised as "the very valuable four story high stoop brown stone front House...in perfect order, with all the modern improvements."

Joseph Curtis, who dealt in photographic supplies, briefly leased the house, which was resold in 1874.  The Fifth Avenue neighborhood was already changing as the commercial district inched northward.  The mansion became an upscale boarding house; an advertisement in 1875 offering "Elegantly furnished Rooms, without board preferred; also Parlor Floor entire, with private table if desired."  There were four boarders in 1876; Ellen J. Smith, "widow of James Smith;" the widow of printer Joshua K. Lees; metal dealer Gordon W. Burnham; and attorney Henry Hartman.

No. 123 was offered for sale on July 31, 1880 "to close an estate" and was purchased by Elizabeth Floyd.  An heiress (her father had made his fortune in the shipping industry), she was highly involved in real estate and owned properties throughout the city.   Floyd converted the basement to a shop and added an extension to the rear. 

The new store had two tenants, "fine furniture" dealers Bein Brothers & Company; and Jacob B. Woolley, importer of "Japanese goods."  Both merchants handled high-end items and on April 30, 1883 Woolley had on display what he described as a "very beautiful, enameled Japanese plate." 

A salesman, Frank Dugan, was suspicious of a shopper that day.  "When he saw me he turned away," Dugan later recalled.  When the stranger left, the plate was missing.  Jacob Woolley was understandably upset at the loss.  He later testified "I felt a little sore over it, and took a walk down Fourteenth Street."  To his surprise, his stolen item was on display in a shop.  "I saw the plate in a Turk's window...I went in to the Turk and said to him, 'You have a nice plate there in the window.'"

When the shopkeeper refused to say where he had obtained the item, Woolley found a policeman.  On threat of arrest, the merchant confessed he had purchased it from "a Frenchman."  When the sticky-fingered Frenchman foolishly returned to Woolley's store a few days later, he was nabbed.

Jacob Woolley appeared in the newspapers two years later; and this time he was on the other side of the law.  On December 11, 1885 Charles P. Jones surrendered to police.  The captain of the ship Oxfordshire knew he was wanted on charges of smuggling "ivory curios, carvings, plaques, and bric-a-brac" from Asia."  The $1,100 in goods had been taken ashore and a messenger was directed "to take them to J. Wooley [sic], no. 123 Fifth-avenue," according to The New York Times.  But "before this could be done the goods were seized."

A few months after the ignominious affair, Elizabeth Floyd embarked on more renovations.  She commissioned esteemed architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh to convert the parlor floor to retail space and add a cast iron storefront.  Hardenberg's storefront, however would have little in common with the fluted Corinthian columns and pilasters appearing throughout the downtown districts.

A marriage of Beaux Arts and Northern Renaissance styles; it framed the two-story retail space with delicate pilasters that culminated in Renaissance-style male masks rather than capitals.  An arch with lacy filigree spandrels fronted the parlor floor.  It was marked by a lavish cartouche with a snarling mask, draping beads, leaves and scrolls.

The Renaissance-type masks and griffins were strikingly similar to those used by Hardenberg in his Dakota Flats (below) two years earlier.  
Elizabeth Floyd went no further in her renovations than the lowest two floors.  The upper three retained their brownstone front and residential appearance.  The stoop remained; although photographs suggest it was replaced with a cast iron version.

Sharing the ground floor store with Jacob Woolley now was the newly-formed Belcher Mosaic Glass Company, organized in 1884 by Henry F. Belcher.  His highly expensive stained glass panels were magnificent and brilliantly colorful.  He held at least 22 patents for his process, by which thousands of glass pieces, most triangular, were laid out then sandwiched tightly between layers of asbestos. A molten lead alloy was poured in to fill the gaps. When the exterior surfaces were removed the complete, intact window emerged.  The firm closed in 1890; most likely due to the expensive process.

Among the tenants on the upper floors were Mary Scott Rowland and her husband John, who was described as an invalid.  The double-duty space was their home as well as Mary's studio.  She offered well-heeled women the chance to regain their youthful appearances.  Among her clients was Arabella Huntington, the wife of multi-millionaire Collis P. Huntington.

In October 1891 Mary A. White, the head of the dressmaking firm White, Howard & Co., consulted with Mary Scott Rowland.  According to Rowland later, "Mrs. White was then over fifty years of age, but she did not wish to appear so old."  Yet despite her successful business to New York's carriage trade; Mary White claimed she could not afford the $500 fee (admittedly it was expensive, about $13,500 in today's dollars).  The pair negotiated and Mary Scott Rowland agreed to give her a series of treatments for half price in exchange for Mary White's referring new customers.

Mary White was terrified that friends or clients would catch her coming or going at No 123 Fifth Avenue.  Therefore she arrived at 7:00 for her treatments.  "This," reported The Times later, "Mrs. Rowland says, was very annoying, and put her household to much trouble."

There was no contract other than their verbal agreement.  "The treatment consisted principally of the manipulations of the facial muscles," wrote the newspaper.  Mary White came three or four times a week for six weeks, after which, according to Rowland, "there was not a wrinkle in Mrs. White's face and she appeared to be no older than thirty-five."

The problem was that now Mary White neglected to pay.  Mindful of her client's fear of being discovered, Mary Scott Rowland did not send a bill; but reminded her of the debt each time they met.  White repeatedly promised to "send a check the next day."  And then she died.

Understandably, the executors of the estate scoffed at Mary Scott Rowland's claim.  She had no contract, the treatments had been done in secret, and she had never presented an invoice  The case, described by The Times as "a peculiar litigation," ended up in court in 1893.  Highly publicized, it no doubt caused Mary A. White posthumous mortification.

Mary Scott Rowland manufactured her own cosmetics.  The Sun, October 3, 1897 (copyright expired)

Mary Scott Rowland was more well-known for her work in getting convicted bank burglar James Dunlap pardoned a year earlier.  He had been sentenced in 1878 to 20 years in State prison, but according to a newspaper in 1889 his "attitude is one of penitence" and "his physical condition is pitiable."


Mary came to his defense, working for five years on his pardon.  Finally, on December 30, 1892 The New York Times reported "Mrs. Mary Scott Rowland and James Dunlap, the pardoned Northampton Bank burglar, arrived in this city late yesterday afternoon.  They were driven in a coach to 123 Fifth Avenue, where Mrs. Rowland lives and has rooms in which she sells perfumes and those mysterious preparations used for the beautifying of ladies' complexions.  Mrs. Rowland and Dunlap were heartily welcomed by her husband."

The newspaper noted that in Dunlap's pardon, no name "has figured so largely than Mrs. Rowland has" and described her as "a plump little woman, below the average height, has blonde hair, large expressive eyes, and a good-natured and rather attractive face."  The reporter wondered if Dunlap might resume his criminal ways.  Referring to crooks in the Tenderloin District, he asked her "Is Dunlap likely to resume friendly relations with these men?"

"No.  He does not want to know them," she said flatly.

Many were skeptical.  In May 1893 the Minneapolis Journal wrote that Dunlap had opened a World's Fair Restaurant; but added "It is pretty hard for a man to reform when he is once started on a downward career."  And, sure enough, James Dunlap was soon in the Joliet, Illinois prison for robbing another bank.

Jacob B. Woolley was still in the downstairs store in 1894 when the city proposed laying street car tracks down Fifth Avenue.  The Evening World reported his negative feedback on April 14.  "He says that Fifth avenue trade is of a carriage kind and would be ruined by street cars.  Besides, he added, business or no business, New York ought to have one avenue not given up to traffic and of which it might feel proud."

Portrait artist and conservator William Sittenham took space in 1893.  In 1898 he leased the entire building and unofficially christened it the Sittenham Building.  His gallery offered not only Old Masters; but contemporary works which could not justifiably be termed "fine art."  On December 9, 1901, for instance, he opened a five-day showing of "water color sketches made in Venice and Holland, together with decorations on china."  Sittenham's announcement noted "They are the Summer's work of Mrs. Mary A. Neal."

The same year that Mary A. Neal's watercolors were being exhibited Velva Von Derenburg had her voice studio upstairs.  New-York Tribune, January 20, 1901 (copyright expired)

By 1903 The Pianotist had opened its showrooms in the building.  Its ingenious device, called The Invisible Piano Player, converted any piano into a player piano.  An advertisement boasted "The Pianotist is an invaluable aid to the hostess and a source of entertainment and enjoyment to all...By means of the Pianotist thousands of pianos that have been silent for years may now discourse the sweetest music at the will of the owners."  John Philip Sousa endorsed the mechanism, calling it "a wonderful invention of great musical merit."
A shirtwaist-wearing model demonstrates the treadle model.  Parisian Illustrated Review, January 1901 (copyright expired)
To gain interest in the product, which an advertisement in The Sun in 1904 called "the oldest, simplest and best self-playing piano--foot treadle or electricity," the company gave daily recitals in the showroom.

In 1906 the upscale dress store Murray & Schwab moved in.  The New-York Tribune called theirs "a smart, new shop" on October 21 that year and listed among its offerings "beautiful hats, toques and turbans for all functions, from the leading Paris modistes, rich, exclusive fur garments" and "coats [and] fur sets in costly skins."

Three of the fall fashions available at Murray & Schwab in 1906.  New-York Tribune, October 21, 1906 (copyright expired)
Leasing one of the upper studios was Madame Julian.  She, like Mary Scott Rowand, catered to women's appearance problems.  Her ad in the New-York Tribune on August 13, 1906 promised "With a record of thirty-five years as a specialist on the removal superfluous hair, Mme. Julian invites all women who suffer this discomfort to visit her office at No. 123 Fifth avenue.  She announces that she is the originator of a specific for the eradication of superfluous hair."

The building would see a variety of other businesses come and go--like importer Wally Wolff, who left in 1916; and the Eagle Beading Co., Inc. which was here into the early 1920s, for instance.

Around 1920 the stoop remained and the upper floors still retained their residential appearance.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Fishbein-Fuchs Corporation purchased the building in 1922 for $100,000 (about $1.4 million today).  The restaurateurs necessarily needed to make modifications to accommodate their business.

When the active leases ran out in 1926, architect A. L. Seiden was commissioned to modernize the building and create the two-story restaurant space.  The Victorian facade of the upper floors was stripped off and immense show windows were installed, surrounded by limestone; and the stoop was removed.  The spartan decoration was limited to paneled spandrels between floors and a blank dist below the shallow pediment.

Henry J. Hardenbergh's distinctive cast iron storefront, thankfully, remained in stark contrast to the modern 1920s upper portion.

New tenants upstairs within the next decade were mostly apparel manufacturers--Royal Society Clothes, Blair Hall Clothes, Inc., and Vogue Tailoring, among them.


Although Lower Fifth Avenue experienced a downturn in the last quarter of the 20th century, it revived in the 21st.   No. 123 is now home to boutiques and apparel shops.  When a taxicab crashed into the building around 2013, the southern column of the cast iron frame was badly damaged.  A restoration by Forerunner Creations of Brooklyn recreated the damaged elements in aluminum, as well as any corroded elements elsewhere.

Despite some alterations to the storefront (including the picking out of details in rather flashy gold paint), it is a remarkable survivor--its ornate design creating a head-scratching contrast to the 1926 upper stories.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Transfiguration Lutheran Church - 74 West 126th Street



In 1894 general contractors banded together to form a united front against the tradesmen's unions.  The move was in direct response to a general strike of the carpenters' unions against sub-contracting, called "lumping."  At a meeting in Renwick Hall on September 24, the builders formed the Employers' and Builders' League, with architect and builder John P. Leo elected president.

The Real Estate Record & Guide later said it "proved so effective and useful" that it was incorporated.  It was now known as The Builders' League of New York.

John P. Leo remained its president and when the group laid plans for a permanent headquarters in 1897, he personally designed the building.  Located in Harlem at No. 74 West 126th Street, between Fifth and Lenox Avenues, it sat on a block lined with high-stooped brownstones.  Building Trades Employers' Association Bulletin later explained the group "settled there because a majority of its charter members dwelt north of Central Park and the location was convenient for them"


Completed in January 1898, the Record & Guide described the 25-foot wide building as "Romanesque, a style peculiarly adapted for use in a building of this kind."   Leo's was a restrained take on Romanesque Revival, foregoing the chunky stone blocks and massive arches in favor of an ordered facade.

Three stories tall, the base was of brownstone and the upper two stories of light gray brick.   Leo incorporated expected Romanesque Revival elements--heavy, ornate medieval carvings on the newels of the shallow stoop and brackets of the second floor balcony, for instance; but introduced arched openings--a hallmark of the style--only at the second floor.  The Record & Guide approved "The general effect of the building, externally, is one of dignity and solidity, and the details have been carefully studied by the architect."

Building Trades Employers Assoc Bulletin, January 1904, (copyright expired)
In the basement were bowling alleys; on the first floor was a 10-food wide entry hall leading to the staircase.  Also on this floor were the billiard room and cafe.  The second story contained a foyer, large ladies' parlor and a double-height assembly room, the ceiling of which rose 16 feet.  Designed for entertainments as well as meetings, it featured a musicians' gallery.  On the top floor were a small apartment for the steward, a board room, and the hat and coat room.  The interiors were, according to the Record & Guide "tastefully decorated."

A reception for members was held on the evening of January 14, 1898; but the "formal opening" was held on March 10.  The Builders' League said of its upcoming "stag entertainment," "An interesting programme has been arranged and the occasion promises to be almost attractive one."

The Builders' League of New York may have been composed of builders and contractors; but they were chiefly well-to-do gentlemen.  For the dinner held on December 15, 1900, for instance, the assembly room was decorated with palms and flowers, and an orchestra played.  The Record & Guide noted "a confusing variety of wines and cordials increased the palatory enjoyment, and no doubt aided digestion."

By the turn of the century the Clio Club used rooms in the League's building for its meetings.  Founded in 1892 its members were mostly women, although men were occasionally admitted.  Its main purpose was to foster "mental improvement and social intercourse."  By its own description, it would seem there was little that the club did not discuss.  In Club Women of New York, the Clio Club said it "interests itself in education, the home, philanthropy, arts, social economics, the drama, fiction, historical research, nature study, poetry, and women's ideal."

In December 1901, for instance, the club met to hear Mrs. Charles Milton Ford read her paper "Civic Responsibility;" Mrs. Daniel B. Van Houten, who spoke on "The Gospel of Wealth;" and Mrs. Charles Appleton Terry, who addressed the "One Great Need of a Crowded City."  The New-York Tribune mentioned that "Musical numbers were interspersed."

On July 20, 1909 the Builders' League sold their clubhouse to the Harlem Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church.   The church had been at No. 191 East 121st Street for years.  By 1910 it shared the building with the Lenox Avenue Union Church, which moved from No. 39 West 119th Street.

Interestingly, while the Harlem Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church held the mortgage on the property, it was the Lenox Avenue Union Church that hired architect Nathan G. Kelsey in June 1912 to renovate the structure from a clubhouse to a proper church.  Kelsey's plans called for new structural beams, interior walls and, most importantly, "new front wall."  The renovations cost the church $10,000--more than a quarter of a million dollars today.  When completed, there was no trace of John P. Leo's club building.
A postcard showed the astounding make-over.  The rough-cut blocks of Leo's basement level are all that are left of the original design.

Kelsey's two-part design featured a rusticated brick base interrupted by three pointed-arch openings trimmed in terra cotta.  The churches saved money by using brick almost exclusively in the detailing.  The quoins and paneled spandrels of the two-story upper portion were executed in brick rather than stone.  The three double-height Gothic arches were given terra cotta drip moldings.  Kelsey turned from neo-Gothic to Flemish Renaissance for the high gable, where brickwork more than the eave line suggested the stepped motif.

Two years later the Lenox Church announced an upcoming move.  Having merged with the Central Church of the Disciples of Christ, in February 1914 the two congregations reported that a new edifice would be erected "in the vicinity of 110th Street."

With its new home completed the Lenox Avenue Union Church sold its share of the 126th Street church to the Harlem Swedish Lutheran Church on October 18, 1918.  But the Swedish congregation would not stay much longer.

The demographics of the Harlem neighborhood had starkly changed.  The population was now mostly black--an issue that did not escape the notice of the United Lutheran Church.  In 1920 the Church moved to establish a "mission in the heart of Manhattan" for those worshipers who, according to the Minutes of the Biennial Convention, "on account of the color which God put in their skin, were without a home."

On New Year's Day 1923 the Harlem Swedish Lutheran Church was purchased for $57,000 (the Minutes grumbled that it was "almost twice its pre-war value).   The convention minutes said "This structure had originally been a clubhouse" but had been rebuilt "until it was a modern church with a beautiful auditorium on the first floor, a Sunday school room and kitchen on the second floor, janitor's quarters on the third floor, offices and rooms for the workers on the first and second floors, and a bowling alley in the basement."

"The name chosen, the Church of the Transfiguration, is the same as that of a famous New York church of another faith," admitted the minutes, but, it hoped, "in time [it] will become as well known in its way as the other 'little church around the corner.'"

Instead it was doggedly known for the racial make-up of its congregation.  On June 12, 1927, when The New York Times reported on the ordination of seven new Lutheran ministers, it singled out one.  "One of the class is a negro, Nicholas Morris Chisholm.  He will become assistant pastor of the Negro Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration."

For years the church would never be mentioned in articles about sermons, events, or celebrations with the identifying tag "negro" or "colored."   Perhaps the first example of the congregation being referred to simply as "the Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration" came in August 1930 when a change was made to the staff.  That was when James Soler arrived from Argentina to serve as pastor of the Spanish-speaking West Indian members. 

In 1932 a tiny wooden house survived next door.   photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Despite the make-up of his congregation, it was not race that was on the mind of Rev. Dr. Samuel Trexler on Sunday, March 10, 1935.  It was Adolph Hitler.

The Nazis had outlawed independent religious sects in Germany and ordered all churches to unify as the Protestant Reich Church.   Church leaders protested, forming the Confessional Synod, and demonstrated against the system.  A massive rally was planned for that same Sunday and Rev. Trexler announced his support from the pulpit.

"The protest of the churchmen of Germany planned for today must have a heartening effect upon Christians throughout the world," he told the congregation.  "Confronted by the State and the Word of God, they are like Luther at Worms when he said, 'Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.'"

The minister's prediction of a "heartening effect" was premature.  As could be expected in retrospect, the demonstration did not end well for the religious leaders.  On March 18 the Chicago Tribune reported "About 700 Confessional synod pastors were arrested in Berlin and throughout Germany during the last 24 hours to prevent them from reading the synod's proclamation which sharply criticizes the Nazi church regime."

The newspaper predicted that many more arrests would follow.  "More than 5,000 pastors are identified with the Confessional movement" and added "Nazi official acted aso against the Catholics and Masons.  Secret police searched the Convent of the Good Shepherd...and arrested the mother superior and her assistant for reasons which were not announced."

If press coverage of Transfiguration Lutheran Church seemed racially-focused before, it was never more so than following the May 30, 1956 ordination of 28-year old Rev. Robert Tage Neilssen.  The shocking news was reported throughout the state of New York.

The Associated Press reported Neilssen "will become the first white pastor of a New York church with an all-Negro congregation."  The new minister was barraged with questions that would be highly inappropriate today.  Why was he interested in serving a Negro congregation?  How was he received by the members?

The novelty of a white man shepherding a black congregation resulted in reporters filing into the church for Neilssen's first day on the job.  On June 4, 1956 The Times reported "At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration...the Rev. Robert Tage Neilssen preached his first sermon as the white pastor of a Negro congregation."

Perhaps speaking more to the reporters at one point than to his flock, Neilssen said "Religiously speaking, segregation is living a lie.  When I deny that any man is my brother, I am denying that God is the Father of us all."

Racial tensions across America resulted in riots in New York, Houston and Miami in the late 1970s and 1980.   Rev. James Gunther, now pastor of Transfiguration, noted with near resignation in December 1981 "things do not look as hopeful as they did five or 10 years ago."  He suggested that minority church leaders should "give the city some advice in dealing with black and Puerto Rican constituencies."


Transfiguration Lutheran Church continues its work after nearly 95 years in the remodeled clubhouse.  Sadly Nathan G. Kelsey's Flemish gable was removed rather than restored--no doubt because of financial reasons--and the brick and terra cotta facade has been painted.  The historic little structure nevertheless maintains a quaint presence among its brownstone neighbors.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Horgan & Slattery's Nos. 329 to 343 West 71st Street




A rather startling report, at least in real estate circles, appeared in The New York Times on April 5, 1895.  Within a matter of weeks every one of the eight rowhouse recently completed by Horgan & Slattery had sold.  The rapid sales spoke of the desirability of the residences.

And Arthur J. Horgan and Vincent Slattery needed the cash.  In 1894, when construction of the row began, their firm declared bankruptcy "with a large indebtedness," according to American Bankruptcy Reports a few years later.  By now they had re-incorporated as "Horgan and Slattery Company:" but when that firm failed within two years, they reformed as Horgan & Slattery, using their wives' names.

The struggling partners would find salvation in the highest city offices.  Tammany Hall Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck would funnel many civic commissions to Horgan & Slattery, and designed by other architects were filtered through them for approval as "consulting architects."  It all prompted an infuriated New York Times editorial on July 15, 1899 that questioned who these unknown upstarts were. "Does anybody know who they are or what they have done or why any human being should pay them a nickel each for their opinions on the art of architecture or even whether they exist?" it asked.

But despite their obscurity and their future bad press; Horgan & Slattery had managed to produce a row of impressive Italian Renaissance Revival residences.  Five stories tall and romantically embellished with Venetian touches--balconies and faux loggias, for instance--they were faced in yellow brick and lavished with terra cotta.  A bit surprisingly, given their formal facades, the pattern of the row was an off-kilter A-B-B-A-B-B-B-A.

Venetian style masks grin down below heraldic-type shields.

The new owners along the row were professional and wealthy.  Among them were architect Samuel Breck Parkman Trowbridge and his wife at No. 331; the wealthy widow of lace merchant Richard Muser at No. 343; and advertising executive Henry Brock's family were in No. 339.

Perhaps it was his upcoming marriage to Edith Hellman that prompted 23-year old George Louis Beer to purchase No. 329.  The couple was married on November 11, 1896 and despite both coming from prominent Jewish families, the service which took place in Sherry's Red Room was conducted by Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement.

Beer was a historian and economist.  He graduated from Columbia University in 1892 and was now a professor of European History there.  His sister had married Edwin R. A. Seligman, son of banker Joseph Seligman, and like George, a economics professor at Columbia.  The new Mrs. Beer was was a granddaughter of Joseph Seligman.

George Louis Beer -- George Louis Beer: A Tribute to His Life and Work, 1924 (copyright expired)
Although his wedding ceremony may have hinted otherwise, Beer was at least marginally active in Jewish life.  He was a founding member in January 1897 of The Judaeans, a club which stated its goal as "to promote and further the intellectual and spiritual interests of Jews, and at least three-quarters of its members shall be engaged in literature, the arts of sciences."


When Mount Sinai Hospital relocated to new buildings covering a full block at Fifth Avenue and 100th Street in 1904, George and Edith endowed the facility with $10,000--more than a quarter of a million dollars today.

Beer, by now, had retired to focus on his research and writing.   Early in 1913 his four-volume set on the British colonial system was published--British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765; Origin of the British Colonial System, 1578-1666, and the two part The Old Colonial System.   On June 1 that year The Washington Herald announced that the combined works had earned him the first Loubat Prize for the best English language book on "history, geography, archaeology, ethnology, philogy, or numismatics of North America."

As war broke out in Europe, Beer's focus turned from Britain to Germany.  After "German apologists" routinely defended its actions to the still-neutral United States, Beer cautioned readers of The Sun on October 18 1914 to judge carefully.   Citing historian James Anthony Froude, he likened history to "a child's box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please.  We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose."

The U.S. entrance into the war brought it closer to home for Beer.  He was appointed  "colonial expert" to President Woodrow Wilson's American Commission of Inquiry; and attended the Paris Peace Conference.  In 1919 he was appointed director of the Mandatory Section of the League of Nations.

On March 17, 1920 the New-York Tribune announced rather bluntly "George Louis Beer, forty-seven, historical and economic writer, is dead at his home, 329 West Seventy-first Street."  Edith remained in the house until November 1943.  In the meantime, she had as neighbors her relatives, Hugo and Hazel Seligman.

When the Seligmans moved into No. 343 in 1915 the house already had garnered a colorful history.  Its original owner was the then-recently widowed Cecelia Muser, whose husband, Richard, died under suspect circumstances in 1893.

Muser, whom the Evening World said was "supposed to be worth at least $1,000,000," was a partner in the Belgium lace importing firm Muser Bros., and according to the New-York Tribune, a "large owner of Chicago Gas and General Electric."  At the time the family, including son Richard Jr., maintained a country residence north of the city in Suffern, New York.  The Evening World described it as "a fine estate of 300 acres, with a fine house and outbuildings."


It was there he was found in the woods with a bullet in his head in August 1893.  He lived for 12 hours after being found; and immediately the theory of suicide was dismissed.  The Evening World, on August 11, stated the obvious:  "the fact that no pistol was found near the body gives color to the theory that he did not die by his own hand."

The perpetrator of the murder was never discovered; although suspicion was cast on Cecelia.  Town gossip in Suffern said that the Musers were planning a divorce "on account of differences between Mrs. Muser and the housekeeper," reported the Tribune.  The implied "differences" would have been an affair between the servant and Richard Muser.

When Cecelia arranged to have the funeral take place in the home of a relative, it only fueled speculation.   Some of Muser's friends, according to the New-York Tribune, said the funeral arrangements led credence to the "domestic trouble point of view" as the cause of the murder.

Cecelia Muser and, later, the Hugo Seligmans, lived at No. 343.

Cecelia moved into the 71st Street house and quickly ran into a different sort of trouble.  In the spring of 1896 she noticed laces worth $2,000  and other clothing items were missing.  Although it seems she did not immediately notify police, her neighbors, the Trowbridges did.  The newlyweds returned from Europe in May and Mrs. Trowbridge discovered her $400 wedding dress and $1,040 in other gowns had been stolen.

On a servant's bed on the top floor of the Trowbridge house at No. 331 were footprints.  Detectives followed them along the rooftops until they reached No. 339--the home of the Henry Brock family.  Brock, who was president of Brock's Commercial Agency, had eight children.  Two of them, 21-year old Georgie and 12-year old Florence, were about to be in hot water.

When detectives informed Mrs. Brock that there had been a burglary on the block, she allowed them in to investigate.  They checked the servants' shoes, none of which matched the prints.  But one pair, belonging to Florence, were a match.  "Just at this moment they saw a trunk being taken from the house," reported The New York Times.

Police followed the wagon the carried it to a warehouse.  Inside were not only Mrs. Trowbridge's dresses; but Cecelia Muser's expensive laces.  The Times noted "Miss Georgie Brock, who is a beautiful brunette, has always had a good reputation in her neighborhood, but her father said yesterday that Florence is unmanageable."

The girls were arrested for grand larceny on May 26 and Georgia admitted guilt.  It turned out that when Georgie realized what her sister had done, she tried to cover up the theft, sending the trunk to storage until she could quietly return the items to their owners.

Cecelia Muser, having gotten her laces back, refused to press charges.  Henry Brock attempted to minimize the theft, telling a reporter "It was merely a child's misdoings, serious enough, but due wholly to her lack of judgment."

Around 1903 Celelia moved to No. 505 West End Avenue.  The John Reinfrank family moved in; but their stay would be disastrously cut short.  Reinfrank (who at some point had dropped the "h" from Rheinfrank) was a director in the Germania Bank and the founder of the coal company J. Rheinfrank & Co.  Now retired, he had passed the operation of the business to his sons.  The Coal and Coal Trade Journal called him "one of the most highly esteemed" and "one of the wealthiest" in the business.

On Wednesday, June 15, 1904 Reinfrank and his wife, Katherine, (he was 75 and she was 64) joined a group of family and friends on the General Slocum, a steam-powered side wheeler hired by the German-language St. Mark's Lutheran Church to take a group on a day-long picnic outing.  Before making it to its destination the vessel caught fire and within a span of 15 minutes the ship burned to the waterline.  In the greatest loss of life in New York City until the World Trade Center attacks, nearly 1,000 people perished.

The Reinfrank's daughters were in Europe at the time.  Hearing of the disaster they boarded a ship to New York; they knew that their family would have known many of the victims but they were unaware that their parents were passengers.

On June 17 the New-York Tribune reported that brothers Frederick and Gustave Reinfrank, "two big Germans," "wandered disconsolately from the morgue to the scene of the accident, to Police Headquarters and back to the Morgue" looking for their parents."

John Reinfrank's body was identified and his funeral held in the 71st Street house on Sunday, June 19.  When the daughters arrived on the Lucania five days later, their brother was there to tell them the horrifying news.  At the time Katharine's body had still not been found.

Alice Miller purchased No. 343 in 1908, and sold it to the Seligmans in 1915.  Despite the ample size of the house, it was not large enough for the debutante entertainment for daughter Susan in December 1921.  The New York Herald announced on December 24 that her parents and her uncle Alfred F. Seligman, "will unite in giving a supper and dance next Monday night in the Plaza...There will be 300 guests."

The Seligmans left West 71st Street at least a decade before Edith Beer.   In 1935 it was home to attorney Alexander Cumming; but change was quickly coming.  By 1937 it was operated as a rooming house, home to tenants like former chorus girl Dorothy Sabine who sued the wealthy aeronautical supplies manufacturer J. D. Wooster Lambert that year for breach of contract.  Her questionable action claimed he had promised to pay her $300 a month as a "secretary" and to give her 20 percent of all profits.

In the meantime, the Brock house had seen more excitement following the stolen dresses episode.  For several years the Brock name appeared in the newspapers only to report their comings and goings at fashionable resorts like Atlantic City.   But then, on June 26, 1900 the New-York Tribune ran the mystifying headline "Henry Brock Disappears."

On the previous Saturday a "few thousand" of his clients received a letter that read:

Dear Sir: I regret to announce my inability to continue this business.  Accept my sincere thanks for your kind support and encouragement so many years.  I will be personally at your service any time you require me.  Respectfully yours, Henry Brock

The difficulty in obtaining that service would be that Brock simply vanished.  When two clerks in his office in the Park Row Building were questioned, they could only say that "Mr. Brock left town suddenly last Thursday night."  A review of the company's finances showed no outstanding debts.

The Brock house was eventually sold at auction in April 1908.  Like its neighbors, No. 339 was converted to furnished rooms during the Depression years.

As the 20th century drew to a close the houses were all treated with a bit more respect.  The George Beer house was remodeled into four apartments in 1973--three duplexes and a floor-through.  In 2011 No. 339 became "Class A apartments," and the Muser house at No. 343, too, became modern apartments.


Despite minor changes like replacement doors from the early 20th century in most of the houses, the row mostly retains its 1895 appearance.  And despite the black eye that Horgan & Slattery continues to wear more than a century later, most architectural historians grant the row a most favorable opinion.

photographs by the author