Monday, March 27, 2017

The Lost John James Audubon House--Riverside Drive near 156th Street

When the Audubon house was completed in 1842, it was surrounded by verdant woodlands  watercolor by William Rickarby Miller, 1857.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Riding on the success of his The Birds of America, in 1841 naturalist artist John James Audubon purchased 14 acres of wooded land far north of the city overlooking the Hudson River.   The family was temporarily living at No. 86 White Street; but Audubon notoriously disliked cities.

Located just above what would become 155th Street, the untouched terrain contained mature elms, dogwoods and tulip trees; and water features like ponds, creeks and a small waterfall.  He registered his triangular-shaped land purchase as "Minnie's Land."

Audubon and his family had lived in Scotland while he prepared The Birds of America and his sons, Victor and John, had begun using the word "Minnie" to refer to their mother, Lucy Bakewell Audubon.  It was a Scottish endearment meaning "mother."

Audubon transferred the title to Lucy, reportedly to thank her for the decades of difficulty and separation she suffered while he worked on the book.  He erected a comfortable frame house that sat above a stone basement.  A hip roof rose above the shallow attic level, and wide matching porches at the front and back offered cool respite in summer.  The house was situated close enough to the river to enjoy breathtaking views.  The family moved in in the spring of 1842.

The Audubon boys appear to be playing two-man baseball.  etching from Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, 1864

Although Minnie's Land is often thought of as a summer estate--and indeed there were several in the upper reaches of Manhattan--this was a year-round working farm.  It contained fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, and livestock enclosures.  The family was therefore self-sufficient; eggs, milk, meat, fruits and vegetables were supplemented with fish from the river and game from the forest.

In 1846 the Audubons hosted Samuel Morse.  The inventor had been working on a telegraph line that stretched from Philadelphia to Fort Lee, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Minnie's Land.  The line was completed that year and Morse used his friend's house for the trial run.  The New York Times later reported "A receiving office for messages was opened on this side of the river in the house of Audubon, the naturalist, and two Whitehall boatmen were engaged to keep up the communication."

As Audubon worked on his book Quadrupeds of North America in 1843, the grounds filled with his subjects.  In her 1898 book Audubon and his Journals, Maria R. Audubon explained "many animals (deer, elk, moose, bears, wolves, foxes, and smaller quadrupeds) were kept in inclosures--never cages--mostly about a quarter of a mile distant from the river, near the little building known as the 'painting house.'"

William Cullen Bryant later described the drawing room in his book Homes of American Authors:

"It was not, however, a parlor, or an ordinary reception-room that I entered, but evidently a room for work.  In one corner stood a painter's easel, with a half-finished sketch of a beaver on the paper; in the other lay the skin of an American panther.  The antlers of elks hung upon the walls; stuffed birds of every description of gay plumage ornamented the mantle-piece; and exquisite drawings of field-mice, orioles, and wood-peckers, were scattered promiscuously in other parts of the room, across one end of which a long rude table was stretched to hold artist materials, scraps of drawing-paper, and immense folio volumes, filled with delicious paintings of birds taken in their native haunts."

The famous painter's career was quickly coming to an end, however.  He was already showing signs of what today we would recognize as dementia.  In 1846 a close friend, Dr. Thomas M. Brewer of Boston visited and was disturbed at Audubon's condition.

He wrote in his journal "The patriarch had greatly changed since I had last seen him.  He wore his hair longer, and it now hung down in locks of snowy whiteness on his shoulders.  His once piercing gray eyes, though still bright, had already begun to fail him.  He could no longer paint with his wonted accuracy, and had at last, most reluctantly, been forced to surrender to his sons the task of completing the illustrations of the 'Quadrupeds of North America.'  Surrounded by his large family, including his devoted wife, his two sons with their wives, and quite a troop of grandchildren, his enjoyments of life seemed to leave him little to desire."

The New York Times remembered decades later "In 1847 the brilliant intellect began to be dimmed; at first it was only the difficulty of finding the right word to express an idea, the gradual lessening of interest, and this increased till in May, 1848, Dr. Bachman tells the pathetic close of the enthusiastic and active life: 'Alas, my poor friend Audubon!  The outlines of his beautiful face and form are there, but his noble mind is all in ruins.  It is indescribably sad.'"

On January 27, 1851 Audubon died at the age of 71.  The New York Times noted simply "The latter years of his life were passed in quiet retirement."  The New-York Daily Tribune was more poetic, saying "He departed full of days and rich in honors, and his end was worthy of his life."

The funeral was held in the house (by now the spelling had become a single word: Minniesland) on January 29.  "It was largely attended by the friends of the family and other citizens," reported the Tribune.  "The funeral was wholly unostentatious and simply."  Audubon's body was removed to the family vault in Trinity Church Cemetery, which abutted the Audubon property.

Although the family struggled to keep financially float--Victor and John worked on Quadrupeds and attempted to sell subscriptions--Lucy was forced to sell off land.  In 1869 Miller's New Guide to the Hudson River callously described, "within a very short distance of the what is rather pompously called Audubon Park, being a small estate of a few acres which formerly belonged to Audubon, and which, since his death, has been cut up into building-lots, and had received this high-sounding name.  Audubon's house is still standing, a plain unpretending affair, occupied, we believe, by what is left of his family." 

Finally in March 1872 she sold her beloved house to 54-year old Jesse Wheeler Benedict.  Benedict had married Frances Ann Coleman in July 1833.  The couple had one unmarried daughter, Mary.  Once a successful silversmith and watchmaker, he and his brother, Samuel Ward Benedict, had been partners in Benedict, Benedict & Co.  But in 1843 Jesse switched careers, opening a law firm.

The Benedicts updated the simple wooden house, adding a fashionable mansard roof with iron cresting, a two-story protruding bay to the side and Victorian embellishments to the porches.

photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Jesse Benedict died in 1872.  Frances almost immediately offered the house for rent.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on April 4, 1873 read "To Let--Furnished, the residence of the late Jesse W. Benedict, at Audubon Park, Washington Heights, New York city; property is on the banks of the Hudson; ample grounds, double house, stable, &c."

Frances Benedict died in 1887, and the property was sold to William Kramer in April 1888.  The land surrounding the house had shrunk to approximately 375 by 440 feet.  Kramer, who owned the Atlantic Garden and Thalia Theatre, paid $40,000 for the land, house and stable--just about $1 million today.

Kramer's occupancy was relatively short and by 1893 the house was home to lawyer Charles Francis Stone and his wife, the former Sallie English.   Stone was a member of the firm Porter, Lawrey, Soren & Stone.  By now the pristine woodlands that had lured James John Audubon were gone as houses engulfed the neighborhood and Riverside Drive cut through what had been the rear lawn.

The Stones appeared in the society columns as they entertained in the former Audubon house.  On February 17, 1892 Sallie gave a type of reception, the name for which has fallen into oblivion.  The New York Times reported "Mrs. Charles Francis Stone of Audubon Park gave a german last evening to Miss Bessie Hopkins of Maryland."

In February 1894 The Evening World reported that to observe Washington's Birthday, "a luncheon and music by the General Society of the Daughters of the Revolution [was given] at the home of Mrs. Charles Francis Stone, Audubon Park, Washington Heights."

By 1898 the Stones had moved surprisingly far south to No. 17 West 12th Street.  The Audubon house, out of fashion architecturally, was divided into two residences, upper and lower.  In 1905 Frederick La Mura, a contractor, lived upstairs and he sub-let the lower parlor floor to Philip H. Smith and his wife.

La Mura had moved from East 108th Street because of threatening letters he had received from the Black Hand Society--an Italian anarchist group that targeted Italian-American businessmen.  Now, on the night of November 12, 1905 a night watchman at a nearby construction site noticed two suspicious-acting men on the property.  Suddenly they ran down Broadway.

The New-York Tribune reported "Feeling sure that there was something wrong, Monahan made a careful investigation, and discovered flames issuing from the basement of the Audubon house at a point once occupied as a wine cellar, but now used as a sort of storeroom for paint pails and similar articles."

Monhan roused Smith and La Mura who rushed to the basement and extinguished the blaze.  The terrorists had broken a window and tossed a kerosene-soaked bundle of rages and newspaper inside.

By 1915 the house was suffering severe neglect.  A letter to the editor of The Sun on November 20 that year asked "Cannot something be done to save the picturesque home of the great American naturalist John James Audubon...Unless aid comes from the city authorities or private individuals it is obvious that Audubon's home is doomed to go."  The writer noted "The elements have got in some vital blows, and it is doubtful whether the building can hold together much longer."

Four days later another reader, Alfred Poindexter of Richmond, Virginia, chimed in.  "Let the mansion be rehabilitated in keeping with its memories, and converted into a museum of Audubon's friends, living song birds, a unique delight for visitors."

Concerned citizens still rallied for the preservation of the historic home six years later.  On May 7, 1921 a letter to the editor of The New York Herald warned that the building "where John James Audubon made his home for years and in which Morse installed and tried out his first telegraph instrument has been allowed to fall into decay and it cannot hold together much longer."

And on April 22, 1923 The New York Times joined the push for preservation.  Saying that the building could be purchased for $90,000 and "could be easily jacked up to a level with the Drive," an editorial added "Standing there, with its spacious rooms and sweeping staircases restored to their ancient dignity, it would make a splendid memorial to John James Audubon, and provide an appropriate home for the organization that bears his name."  But at present, the article lamented, "Rubbish litters the wide verandas" and "A dozen families are crowded, old-law-tenement-house fashion, in the rooms where Audubon worked."

When this photograph was taken, laundry hung from the rubbish-strewn lawn.  Apartment buildings lined Riverside Drive and railroad tracks separate the property from the river.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Nothing came of the proposals.  In November 1931, as developers descended on the property, DuPont Pratt donated $1,000 to move the house contingent upon $6,000 more being raised.  Money flowed in, but it was an expensive project.  On December 8 The Times reported "The expenses of moving the house to a new site have been underwritten, but a fund of $25,000 is needed to complete the work of restoration."

Wreckers began demolition in December; but were stopped at the last minute when city officials stepped in.  The Times reported "Although wreckers already had begun to tear down porches and to remove the roof and bay windows, the demolition had not proceeded far enough to interfere with restoration."

The historic home was dismantled and its sections removed to a city-owned lot awaiting the necessary fund raising to reassemble and restore it.  But during the Great Depression, when the choice of buying food or donating to historic preservation was clear, the project stalled.

As years passed, the sections were somehow misplaced.  No one knows what became of the dismantled Audubon house.  Years passed and the noble residence was forgotten.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

No. 143 Chambers Street

As early as 1835 Ellis Potter and his wife lived in a brick house at No. 143 Chambers Street.  Mrs. Potter was active in charitable work, serving as a manager of the New-York Female Assistance Society (organized for "the relief and instruction of the sick poor) in the 1830s and '40s.  Ellis was a well-to-do businessman who, as pioneers headed West, would become secretary of the Susquehanna and Wyoming Valley Railroad and Coal Company.

It was most likely the intrusion of commerce onto Chambers Street that prompted the Potters to leave by 1853.  That year Ellis placed an advertisement in The New York Herald offering "To Let--For one or three years, the house and lot 143 Chambers street."

The lessee operated it as a boarding house, advertising "One room, suitable for a gentleman and lady or two single gentlemen, also one single room, to let, with or without board," on May 29, 1855.  The upscale tenor of the boarders was evidenced when one purchased a custom-built piano; then had to sell it.  On the same page of The New York Herald with the ad for the rooms, another appeared that read:

A splendid $325 seven octave rosewood piano for sale for $235, made to order two months since by celebrated city markers, and fully warranted, of superior tone and finish; perfect every way.  The owner is going to Paris."

The original cost of the pricey instrument would be more than $9,000 today.

Ellis Potter was understandably outraged when months earlier, in May 1854, his next door neighbor at No. 145 demolished his house to erect a new commercial building.  In doing so, according to Potter's complaint, he "removed the party-wall between the premises."  Potter took him to court on April 2, 1861.  The defendant, named White, scoffed at the idea he had damaged No. 143, saying it was already "in ruinous condition."

Potter fired back, saying his house had been fine, "and was then renting for about $1,200 to $1,400 per annum. (about $3,000 per month in 2017 dollars).  He won his case, receiving a judgment of nearly $3,500.

But the damage was done and before long Potter began construction of a replacement structure himself.  Completed in the spring of 1864, it outshone White's building architecturally.  Above an elegant cast iron storefront were four floors of light-colored sandstone.  The graceful arched openings of the second floor were unified by shared pilasters, and dramatic scrolled keystones curled like breaking waves.  The windows of the floors above were ornamented with stone voussoirs which mimicked the quoins which ran up the sides of the building.  Above it all was a handsome Italianate cornice on ornate brackets.

J. Goldstein & Bro. not only managed the building, but moved into the ground floor space.  On April 23, 1864 it advertised "To let--Three lofts, in the new building 143 Chambers street, opposite Hudson River Railroad depot, suitable for jobbing or manufacturing business."

One floor had already been leased.  Wm. Lehman manufactured the hoops which were so necessary for the latest fashion craze, the hoop skirt.  In June 1865 two thieves attempted to make off with "twelve coils of skirt wire, valued at $130" as reported by The New York Times.  The crooks, William Gaynor and Daniel Gill, were apprehended and convicted.  Gaynor was sent to the State Prison for two and a half years; Gill for one.

Irving Underhill's photograph of Hudson Street is erroneously dated 1860.  It shows the eastern, windowless side of No. 143 Chambers rising about the Federal-style house in the center of the shot (at Chambers Street).   Ellis Potter's house was still standing that year; so this photo was taken no earlier than 1864.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Ellis Potter's building was elegant; but it was apparently difficult to fill.  In May 1868 all four upper floors were vacant, offered at "a moderate rent."  And nearly a year and a half later, in September 1869, only one loft was occupied.  That tenant was most likely Richardson & Co., dealers in "straw goods," which was here in 1871.

Surprisingly, despite the devastating Financial Panic of 1873, No. 143 Chambers Street suddenly was tenanted.  In 1874 Samuel Hirsch moved his furniture store into the first floor; Brush & Clark, real estate agents had its offices here, and Henry Lyon occupied the second floor.

Among Lyon's employees was 19-year old James Carr, who was married and lived on Chrystie Street.  Businesses in No. 143 used a "hatchway" to hoist goods up from the basement--a shaft equipped with pulleys and ropes (think of an elevator shaft without an elevator).  On May 2, 1874 Carr was helping in just such a project when his teen-aged bravado caused disaster.

A few days later his coworkers would testify "He had been warned not to attempt to slide down the fall-rope, but disregarding it had attempted to do so."  He lost his grip and fell from the second floor to the basement.  The New York Herald said he was "seriously injured" and taken to the Park Hospital.  Carr died the following day.  An inquest was held and the jury rendered a verdict of accidental death.

Business went on and a few weeks later an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald.  "Wanted--An errand boy from 13 to 18 years old."  The macabre circumstances surrounding the opening may have been responsible for tepid response.  The following week, on June 14, a second advertisement was placed.  "Wanted--An errand boy, about 15 years of age with good reference. Apply to H. Lyon."

G. W. Teed was operating his rubber stamp manufacturing company on the floor above Henry Lyon by 1876.  He advertised his "rubber name stamps" for 30 cents "an outfit."  Business was apparently good, for in May 1877 he was looking for "agents to sell my rubber stamps--splendid terms."

The successful wholesale liquor dealer Samuel A. Besson would operate from No. 143 Chambers for years.  He lived with his wife in Yonkers, where her brother, Charles V. Martine also lived.  The family was understandably concerned when the 47-year old left home on June 27, 1879 saying he had an appointment in New York City with his lawyer, William H. Pemberton.

But instead, they received a puzzling telegram from Albany saying he had arrived there safely.  On July 13, with no further word from Martine, Besson placed an ad asking for information on his whereabouts.  When that failed, he set off on a search.  The New York Herald reported on July 22 that he "returned to the city on Saturday night after a week devoted to a search for the missing man.  He visited all the summer resorts on the Hudson River, Saratoga, Lake George and some favorite retreats in Massachusetts, without obtaining any clew as to the whereabouts of Mr. Martine."

The newspaper explained the family's worry, saying Martine "took but little money with him to defray his expenses and an insufficient supply of linen and wearing apparel for a protracted absence."  It is unclear whether he was ever found.

Equally disturbing was the incident involving one of Besson's employees, O. P. Coleman.  At 5:30 on the morning of September 28, 1884 Police Officer McDermott noticed a man apparently sleeping in the doorway of No. 209 Washington Street.  The following day The New York Times ran the somewhat callous headline "Trying To Wake A Dead Man."

McDermott discovered upon attempting to arouse what he assumed was a drunk, that the middle-aged man was deceased.  A search of his pockets found three letters addressed to O. P. Coleman in care of S. A. Besson on Chambers Street.  With no one else to identify the body, Samuel Beeson was sent for; but he could not be found either in his office nor his Yonkers residence; so Coleman was taken to the Morgue until his employer could be located.

At some point before this time Ellis Potter had transferred title to the building to the St. James Episcopal Church.  When the congregation laid plans for a new structure on Madison Avenue and 71st Street in 1884, it took out a $200,000 building loan, using No. 143 Chambers Street as partial collateral.

Among the church's tenants in the building was Ryan & Co., makers of baseballs and "base ball goods."  Having moved here from No. 149 Fulton Street, it boasted "The Ryan Republican Dead Ball has been adopted for all professional and junior clubs throughout the country."

On March 17, 1882 it ran a sporty advertisement for workers.  "Base Ball Sewers--Come one, come all, to sew the Ryan dead ball; highest price paid; steady work."  The firm paid according to the model of ball the workers were constructing.  "Price list for sewing dead balls, 85c; stars, 50c; sheepskin, 30c; large 2, 25c; large O K, 20c; small O K, 16c."

The Evening World, February 10, 1894 (copyright expired)

Other tenants were James H. Flagg, cutlery, here in 1886; the printers and publishers, Irving Press; and Hardware Publishing Company, publishers of the bi-weekly Hardware; Good Value brand cigars; and Francis B. Thurber, head of the wholesale grocery firm Thurber-Whyland Company.

Irving Press Company received bad publicity in February 1895 when it was sued by William S. Stillman.   A year earlier, on January 4, William W. Thomas had hired Stillman as the firm's manager with a $20 per week salary.  The new employee should, perhaps, have been suspicious when, at the same time, Thomas asked him for a $430 loan, "to be repaid on Jan. 4, 1895."

When January 4 came and went, and Stillman pressed Thomas for his money, he was fired.  He sued for the loan plus the week and a half's salary he never got.

Remarkably, the 1820s house on the corner still stood in 1896.  No. 143 can be glimpsed to the side, revealing a permanent awning that had been erected over the ground floor.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Francis Thurber was long established well respected in the wholesale grocery business.  He was elected to the Chamber of Commerce, had organized and was president of the Anti-Monopoly League, and organized the Merchants and Manufacturers' Board of Trade.

Following the Financial Panic of 1893, his firm H. K. & F. B. Thurber failed.  He reorganized as the Thurber-Whyland Company and, for all appearances, was doing well.  On March 12, 1899 The Sun ran a surprising article that announced "Francis B. Thurber has been admitted to the bar at 57."  The oldest lawyer admitted to the bar in New York at the time, he explained "My objects in being admitted to the bar were mental discipline, the putting of an example before the boy [his teen-aged son], and what seemed to me the opportunity of combining my business experience with my knowledge of law."

In fact, there was more to the story than that.  On July 12 1901 a headline in the New-York Tribune read "F. B. Thurber Gives Up Fight."  The article reported that he his firm had declared bankruptcy.

In a statement he told how 30 years of hard work and a fortune "was swept away in the panic of 1893."  Seeing the inevitable, he procured his law degree and "am now trying, with good prospects, to establish a law practice" that he hoped "might enable me, with time, to do something for my creditors."  It was a humiliating and devastating end to Thurber's respected career.

Several publishers called No. 143 Chambers home, including the publishers of Hardware magazine.  (copyright expired)

Earlier that year, on January 12, a fire had swept through the building, causing $5,000 in damages.  It started on the second floor in the offices of the United States Export Association.  The publishers of The American Grocer was on the third floor, and the ground floor was home to Eugene W. Dunstan, dealers in bakery and confectioners equipment.

E. W. Dunstan suffered $500 in water damage; but would remain in the space at least through 1907.  The building, now nearly half a century old, was becoming antiquated.  In 1909 it was cited twice for health violations: "failure to provide sanitary water closets" and "failure to provide sufficient water to flush water closets."  The violations were repeated every year through 1912.

In April 1911 St. James Church foreclosed on the leaseholder, Elizabeth Bennett.  A new list of tenants soon filled the building, including Banner Utilities Company, which took the second floor, and hardware merchant William R. Keene who moved into the ground floor where he would remain until about 1918.

Keene got himself into trouble after his business associate and friend, Charles C. Carhart, introduced him to his wife, Eva.  The meeting not only ended Keene's and Carhart's friendship, but the Carhart marriage.  On April 15, 1913 Carhart sued his partner for $30,000 damages.  He said in court that "Mrs. Carhart's affections for him began to wane after he introduced her to Keene."

The building continued to lure a variety of tenants over the years.  In 1914, the same year that R. Heinlach's Sons Company and the Toplin Manufacturing Company leased space, the New York Iron and Steel Products Company moved in.  The firm would stay on into the 1920s.  The C. R. Andrews company distributed Hyde propellers here in the 1920s and '30s; and for years the Universal Butter and Egg Corporation operated here, finally going out of business in 1963.

The Tribeca neighborhood would soon change from gritty industrial to trendy residential and retail.  In 1985 the If Every Fool Studios was located at No. 143 Chambers Street.  That year it presented workshops "for an in-depth study of clowning" presented by master clowns from England, Canada and France.

In 2001 the upper floors were converted to residential spaces--one per floor.  The facade survives remarkably intact, including the storefront, with its Victorian double doors and handsome cast iron elements.

photographs by the author

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Charles Broadway Rouss Annex - Nos. 123-125 Mercer St

Charles Baltzell Rouss was what The New York Times, in his obituary, would call "an eccentric character in the commercial life of New York." A fervent Southerner, he was crushed when the Confederacy was defeated.  He was also broke.

At just 25 years old Rouss had run a successful mercantile business in Winchester, Virginia and accumulated a small fortune of $60,000--more than $900,000 today.  But the Civil War put an end to that. 

King's Photographic Views of New York would explain that he came to New York "without money or influence, and with $11,000 of ante-bellum debts hanging over him."  Despite his radical views--he was an avowed atheist who "alienated many friends by his frankness in expressing his views upon the subject," according to The Times, and shocked many with his nonconformist political and social stances--he created successful department store by the last decades of the century.

Rouss changed his middle name to Broadway, the location of his 1889 store at Nos. 549-555 which stretched through the block to Mercer Street.  Here, according to King's, shoppers wandered among "art-objects, boots and shoes, carpets, corsets, cigars, walking-sticks, canes, clothing, gloves, hardware, hosiery, hats, jewelry, laces, linens, millinery, notions, piece-goods, shades, shawls, jackets, skirts, show-cases, stationery, tinware, woolens, white goods, everything that one may think of, useful or ornamental, for personal wear or house-furnishing, including the inimitable Rouss parlor-organs. The value of the stock is $2,000,000."

Despite his eccentricities, Rouss was respected for his commercial ability, his determination and success.  He drew much attention after his sight began to fail in 1892, at the age of 52.  Although his physicians assured him that he could save his sight by retiring; he deemed that "worse than blindness, and so he stuck to his desk," according to the New-York Tribune years later.

By 1895 he was totally blind.   He offered $100,000 to anyone who could restore his sight and was besieged by quacks and con-men hungry for the reward.  Not wanting to suffer unnecessary pain and loss of time, he hired another blind man, James J. Martin, as a test subject.  After Martin suffered the various experiments for years, Rouss finally gave up in 1900, announcing that he had accepted that he would die blind.

Charles Broadway Rouss --New-York Tribune, March 4, 1902 (copyright expired)

He rose at 4:00 every morning in his mansion at No 632 Fifth Avenue and by 5:15 was in his carriage in Central Park.  His secretary would read the newspapers during these morning drives.  He worked from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; and then his secretary would ride home with him in his carriage, reading Rouss the evening papers.

Rouss died on March 3, 1902, leaving a married daughter and a son, Peter Winchester Rouss, who was actively involved in the business.  He left an estate of about $2 million.  In reporting his death, The New York Times mentioned that he was known nationally for "his peculiar faculty for attracting public attention through dramatic and sensational feats."

Rouss's ability to attract public attention did not die with him.  Before the year was out Edna Weller McClellan, described by The Evening World as "a pretty young woman," filed suit against the estate.  She produced a letter, dated June 16, 1900, which read:

I, Charles Broadway Rouss, agree with Edna Weller McClellan that if she will agree not to bring any suit against me for any claim she has against me, I agree to pay her $35 each and every week during her lifetime.  C. B. Rouss.

Edna claimed that by December 30 the estate owed her six months in payments, amounting to $2,700.  Witnesses said she "was a regular caller at his Fifth avenue residence and seldom missed one of his Sunday night 'at homes.'"  The Evening World reported "More than this, the residents in the neighborhood of the McClellan home told an Evening World reporter to-day that 'hundreds of times' they had seen Mr. Rouss drive Miss McClellan up to her home in his own carriage."

If New Yorker society was shocked by the implied affair between Rouss and McClellan; they were in for more scandal.  On May 18, 1903 a woman calling herself Mrs. Eva E. S. Rousseau appeared in court with her 10-year old son, prompting The Evening World to report "One more of the apparently innumerable 'affairs' of the late eccentric and blind millionaire merchant, Charles Broadway Rouss, is the subject of a suit brought to trial to-day."

Eva demanded $100,000 from the estate for the support and maintenance of the boy.  The Evening World wrote "The little fellow is Charles Broadway Rousseau, a syllable being added to the merchant's name for the lad's patronymic."

A substantial testimony on Eva's behalf came from Rouss's cook, Nellie Logan.  She swore that "after the death of Mrs. Rouss, Jan. 29, 1899, Mrs. Rousseau and her little boy were frequent visitors; that Mrs. Rousseau often remained over night and that the little boy called Mr. Rouss 'papa.'"

The jury was convinced.  On May 21 it returned a verdict for the full amount, plus $5,766.16 in interest.

In the meantime, Peter Winchester Rouss continued running the business.  On March 10, 1906 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced that No. 125 Mercer Street had been sold to "the owner of an adjoining plot.  A large business building will be erected on the site."

In fact the plot was not exactly "adjoining" the Rouss building, the back of which was directly across Mercer Street at Nos. 122-126.  Men's Wear magazine was more detailed, saying "Peter W. Rouss, of the firm of Charles Broadway Rouss, is erecting a 13-story red brick and limestone 123-125 Mercer street.  It will be an annex to the firm's main building at 549-555 Broadway."  The magazine projected the cost at $250,000.  By August the Record & Guide had increased that figure to $300,000--about $7.8 million today.

Rouss had commissioned architect William J. Dilthey to design the annex.  Completed on March 31, 1908, it was as impressive and expansive as any grand emporium on Broadway or Sixth Avenue.  The building rose 13 stories above the sidewalk.  The narrowness of Mercer Street made taking in the full height difficult.  Dilthey may have had that in mind when he focused ornamentation on the lower two limestone-clad stories.

The height of the building and the slight width of the street require a significant neck-craning to take in the full scope.

An especially elegant cast iron store front that included fanlights and stylized torches upheld a stone entablature that announced the store's name.  The rusticated second floor featured handsome paneled brackets between each opening.  Two story piers on either side were decorated with carved wreaths that dripped bellflowers, and decorative scrolls and shields at their bases.

When Peter Rouss was planning his annex in 1906, two department stores on Sixth Avenue joined forces.  Adams & Co. filled the western block front between 21st and 22nd Street; and Hugh O'Neill & Co. the block between 20th and 21st.  The combined stores constructed a tunnel underneath 21st Street for the convenience of its shoppers.

Rouss may have had that brilliant marketing move in mind when he chose the site for his annex building.  On October 21, 1907 he submitted an application to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment to "construct, maintain and use a tunnel" under Mercer Street that would connect the two buildings.

The tunnel, however, would not come to be.  The City asked that the plans be altered "to provide for a tunnel of less width."  Rouss balked.  After a year of squabbling, the engineer in charge, Harry P. Nichols advised the City that Rouss refused to comply with several requests and that he would not approve the application.

Charles Broadway Rouss continued selling its vast array of merchandise on Broadway and on Mercer Street until it closed in 1929.  The Mercer Street building became home to a variety of commercial tenants.  When Charles Broadway Rouss, Inc. finally sold the property in July 1946, its principal tenants were the United Cigar-Whelan Stores (one of the building's four elevators was dedicated to its use), and the Air Reduction Company.

Founded in 1902 the United Cigar-Whelan Stores operated the largest chain of cigar stores in the nation.  Although it had filed bankruptcy during the Great Depression, it bounced back and now boasted more than 1,000 stores.

Air Reduction Company manufactured Airco brand products.  Its wide-ranging products included the equipment necessary to inject carbon dioxide into soda fountain drinks, to acetylene welding torches used in construction oil pipelines in the Arabian desert.

The building, which stretched through the block to Greene Street, was converted to factory space.  Then, as the Soho neighborhood was reborn with art galleries, studios and restaurants, it was renovated for offices above the ground floor retail space, with the top two floors being duplex "joint work-living quarters for artists."

Somehow, through it all the wonderful cast iron storefront of Charles Broadway Rouss survived essentially intact--its carved name a reminder when one Broadway emporium lured shoppers to a more industrial side street.

photographs by the author

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The M. Rosendorff & Son Building - Nos. 277-279 Grand Street

Exactly ten years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Grand Street was laid out; its exceptional width earning it its name.  By the 1820s the road was lined with handsome Federal-style brick faced homes. One of these, No. 279, was home to "Brother Lovett," a member of the Columbia Lodge No. 1 of the Odd Fellows.   Lodge meetings were frequently held in the Lovett house.

Half a century later things had drastically changed on the Grand Street block between Forsyth and Eldridge Streets.  Grand Street had become a major shopping thoroughfare.  The expansive dry goods store of Hill, Moynan & Co. had engulfed the four houses at Nos. 271 through 277.  Like its neighbors, the former Lovett house had been converted to a commercial structure.
Hill, Moynan, & Co. advertised in the 1877 booklet "Forty Years of Methodism in Eighty-sixth-street, City of New York" (copyright expired)
Another dry goods merchant was Morris Rosendorff, who opened his store around 1863.  When his son, Louis, entered the business it was renamed M. Rosendorff & Son.  As the population of the Lower East Side exploded, Morris Rosendorff got in on the development bandwagon, focusing as much of his attention on building tenements and stores as on his dry goods business.

Rosendorff bought and sold property at a dizzying rate in the first years of the 1880s.  He repeatedly turned to the architectural firm of A. H. Blankenstein & Co.   Blankenstein's partner was Henry Herter.

Morris Rosendorff already owned No. 279 Grand Street when the Mott Estate sold eight "store, dwelling and tenement" properties on October 22, 1886.  The Record & Guide reported "M. Rosendorff, the Grand street dry goods merchant, secured four of the eight parcels for $110,200."  In a separate article it noted "No. 277 Grand Street...which was so eagerly bid for" sold for $65,400--a little over $1 million today.

A month later The Manufacturer and Builder reported that Rosendorff intended to construct "two iron-front stores" at a cost of $50,000 on the site of Nos. 277 and 279.  The article did not mention an architect.  Most likely that was because Rosendorff had a decision to make.  Henry Herter and A. H. Blankenstein had parted ways.  Herter was now partnered with Ernest W. Schneider and the pair would make their mark on the Lower East Side mostly designing tenements and loft buildings.

By mid-month Rosendorff had made up his mind.  On November 13, 1886 the Record & Guide pointed out that "Ernest E. W. Schneider and Henry Herter, who have entered into partnership" had made plans for a six-story tenement for Rosendorff on Henry Street.

Simultaneously, Schneider and Herter went to work designing a tenement and store for him at No. 141 East Broadway, and the two matching buildings on Grand Street.  The plans for the Grand Street structures estimated the costs at $25,000 each.

The completed structure was, in fact, not totally clad in cast iron as originally planned.  The third floor (all that remains of the 1886 design) was faced in planar stone.   Here cast metal lintels floated slightly above the openings.  It was the highly-unusual cornice, however, that stole the show.   Its bracketed and paneled design, including molded swags, would not have been out of the ordinary were it not for the two deep hoods encompassing giant rosettes.  They smacked of the Moorish details that would be seen on Schneider & Herter later synagogues.

While Morris Rosendorff and his son operated their dry goods store in the building and continued to wheel and deal in real estate, Mrs. Rosendorff busied herself with philanthropies.  In 1887 she hosted a ball in the new Webster Hall and used the proceeds to feed 400 impoverished Jews at Passover.  The following year she outdid herself.

On March 26, 1888 The New York Times reported "Mrs. M. Rosendorff, a benevolent Hebrew, went all the way to 52 Eldridge-street yesterday afternoon from her home, 108 East Sixty-second-street, to distribute more than 5,000 pounds of meat to the deserving poor."

On January 24 she had rented the Roumania Opera House on the Bowery and sold 1,000 tickets to a benefit performance of King Solomon.  The funds paid for a kosher butcher shop on Delancy Street "to supply the meat, and when the beasts were slaughtered according to the Jewish rite, everything was ready for distribution" in time for Passover.

The line of indigent "from nearly every part of the city" began to form around 11:00 on March 25 and continued until around sunset.  Each would receive a paper "order" to take to the butcher.  The newspaper noted "The first poor person served was Mrs. Mary Isaacs, who said she was mother of six children.  Mrs. Rosendorff gave her an order on Mr. Levy for seven pounds of meat.  Mrs. Isaacs returned effusive thanks and then made for the butcher's, where she got her Passover food."

Among the nearly 800 who received their orders were some non-Jews; "but that made no difference to Mrs. Rosendorff; they were poor and they might share," said The Times.

Businesses were required to report the number of employees between the ages of 8 and 14 to the Board of Education.  In 1893 M. Rosendorff & Son listed just one worker in that category.  But none of the employees would be working for the dry goods store for long.

Morris Rosendorff's declaration of bankruptcy in the fall of 1893 was reported across the country.  The Chicago Tribune noted on November 24 that the firm had unsecured liabilities of $75,000--a sizeable $2 million in today's dollars.  The company's attorney, Adolph L. Sanger, explained "The Rosendorffs for the last few years have been buying and selling real estate and building houses, and the difficulty of raising money in the last few months bothered them very much."

Three months later a Sheriff Sale was held to auction off the vast Rosendorff inventory.  Once emptied, Nos. 277 and 279 were offered at auction in May, 1894.  But no one seemed interested.  After several attempts, they were finally sold at foreclosure auction on November 1.
A sale advertisement listed the vast array of goods.  The Evening World, February 22, 1894 (copyright expired)
Although M. Rosendorff & Son had operated from the combined buildings, they were now sold separately.  No. 277, purchased by Charles S. Fairchild, brought $48,000 and No. 279 was sold for $50,000 to Joseph Levy.

Despite their independent owners, by 1896 there was a single tenant, G. Glauber, who operated his "novelties" store here.  At around 11:40 p.m. on the night of December 16 that year a fire broke out in the store.  Before it was extinguished it had spread to the millinery shop of J. Nasanowitz next door at No. 275.

By the turn of the century separate businesses operated from the two buildings.  No. 277 was sold in 1898 following Charles Fairchild's death.  By 1900 it was the candy store and factory of John D. Harder; while No. 279 was home to Isaac Krauschauer's cloak business.

The two properties would be united again in 1904 when Nicholas Pappas purchased them in April.  Like John D. Harder, Pappas and his partner John Condax were candy makers.  Within months the confectioners hired architect William C. Sommerfeld to do $1,000 in interior renovations.

In 1908 Pappas & Condax were manufacturing and selling one particular article which drew the suspicion of the Board of Health.  Samples of their Chocolate Roman Punch Drops were taken for testing.  The results were satisfactory--"alcohol absent."

The following year Pappas & Condax left Grand Street, while retaining ownership of the properties.  Once again the two buildings were leased separately.  The latest in fashion for Edwardian women included extravagant headgear often ornamented with rare feathers.  The London Feather Novelty Co., headquartered on West 34th Street, opened a branch store in No. 277 where it would remain for several years.  The other store was rented to F. Davis, who was granted permission by the Board of Aldermen in 1910 to "keep two show cases within the shop line in front of No. 279 Grand st."

New-York Tribune, October 10, 1909 (copyright expired)
At some point following World War I the buildings' owners had returned to their native country.  On June 25, 1921 The Record & Guide reported "John Condax and Nicholas Pappas, of Greece, sold 277-279 Grand st...The buyer will occupy."

That buyer was Louis Frescher who opened his fur store in the combined buildings.  The furrier would remain here for many years, despite an uncommon string of bad luck.  It started on March 4, 1924 just as salesman Jack Greenbery had put final touches on the window display.  Three men entered and asked to see furs.

Just as Greenbery headed for a display case, one of the men drew a revolver and ordered him into a rear bathroom.  Hearing the noises, fur-cutter Jacob Feingold emerged from the workshop in the rear, and was ordered to join the salesman.  When the porter, Thomas Benjamin, came up from the basement, he too was corralled in the bathroom.  All the employees were tied up and $15 was taken from Feingold's pockets.

The New York Times reported "While hundreds of persons were passing the door...three men, armed with revolvers..escaped with $30,000 worth of mink, sable and Hudson seal coats and neckpieces."  The cool bandits even made several trips to their automobile, bringing back blankets into which they wrapped 40 furs pieces and 20 coats.

The valuable furs were repeatedly a temptation to crooks.  In 1932 an attempted robbery landed one crook in Sing Sing with a 20-year sentence.  Then in November 1935 a hold-up resulted in $20,000 worth of goods being stolen.  Less than a year later, on the morning of September 14, 1936, eight men rushed into the store at around 10:00.  As had been the cast in 1924, they forced Bernard Trencher, an owner, and bookkeeper Rae Levinson into a rear room.

"Then they compelled Ernest Jackson, Negro porter, to lead them to the workroom, under the store, where Michael Picozzi, designer, and ten other employes bent over their benches," said The New York Times.

The workers were told "This is a hold-up.  Keep quiet, and nothing will happen to you."

While two men held everyone at gunpoint, the other six "swept up all the furs in the workroom, cleaned out the street show-windows and emptied all the store racks."  They made off with $40,000 in loot.

In the meantime, the Trenchers had renovated the building in 1925.  They hired architect Irving H. Fenichal to install a restaurant on the second floor and a "dwelling and studio" on the third.  Six years later architect Samuel A. Hertz did further renovations, remodeling the top floor for the Columbus Civic Club.  It would remain here until about 1940, when the space was renovated for "light manufacturing."

After mid-century the two addresses saw a variety of tenants, including the Eldridge Textile Company which was here in the 1990s.  The neighborhood that filled with German Jews in the 1870s and '80s when Morris Rosendorff over-speculated in real estate now sits squarely in Manhattan's Chinatown.  Schneider & Herter's cast iron base is gone--replaced by a medley of cheap storefronts under garish vinyl awnings.  But, above, the remarkable cast metal cornice survives, reminding the passerby of a time when Grand Street was an important shopping district.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Edward Roberts Mansion - No. 241 Lenox Avenue


On May 21, 1887 The Record & Guide drew readers' attention to "The Transformation of a Beautiful District."  The article described the lightning-fast development of the Harlem area near what was called Mount Morris Square.  Within the past three years, the writer said, "regions that were bare enough to raise crops upon have become the site of many handsome and costly buildings."

Among those transforming the district was architect-developer A. B. Van Dusen.  At the time of the article he had filled half the western block front of Sixth Avenue (renamed Lenox Avenue later that year) between 121st and 122nd Street; and the entire blockfront between 122nd and 123rd, with rowhouses.  The Record & Guide called the residences "tasteful and substantial."

Most "substantial" of the long row was No. 241, at the northwest corner of West 122nd Street.  Looking like a super-sized version of its otherwise nearly identical neighbors, it boasted the mansion-width of 25 feet.  Faced in brownstone on the avenue and ruddy red brick on the side elevation, it rose above the row because of the exceptional ceiling heights inside.  Van Dusen's up-to-the-minute design was transitional--melding neo-Grec with the newly-appearing Renaissance Revival styles.

The expensive exceptions that set the house apart from the row suggest that Edward Roberts had purchased the residence before Van Dusen had put pen to paper, and gave input on amenities.  Exposed on three sides--affording a luxurious abundance of air and light--its carved architrave window surrounds did not diminish on the upper floors.  Their prim cornices, tiered sills, and foliate brackets were continued on the 122nd Street side.

The stately Renaissance Revival portico featured Corinthian columns on paneled pedestals and an elaborately-carved entablature.  Handsome iron fencing protected the deep light moat that girded the English basement level.

Even the stone fence post is carved with Renaissance Revival panels.

Edward Roberts was born on March 23, 1812 and had an impressive military pedigree.  His great-grandfather, John Roberts, earned prominence in the French and Indian War; his grandfather, Christopher Roberts, had served in the Revolution; and his father was Major General Martin Roberts.

Until 1841, when he arrived in New York City, Roberts had traveled, studied and taught school.  His proficiency in Greek, Latin and Hebrew drew repeated offers for professorships, all of which he declined.   The year before arriving in New York he married Lucy Maria Benjamin.  The couple had three children before Lucy's untimely death in 1845.

In 1848 he married Irene Bartlett Robinson, and they had another five children.  Like her husband, Irene had an imposing family history.  She was descended from John Robinson, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1636.  His son married the great granddaughter of John Alden and Priscilla Mullen.  Another relative, Josiah Bartlett, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Shortly after coming to New York Roberts helped found Roberts, Cushman & Co.  The firm manufactured "hat materials," like hat bands, mechanical hat size rulers, and trimmings.  As successful as the firm was, The New York Times later noted that he "amassed a fortune in real estate."

Just three years after moving into the mansion, in 1890, Roberts was diagnosed with cancer.  In April 1891 his condition had deteriorated to the point that he was bedridden.  Two weeks later, on May 3, he died.

Irene was involved with the New-York Indian Association; a reform group organized following the Civil War.  Its founding was spurred by the western migration of settlers and the corruption in the Indian Service (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs).  The goals of the group were, foremost, to convert Native Americans to Christianity, to grant them citizenship, and to do away with the reservation system.

On April 16, 1895 she opened the Lenox Avenue house for a reception and sale for the benefit of the New-York Indian Association.  The drawing rooms were filled that afternoon with the wives of wealthy New York businessmen.

Irene suffered a fatal heart attack on Monday, March 7, 1897.  Her funeral was held in the house three days later.

The Roberts family retained ownership of the mansion, but never again would it be a private home.  The well-to-do families moving into the Harlem neighborhood brought with them the need for upscale stores, handsome churches and private schools.  Mary Schoonmaker leased the Roberts house for her New York Collegiate Institute.

Schoonmaker had established the private girls' school in 1888.  The Handbook of Private Schools explained it provided "courses from kindergarten through college preparatory and finishing work."  Also advertised as Miss Mary Schoonmaker's School for Girls, its graduates were from socially-elite families.  A mention in Harper's Magazine in 1899 noted "Certificate admits to Smith, Vassar, Wells, Wellesley."

The New York Times reported on May 7 that year that "An exhibit of school work was given yesterday by the pupils of the New York Collegiate Institute in the school building, at 241 Lenox Avenue...The manual training work was much admired by the visitors, especially that of the classes in history and art.  The paper work and clay modeling of the kindergarten classes also excited interest."

Mary Schoonmaker apparently made a brief trial of admitting boys.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on August 28, 1910 read "Boys prepared for the Colleges and Scientific Schools.  Well-equipped Gymnasium."

But the experiment did not last.  On April 19, 1913, when the students gave their annual exhibit of school work, the facility was once again called Miss Mary Schoonmaker's School for Girls.  Students read their literary compositions to what The Sun called a "large audience."  Among the titles of the essays read that day was Marjorie Page's "How We Went a-Frogging," Eleanor Hope's "Cleaning My Room," and Elizabeth I. Lyons's "Racketty Packetty House."

Before the fall session that year Mary Schoonmaker moved the school to No. 345 West End Avenue.  In October the Roberts family leased the house to the Finnish Women's Co-Operative Home.  New York had seen the advent of working women's residence hotels; but this one was starkly different.

Founded by Finnish servants around 1908, it was described as "really a working girls' club."  The women, mostly domestic maids and cooks, paid $5 a year to become a shareholder.  Those who did not live with their employers lived here.  Elene Foster, writing in the New-York Tribune on November 3, 1918, described the larger upper floor rooms as "fitted up with a row of small white iron beds like a dormitory, while the smaller ones are rented as single rooms."

Girls using the dormitory accommodations paid $7 for room and board.  Single rooms went for $8.50.  Foster said "The meals are excellent, and any shareholder has the privilege of inviting guests of either sex to luncheon or dinner by paying a nominal sum."

Unlike other working girls' residents, which had strict regulations, the Finnish Women's Co-Operative Home was operated on an honor system.  "There are no rules to be observed in the home except those which any girl of decent inclinations or education would naturally observe," said Foster.  "The house is never closed and girls are admitted at any hour."

The dining room and kitchen were in the basement.  Irene Roberts's front parlor was used as an employment bureau; while the back parlor was communal lounge.  Here was where "the girls receive their men friends and where they can meet in the afternoon for a cup of coffee and the dainty Finnish wafers, which, according to the old home custom, are served at 3:30."

Although the Roberts estate sold the house in September 1921 (the buyer announcing he planned "extensive alterations"), the Finnish Women's Co-Operative stayed on through the term of its lease.  It was still here on June 23, 1922 when an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:  "GIRLS--Two Finnish girls desire positions together in country.  241 Lenox av."

By now Harlem in general saw a shift in demographics as whites were replaced by blacks.  But the neighborhood around 122nd Street and Lenox Avenue was, perhaps surprisingly, still one of mostly middle-class whites.  In 1923 the renovations to No. 241 were completed, resulting in a doctor's office on the parlor level, a store in the basement, and a single family home on the upper floors.

Around the time of the Great Depression and area saw its further transition to a black neighborhood.  By 1930 Edna Mattke was running a rooming house here, while David Reich's Chapel, a funeral home, operated on the parlor level.

Despite the disastrous Stock Market Crash, Edna was persuaded by an elderly roomer to let her invest $300 in stocks on September 9, 1930.  Marion La Touche, who was 85-years old and described as a "slim, faded" woman, let her in on "confidential information" from a "high authority in Wall Street."  She promised Edna that Republic Steel stock was "the best on the market" would gain "5 to 6 points daily."

The old woman's knowledge and her grandmotherly demeanor not only convinced Edna, but ten female neighbors.  Marion La Touche did buy stocks with the several thousand dollars she collected; but she kept them for herself and disappeared.

What Edna and her neighbors did not know was that Marion had a rap sheet that extended back to March 1884 when she had been sentenced to Welfare Island for grand larceny.  Police records showed that in the past 47 years she had been arrested nine times on theft charges and had served several prison terms under various names.

Edna Mattke was running her rooming house at No. 241 Lenox Avenue (left) when this photo was taken on July 28, 1932.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Edna Mattke had the old woman tracked down and arrested.  The two faced each other in court on August 6, 1931.  Relying on her innocent appearance, La Touche appeared in a "drab black dress" and answered examination "in faint, measured words," according to The Times, with the dexterity of a politician.

When District Attorney Charles Pilatsky asked if it were true that she had been incarcerated in 1884, she replied "You're asking me something that happened so long ago I don't remember."  When pushed, she outright lied, insisting she had not been imprisoned and this was "the first time I've been on a witness stand in my life."

The jury indicted La Touche on second degree grand larceny on August 19; but officials now grappled with the elderly woman's fate.  State Law mandated that because of her repeated offenses a conviction would bring a mandatory life term in prison.

Staff Captain Agnes H. McKernan of the Salvation Army heard of the case and offered "to provide a home for her to remove her from temptation," reported The Times on September 1.  Judge Donnellan took pity and allowed her to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.  She was sentenced to six months to three years; but the judge suspended the sentence based on the Salvation Army's promised to house her for life "in the proper environment."

The funeral home (it became Steinfeld's Chapel around 1933) remained for years.  And the upper floors were rented as furnished rooms through the rest of the century.  The elegant rooms where the Roberts family had lived now saw tenants come and go often on a weekly basis.

Then in 2008 plans for a residential conversion were filed.  The extraordinarily sympathetic restoration and renovation was completed in 2014.  Above the basement and parlor floor commercial spaces, there are now just one spacious condominium apartment per floor.

Astoundingly, the ornate Eastlake-style woodwork, including the original shutters that fold back into the walls, survive intact.  photo by Oxford Property Group via
photographs by the author

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The 1905 Hotel Marseilles - 2689-2693 Broadway

In 1899 millionaire William Earl Dodge Stokes had a vision.  He foresaw Broadway, at the time called The Boulevard on the Upper West Side, as New York's answer to the Champs-Elysses.  For his part he imported French architect Paul E. M. Duboy to design the massive Ansonia apartment building on Broadway at 73rd Street--a frothy French concoction 17 stories tall.

The Ansonia sparked the rise of similar French-style apartment buildings facing Broadway.  As it rose (construction would take five years) the Netherlands Construction Company purchased the large plot of land at the southwest corner of Broadway and 103rd Street and set architect Harry Allan Jones to work designing an upscale "apartment hotel."

Construction began in 1902 and was completed three years later.  While decidedly less exaggerated than the Ansonia; the 11-story structure carried on the French motif right down to its name: the Hotel Marseilles.  The three-story base of rusticated limestone included shops along Broadway and an elegant entrance on 103rd Street adorned by a portico of banded columns.  (The portico would be nearly duplicated in the strikingly similar apartment Kenilworth Apartments designed by Townsend, Steinel & Haskell, completed in 1908).

The four-story central section was clad in warm red brick that gave way to the contrasting white stone above the seventh floor cornice.  The high, sloping two-story mansard featured dormers, the most dramatic of which broke through the cornice and wore bold, arched pediments.

In October 1905, just as the finishing interior touches were being completed, the Netherlands Construction Company leased the building to hoteliers Louis Lukes, of Milwaukee, and New Yorker H. C. Griswold.  The men formed the Marseille Hotel Company (forgetting to use the "s" at the end of Marseilles) for the project.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide described a few of hotel's amenities: "A rathskeller, grill-room, billiard-room, cafe, barber shop and one of the best-equipped kitchens in the city occupy what is called the cafe floor of the Marseilles."  The ceilings of the main floor were 18 feet in height.  On this level were "palm and reception-rooms, a spacious lobby, telegraph and telephone rooms."

Also on the main floor were a public dining room as well as several private dining rooms.  More private dining rooms were found on the mezzanine.  These were a necessity in residence hotels where few apartments contained kitchens.  The allure of upscale apartment living was the relief from maintaining a domestic staff.  Residents could forego help like cooks, laundresses, and cleaning maids.

The Hotel Marseilles was intended for upper-middle class residents.  While apartment buildings like the Kenilworth had just three house-sized apartments per floor, there were 17 suites to each floor of the Marseilles, ranging from just one to three rooms each.

Perhaps because of those small suites, the hotel seems to have been more popular with transient tenants than full-time residents.   One of the early guests would cause months of mystery and speculation in the newspapers.  Blanche Turner Dennis was the widow of Major Hugh C. Dennis, at one time one of the highest-salaried life insurance agents in America.  His was a peculiar death, The World saying that he "grieved himself to death" after an investment scheme failed.

Blanche, whom The World described as a "young woman of thirty, beautiful of face and figure," arrived at the Hotel Marseilles on February 17, 1906.  The newspaper hinted "she is supposed to have come here to conceal a secret."

That secret was her pregnancy.  Her husband had been dead two years, so there was no explaining away her condition.

Hotel employees remarked that Blanche arrived "gowned in the latest style.  She seemed to have an unlimited supply of money, and she looked the woman of refinement."  She was given a room on the seventh floor.  Once there, she had no callers and kept to herself.

Four days later a doctor was called to the hotel.  Newspapers carefully avoided words like "pregnant" or "abortion;" instead tiptoeing around the situation, while leaving no doubt in their readers' minds as to what had happened.

The World reported "The physician saw at once that Mrs. Dennis was suffering from drugs and an operation of a criminal nature, and she admitted that she had administered [it] to herself."  Although Dr. Kidder treated her for several days using "heroic methods," it was clear on March 28 that she was dying.

The coroner was called to the Marseilles, not to witness her death, but to get a dying statement.  In 1906 the man responsible for her condition would have been a guilty party in the crimes of suicide and abortion.  The coroner was, however, frustrated in his cause.  The Evening World reported on March 29 "If there had been a time when she could make such a statement she would not talk.  She seemed to want to die with her secret."

Blanche died that evening; but detectives had not given up.  A newspaper noted "In her trunks are believed to be letters which will tell of a St. Louis scandal."

Remarkably, the suicide resulted in a related tragedy and headlines.  Another young widow, May Kay was staying in the Hotel Alabama and she was a friend of Blanche Dennis.  On the morning following Blanche's death, a woman called Coroner Shrady and asked if she had suffered great pain.  Rather indiscreetly he told her yes, she had.  He told police later that the caller then "burst into tears, and was able to give her name with difficulty."  Her name was May Kay.

That night May put a pistol to her head in her room in the Hotel Alabama.

An investigation to find Blanche's lover rounded up local suspects, even though she was not from New York.  The New York Times reported on April 11 that "The Baron de Cartazzi will also appear as a witness this morning before Coroner Shrady in the inquest to be held over the late Mrs. Blanche Turner Dennis, a widow who died suddenly in the Hotel Marseilles last month."  The newspaper later reported that "A number of prominent bankers, insurance men and politicians were examined at the same time."

Another high-level person questioned was wealthy financier Joseph G. Robin.  The Evening World described him as having "no time to marry or to spend in the society of women," and said he "was very indignant when questioned by Coroner Shrady." 

Later that year, in September, the hotel received more unflattering publicity.  In 1879 Grace Sterling Bixby had become one of the first "penny princesses"-- the wealthy socialites who married foreign titles--when she was wed to Count Casimir Ignace Mankowski.  When Count and Countess Mankowski arrived in New York from England with their youngest son, Robert, they headed to the Hotel Marseilles.

The Countess's wealth came from the $3 million estate of her father, which gave her an income of $100,000 per year (more than $2.7 million today).  John M. Bixby's estate also bequeathed her valuable Manhattan properties like the Union League Club and the Casino; and extensive Murray Hill real estate.

In the early years of the 20th century, a convenient method of obtaining a relative's wealth was to have him or her declared insane.  Only a week after the family moved into the Hotel Marseilles, the Count petitioned the court to have his wife committed.  On September 15 Justice Dowling of the Supreme Court appointed a commission "to inquire into the sanity of the Countess Grace Sterling Mankowski."

While The New York Times described her as "an exceptionally bright woman;" the count said "She is unable to read or write or maintain a coherent conversation."  A sheriff's jury ruled her "incompetent."  However instead of turning over the administration of her affairs to her husband, it put her two adult sons in charge.

In 1908 Joseph Hamerschlag foreclosed on the Netherlands Construction Co.'s outstanding $638,716.12 mortgage.  He took back the property an briefly renamed the building the Hotel Langham.  Within the year he rethought that idea, and returned its name to the Hotel Marseilles.

Among the elegant entertainments held in the Hotel Marseilles, was the "orchid tea" in the Palm Room given by George Levy to celebrate the debut of his only daughter, Rena Geraldine, on February 6, 1909.  The Times society column reported "The room, with its cathedral glass dome, was lighted with hundreds of tiny electric bulbs, the wall lights were shaded with orchid-tinted silk shades, and pendent from them were bunches of purple orchids and maidenhair fern.  The tea table was banked with masses of the same blossoms."

But it was repeatedly unwanted publicity that landed the hotel in headlines.  In September 1911 a 38-year old Boston woman came to New York with hopes of becoming an actress.  She checked into the Hotel Marseilles then headed off to land a place on the vaudeville stage.

The Evening World explained on October 23, "For six weeks she travelled up and down the weary round of offices in the Rialto, a journey unfavorably known to many in the theatrical profession."  Mrs. A. E. Necker had spent $500 on costumes "to dress the act" and pitched her act to managers and booking agents.  Each told her that her act was "a novelty" and would probably success.  Yet none was willing to back her.

To survive, she sold off her jewelry piece by piece.  As her desperate financial circumstances worsened and the dream of success on the stage faded, the pressure became too much.  On Saturday morning, October 21, she was found in the third floor waiting room, "laughing hysterically and unable to speak."  A journalist who witnessed her answering every question with "wild laughter" opined "at last the realization of her alarming conditions, inevitable poverty, oncoming age and life spent in failure, became too great for her reason."

Mrs. Necker was taken away to Bellevue Hospital, well-known for its insanity wards.  The Evening World warned would-be actresses, blinded by the limelight.  "Beneath this apparently simple announcement lies a tragedy as pitiful as is typical of the quest for fame in New York.  It carries the three ever recurring themes--poverty, the lure of the stage and vanished youth."

The hotel continued as a popular venue for dinners and meetings, like dinner of the Men's League for Woman's Suffrage on March 21, 1912.  "A feature was the wearing by each of the diners of a yellow paper hat, indicative of the pledge to get the right of suffrage for women," noted the New-York Tribune.

A postcard pointed out the convenient proximity to the subway station.

The following spring Manager Charles A. Weir announced that a roof garden would be installed.  The Real Estate Record & Guide reported "The garden will be decorated in the usual manner, with latticework and foliage, but several new ideas will be incorporated in the lighting effects and the service."

At the time the Hungry Club held its monthly dinner meetings here.  The group receive permission to hang a large oil portrait of General Robert E. Lee, painted by a member, in the large dining room.  It was the focus of a incident in June 1914 that gave The New York Times fodder to lampoon vacuous socialites.

The newspaper said "Recently a lady in the west side gave a bridge party at the hotel in aid of her pet charity."  Among the guest, said the article, was "a typical 'climber' with considerably less education than cash.  Consequently she was never backward with misinformation on most any subject that came up."

Between hands one player vocally admired the portrait and wondered aloud who the subject was.  The unnamed "climber" was quick to respond.  "That, my dear, is General Marseilles, a noted Frenchman, for whom the hotel is named."

The hotel was the scene of a tragic and avoidable event on October 30, 1917.  Berney B. Loveman was 25 years old and a corporal in the United States Army.  His father owned Alabama's largest department store.

When he was furloughed on Sunday October 28 he rushed to New York City and proposed to his sweetheart, Regina Glanckopf, and she happily accepted.  Corporal Loveman had been in the military for four years and was about to be deployed to France.  The Evening World noted "She and the young soldier were eager to have the ceremony performed."

They obtained a license and Loveman purchased two wedding rings, engraved "R. G. and B. B. L."  But then her parents, possibly concerned that Loveman would not return from the front, insisted they wait to marry until the war ended.  Thinking that his mother's support might sway the Glanckopfs, he telegraphed her.  To his extreme disappointment she wired back saying she also thought it best to wait.

On October 30, with his furlough running out, he telegraphed his mother again.  He waited all day for an answer, then had dinner with his future in-laws and fiance.   The telegraph from his mother never came.  Eight hours after leaving the Glanckopf house, at around 3:40 in the morning he went to the Hotel Marseilles.  Regina was to drive him to Camp Mills on Long Island, later that day.

Instead, Loveman went directly to his eighth floor room and jumped.  He was instantly killed when he landed on the 103rd Street sidewalk.

Around the time of World War I a large "Restaurant" entrance opened on the Broadway side.  photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The hotel was the scene of an unusual Christmas party the following year.  New Yorkers were accustomed to reading of wealthy women providing parties, dinners and gifts for needy children during the holidays.  But Mrs. William Hollis Weeks came up with a different idea that year.

The Sun reported on December 29, 1918 that she "has closed her mansion at Queens and is spending some time in a suite at the Hotel Marseilles, with her family."  While other socialites focused on the poor, the newspaper said "At least one social leader in New York did not forget 'the poor little rich girl.'"

She decided, according to the article, "to play hostess to the little children who were guests in the hotel."  Management provided a Christmas tree in the Green Room and Mrs. Weeks "twined it with all the glittering ornaments that children love and hung amid its rainbow hued electric lights such beautiful gifts as Santa Clause loves to bestow and children to receive."

Thanks to Mrs. Weeks the well-off children were "radiantly happy" in the "perfect Christmas fairyland."

In the early years following the end of World War I the hotel continued to attract the well-do-do.  In a somewhat elitist advertisement in 1918, the management stressed "The clientele of the Marseilles is selected with a desire to harmonize personal relationships.  Unusual care is taking in accepting those whose presence will be compatible with the highest standards."

Such careful vetting did not always pan out.  Ida Platou was the 21-year old daughter of ship supply dealer Carl Platou when she married Norwegian Fridtjof Bryde, described by The Evening World as a "millionaire ship owner," on December 27, 1918, just a month after the war ended.

Ida's two brothers were in the navy and her extended family had worked tirelessly in the war effort.  She consented to marry Bryde on the condition that he become an American citizen and that he sail his fleet under the American flag.   In the weeks just before the wedding he launched two new ships, one of which was christened by Ida and named in her honor.

Bryde had consented to his bride's conditions; but then she added more demands during the wedding dinner at the Biltmore Hotel:  "that he would live in New York--not Brooklyn or the Bronx, but Manhattan--nine months out of the year.  If business compelled it, she was willing he should take a three months' trip to England or Norway."  He agreed to the new demands as well.

The newlyweds moved into the Hotel Marseilles.  But Ida was almost immediately disillusioned.  Their unhappy marriage ended when Bryde left home in February and never returned.  Ida was in court in May 1919.  The Evening World wrote that she alleged that two weeks after moving into the Hotel Marseilles "her husband treated her cruelly because she insisted that he do something to Americanize himself."  She desperately wanted a divorce because "her husband would not keep his promise."

Ida had a problem, though.  Bryde was a citizen of Norway, she was a citizen of the United States.   Her separation suit could not be tried in America because, according to Bryde's attorneys, "the courts of this country cannot separate citizens of a foreign country."

In 1922 a single room with bath cost $3 and $4 per day.  Rooms "with water" (a sink) were an extra $2.50 and $3.00.  A double room cost either $5 or $6 a day, "with water $4 & $5."  The $6 double room would be equivalent to $85 a night today.

A 1919 advertisement touted the "superb dining rooms."  (copyright expired)

Not only had the neighborhood around Broadway and 103rd Street changed by the end of World War II, but once-fashionable turn of the century hotels had been surpassed by new structures with modern conveniences.   The Hotel Marseilles was taken over by the United Service of New Americans as a refuge for Jewish war survivors.

The stories brought by the hotel's new residents were often heart-wrenching.  An example was that of 24-year old Izak Lanchart and his 22-year old brother Leon.  They arrived at Pennsylvania Station on October 2, 1947 and were greeted by United Service representatives and their sister, Celia, and brother Morris.  The four had not seen one another in the ten years since they were separated in Germany and Poland. 

When they arrived at the Hotel Marseilles and deposited their "hand-stitched suitcases," The Times said "the brothers first asked haltingly about their parents.  Their sister described how their father, Israel David Lanchart, a Hamburg tailor, and his wife were deported to Poland.  Then the father died in a hospital.  'Mother and her three brothers were killed n Auschwitz concentration camp,' she said."

In his 1992 book Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America William B. Helmreich said of the Hotel Marseilles "Some remembered it as a 'dilapidated halfway house for war refugees' where they, nevertheless, felt at ease.  Others identified it as the place where they received their first key ever to a private room."

The facility offered "meeting rooms, recreation halls, medical facilities, offices and a kosher dining hall."  There was also an in-house synagogue.  Manufacturers donated new clothing for the new-comers.

Helmreich wrote "Walking around in the lobby and listening to the conversations of immigrants in a dozen tongues gave observers the feeling of being in another world, a world whose inhabitants were unwilling to shed the cultural baggage of the past even as they hesitantly groped their way toward a new life."

The month following Izak and Leon Lanchart's arrival many of the refugees in the Hotel Marseilles experienced an American tradition.  The Times reported on November 25, 1947 that "Several hundred men, women and children, recent arrivals from displaced persons centers in Europe will observe their first Thanksgiving in the United States."  That afternoon Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman spoke in the dining room.

Of all the Upper West Side's exuberant turn of the century apartments and hotels along Broadway, perhaps none had a more colorful or often tragic history than the Hotel Marseilles.  In 1980 it was converted to apartments for the elderly.  Despite some alterations at street level on the Broadway side and a hideous blanket of asphalt shingles on the mansard, the Hotel Marseilles survives as a fine example of the era of William Stokes's Parisian dream.

photographs by the author