Friday, March 31, 2017

The Frederick Straus House - No. 5 East 94th Street


In 1892 architects Cleverdon & Putzel designed a row of five upscale homes just off Fifth Avenue on East 94th Street.  Robert N. Cleverdon and Joseph Putzel sometimes increased their profits by acting as developers as well; as was the case with this project.

Included in the row, completed in 1893, was No. 5.  Its chunky Romanesque Revival facade featured a three-sided bay that provided a stone-railed balcony at the third floor.  A loggia opened onto the balcony.   The tiled mansard of the attic floor was obscured by a high stone gable decorated with medieval carvings, checkerboard stonework, an a Romanesque take on a Palladian window.

The house was purchased by Ferdinand A. Straus and his wife, Zerline.  The couple had one son, Lionel.   Straus had founded the yarn manufacturing firm F. A. Straus & Co. in 1867.  By the time the family moved into the East 94th Street house the company was, according to Textile America magazine in 1897, a leading yarn house.  It occupied an entire building on Greene Street and operated an expansive mill in New Jersey.

The Greene Street building, which extended through the block to Wooster Street, was almost lost in 1895.  On  September 29 Straus fired his porter, John Bergen.  The disgruntled man immediately hatched a nefarious plot.

The following night he and two accomplices, William Sternborn, alias "Billy Balls," and John Lyons, alias "Lawrence," broke into the building.  They brought along a bottle of "cylinder oil, mixed with kerosene."  It would be necessary to carry out their plan to steal $25,000 worth of silk, then burn down the building to hide the crime.

The crooks were unaware that the building's engineer (the person tasked with keeping the boilers running, etc.) was on duty in the basement.  They managed to fill a wagon with 280 pounds of silk yarn before the engineer heard noises at around 4:00 in the morning.  He crept up the stairs and called out "Who is there?"  He saw three men rush down from the second floor and, although it was dark, he recognized John Bergen.

Bergen was arrested shortly after and he confessed to the plot.  The New York Times reported "Bergen said positively that the building would have been set on fire if he and the other men had been left undisturbed for a short time longer."

While the Straus residence had a fortress-like appearance, it was by no means impenetrable.  On September 18, 1898 it was the target of 23-year old burglar Frederick N. Hoyt.  It was one of 13 burglaries that had mystified police within a three-month period.  When he was arrested two days later, police explained his methods.

"Hoyt said that he always worked alone, and that his plan was to confine himself to the basement and first floor of a house.  He entered the houses in each case through the rear windows by prying out the casement."

When Lionel married, he and his bride had moved into the 94th Street house with his parents.  While Hoyt's plunder had been valued at than $175 worth of items; Ernest Feedor did better stealing a single item belonging to Lionel's wife in May 1906.   Feedor was a carpet cleaner who took advantage of the access to mansions to pocket small pieces.  While working in the Straus residence, he grabbed a single pearl and diamond earring.  The bauble was valued at $500--about $13,600 in 2017 dollars.   Like Hoyt, he was soon arrested.


The previous summer Ferdinand and Zerline had been in a dangerous accident.  The Straus summer home was in Long Branch, New Jersey.  On the Fourth of July in 1905 the couple took a drive.  The afternoon outing turned terrifying when an automobile approached on Cedar Avenue.  The carriage driver could not control the panicked horses and carriage struck a post and was upset.  The aging couple (Ferdinand was 65 years old at the time) were badly injured.

Ferdinand Straus died in the 94th Street house on the night of November 10, 1913.  His estate was appraised at just under $800,000--nearly $20 million today.  Lionel received the bulk of the estate with Zerline receiving $250,000.  The house was valued at $55,000 at the time.

Zerline remained in the house until her death on November 11, 1928.  Her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.   Before long the house was sold to wealthy stock broker Charles Morgan Post and his wife, the former Julia Gilbert.


The couple had two children, Charles and Judy.  Their decision to buy was most likely driven by the fact that Julia's parents lived one house away at No. 1 East 94th Street.  Julia's father was the renowned architect Cass Gilbert.

Both the Gilberts and Posts maintained lavish summer estates in Ridgefield, Connecticut.  Cass Gilbert died in 1932 and two years later, on August 8 while visiting her mother's summer house, Julia died at the age of 45.  The New York Times suggested "her condition was believed by physicians to have been aggravated by her father's recent death."

No. 5 East 94th Street was sold in an all-cash deal in 1946.  Many of the mansions along the block had already been converted to apartments.  In 1951 the owners removed the stoop, installed a doctor's office in the former basement and converted the upper floors to two apartments each.

Cleverdon & Putzel's Romanesque Revival castle maintains its charming personality despite the loss of the stoop and entranceway.

photographs by the author

Thursday, March 30, 2017

2nd Collegiate Reformed Church - Lenox Avenue and 123rd St



In 1660, just 35 years after the Dutch West India Company erected the fort that would become New Amsterdam, Dutch pioneers built a small church far to the north.  It served a tiny settlement that would become the village of Haarlem, named after the old town in their homeland.

The Reformed Low Dutch Church's little building sat at what would become 125th Street near the Harlem River.  More than two centuries later, in May 1888, The Treasury; a Magazine of Religious and Current Thought supposed "it was most likely of split logs.  The contributions were in planks, nails, schepels of wheat, day's work."  Twenty years later a stone church was built; but it was destroyed by the British during the Revolution.

By the time of the article the congregation was in its fourth building.  Harlem (the town's spelling had lost one of its a's) was no longer a remote village; but was quickly blossoming into a vibrant northern suburb.  A committee was formed on April 11, 1884 "to consider the expediency of erecting a new church."

That new church would not be the fifth structure the the group; but the first for a newly-formed congregation.  A History of the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem, published in 1910, explained that original plan was that the new structure would replace the old.  But then, "it was decided to continue work in the old field.  The two churches were, therefore, joined into one corporation and thus became collegiate."

Therefore, the original took the name of The First Collegiate Reformed Church of Harlem; while The Second Collegiate Reformed Church of Harlem was organized to additionally serve the burgeoning population.  On December 20, 1884 ten lots on the corner of Sixth Avenue (renamed Lenox Avenue in 1887) and 123rd Street were purchased for $65,000--about $1.6 million today.

Things moved rapidly.   Ground was broken on April 26, 1885 and the cornerstone laid on June 24.  The structure was completed in September 1886.  Although architect John R. Thomas's plans projected the construction costs at $60,000, The Treasury quoted the final cost at a staggering $215,000.

John Rochester Thomas was also drawing plans for the Harlem Methodist Episcopal Church on West 136th Street while working on Second Collegiate.   For the Lenox Avenue congregation he produced a Gothic Revival structure of undressed Ohio sandstone.  Massive gables faced the avenue and the side street, dominated by Gothic arches.  The slate-tiled roof changed directions and angles creating a mountainscape roof line.   The entrances were flanked by engaged towers that pointed upward, minaret-like, on either side of the gable.  But it was the corner bell tower that monopolized attention.

The tower rose to a carillon that sat just above highest point of the roof line.  A slender stone steeple continued until the feature was twice the height of the church proper.  The needle-like steeple was topped not by a cross, but by a Gothic crocket.


A vintage postcard reveals a very quiet Lenox Avenue. (copyright expired)
The membership of 150 and the first minister, the Rev. George Hutchington Smyth, were transplanted from First Collegiate.  The Low Dutch Reformed Church, however, had greater expectations.  The new building had a seating capacity of 1,100.

The Lenox Avenue edifice was dedicated on September 30, 1886, two hundred years to the day after the stone building that had replaced the log cabin was dedicated.  The Reformed Low Dutch Church History called it in 1910, "a striking coincidence."

By 1891 the congregation was deemed by The Sun as "one of the richest congregations in Harlem."  But all was not tranquil within.  That spring Rev. Smyth was disturbed by reports that his members were displeased with him.  He asked a group of pastors of the Reformed churches to "examine into the differences between himself and his people."

Their findings were astonishing.  Members were questioned, and they said "he was a great caller and visited three times a year members of the church, and that his views were broad, so that the young people could not complain.  Socially he was all that could be wished for."  And the membership had not fallen off.  So what was the problem?

The New York Times reported "His preaching did not please all, and as he is over fifty years old members of the church began to think that a younger man might be more efficient in strengthening the church in the growing field on the west side of Harlem."  But no one could point out a specific problem.  "The church had simply felt that it was better to have a new pastor."

Rev. Smyth was considered too old.  The Reformed Low Dutch Church History, 1910 (copyright expired)

On September 28, 1891 The Sun reported "The Rev. G Hutchington Smyth, D. D., of the Second Reformed Collegiate Church...preached his farewell sermon yesterday."

Smyth was replaced by the Rev. Dr. William Justin Harsha who was lured from Omaha, Nebraska.  His installation was held on October 20, 1892.  The New York Times remarked "A pleasant feature of the services was the singing of a hymn the words of which were written by Dr. Harsha."  The congregation's claims that they needed a younger preacher did not hold water, considering that Harsha was 68 years old--13 years older than Smyth.

During those pleasant ceremonies no one could predict that, like his predecessor, the congregation's love affair with Harsha would not last many years.

Rev. Dr. William Justin Harsha - The Reformed Low Dutch Church History, 1910 (copyright expired)

Although the building was just eight years old, John R. Thomas was called back in June 1894 to remodel his Second Collegiate Reformed Church.  And these were no small changes.  His plans--costing $35,000--called for new "slate roofing, stained glass, concrete and pine floors, hardwood finish, structure ironwork and church furniture."

The expensive renovations came at a surprising time.  The Financial Panic of 1893 was a devastating depression and unemployment had reached 12 percent nationwide.  Although his congregation seems to have been financially more secure than the average New Yorkers, Rev. Harsha addressed the gloomy conditions in his sermon on September 20, 1896.

"We should be in an attitude of hope," he said in part.  "Things are bound to improve.  I have faith in the soundness at heart of the American people."  He concluded "Storm always clears the sky."

A sermon on March 21, 1897, was a bit more controversial, at least by a 21st century viewpoint.  A theological movement had emerged that suggested some stories in the Old Testament were allegorical--Jonah and the whale, and the Garden of Eden, for instance.  Harsha asserted that "Jesus regarded the whole Old Testament as the Word of His Father."  Therefore, the stories were true.

"Eden is presented as a real garden, the first pair as genuine flesh and blood, and the whole account claims to be sober history.  The only fair and safe course is to take the record just as it stands, and not try to explain it away as an allegory."

Rev. Harsha's earlier sermon which promised that "Storm always clears the sky" did not, as it developed, apply to him personally.  Before coming to New York he had invested in a religious publishing house.  Around 1896 the business failed, leaving the minister with a crippling debt of $40,000.

The Second Collegiate Reformed Church paid its pastor $5,000 per year, a satisfying $147,000 today.  He arranged to have $2,000 of that turned over to a receiver to pay down the debt.  By the end of 1899 he had managed to pay off about $12,000.

When the embarrassing situation reached the newspapers the congregation of the Second Collegiate Reformed Church, seemingly forgetting their Christian teachings, forced the 76-year old to resign.   On December 18, 1899 the New-York Tribune reported that the disgraced Dr. Harsha was "in Texas or the Indian Territory, preparing to engage in missionary work among the Indians, and that his family are visiting relatives in Massachusetts."

Rev. William Harsha's replacement, the Rev. Edgar Tilton, Jr., was installed on February 4, 1900.  The New-York Tribune described him as "a young man" who was "well-known to his new charge."  Tilton received a significant honor later that year, in November, when he was selected as chaplain of the 71st Regiment.

The congregation finally got its young pastor in Rev. Edgar Tilton Jr. New-York Tribune, November 18, 1900 (copyright expired)

As Rev. Harsha had done, Tilton embarked on massive renovations to the church building.  On June 8, 1901 the renowned architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Owen filed plans to "raise walls and general alterations."  The brief description hardly explained the massive scope of the project.

The organ was removed and the sanctuary closed for the summer--a good time for construction since well-to-do families were off to their country homes or resorts.  The Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem said "The wall back of the pulpit was removed, an arch constructed, and iron pillars placed in the small chapel to support a gallery for the organ...and the whole interior decorated.  The cost of this improvement was about $12,000."

The remodeled church was opened and rededicated on November 3, 1901.  The New-York Tribune reported "New exits at the west end of the galleries have been put in, and the whole interior has been decorated and refurnished.  The seating capacity has been increased about one-eighth."

The 1901 renovations included, among other things, the large arch and the organ loft.  The Reformed Low Dutch Church History, 1910 (copyright expired)

The remodeling was quickly followed by a series of gifts in the form of new stained glass.  Windows honoring the memory of children were installed over the south gallery, given by the Kindergarten department of the Bible School.  The were soon followed by two more windows in memory of deceased children; these over the east gallery.  Unveiled on June 8, 1902 (Children's Day), one, "The Boy Jesus in the Temple," was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin F. Mills in memory of their 13 year old son Samuel Fairchild Mills, who died in June 1900.  The other, "Christ Blessing the Children," was given by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene S. Hand in memory of Lilian May Hand, who died in August 1894 at the age of 15.

One by one other windows were donated and installed, until the final two, the "Walk to Emmaus" and "The Light of the World," were unveiled on Easter Sunday, 1910.  That year was momentous for another reason.  The Low Dutch Reformed Church celebrated its 250th anniversary in November the events would continue for weeks.

Christian Intelligence described the sanctuary decorations on November 30, when Dr. Tilton "gave a historical address."  The magazine said "The old Dutch flags emblematic of our ancestry, the Stars and Stripes, significant of preservation in the past and continued protection in the future, and the glowing figures 1660 and 1910, blazing forth from the pulpit of the Lenox avenue Church, which was flanked with palms, the presence of the old bell cast in Holland in `1734 especially for the old Dutch Church of Harlem--all being so suggestive of a gala time resulting from a glorious history, added to the impressiveness of the services."
 
The 18th century bell sits in the flag-draped chancel for the 1910 anniversary services.  The Reformed Low Dutch Church History, 1910 (copyright expired)

At the time the demographics of Harlem were changing as black residents relocated from downtown.  The Second Collegiate Reformed Church remained in the Lenox Avenue building until 1929, when it somewhat surprisingly moved downtown to East 89th Street.

The congregation leased the church to the Second Harlem Seventh-Day Adventist congregation, lead by Michael C. Strachan who was called from Florida to be pastor of the 108-member congregation.  Formed in 1924, it changed its name to the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1930 when it moved into the Lenox Avenue building.  Nine years later the congregation purchased the structure from the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem.

Among the congregants were civil rights activist John Byard and his wife.  When Lucille Byard became ill in 1944 John thought it best to take her by train to Washington DC for treatment at the Washington Sanitarium (now the Washington Adventist Hospital).  He phoned ahead to ensure that arrangements would be made.

When the couple arrived, the staff was shocked to see that their patient was black.  John was pulled aside and told that the Sanitarium was for whites only.  His wife could not receive treatment.

By the time Byard could find another hospital that would admit Lucille, it was too late.  She died in Freedman's Hospital a few days later.

News of Lucille Byard's death traveled nationwide among black Adventists and civil rights advocates, evoking well-deserved outrage.  Hundreds of mourners crammed Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church for her funeral and 13 ministers delivered eulogies.

By 1945 the membership had swollen to move than 1,000.   Disaster struck on January 9, 1969 when fire broke out in the upper portions of the Youth Chapel.  The sanctuary was gutted and, despite the fire captain cautioning his men "Don't destroy the windows!" several were lost.  The steeple, iconic to the building, was so weakened by the heat that 30 feet had to be removed to prevent collapse.

The nearly decade-long rebuilding cost $2.3 million.  The renovated church was reopened in 1978, with a still-stumpy steeple.

In the meantime, the importance of Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the community was somewhat symbolized in 1975 when Walter J. Turnbull organized the church's boys choir.  The group would become known as the Boys Choir of Harlem and would perform in venues throughout Europe and in prestigious American concert spaces like Avery Fisher Hall.


Finally, on December 11, 2006, the steeple regained its full height.  A copper-and-steel replacement, coated in lead, was fitted over the stone stump.  And happily, although the replacement was in metal rather than stone, the decorative crocket was reproduced.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"The Birthplace of Soho" -- 80-82 Wooster Street



For decades the old house at No. 80 Wooster Street presented problems.  Called by The New York Times a "tramp lodging house" and a "ten-cent house," it was repeatedly the scene of violent fights (several fatal), crime and disease.   The disreputable history of the property would come to an end in 1894.

In May that year developers Abraham Boehm and Lewis Coon purchased it and the building next door at No. 82 for $75,000.  The hefty price--in the neighborhood of $2 million today--reflected the commercial potential of the site among modern loft buildings.  Two weeks after the transaction, the Record & Guide reported that Boehm & Coon would "build a seven-story business building on the site, to cost about $95,000."

Architect Gilbert A. Schellenger had just completed a ten-story skyscraper for Boehm & Coon at No. 14 Maiden Lane.  He was now called back to design the loft building on Wooster Street.

The old buildings were demolished and ground broken on July 14, 1894.  The new structure rose with lightning speed, completed in only five months.  Schellenger had created a rather monumental seven story structure in the Academic Classicism style--a melding of Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival.

The first and second floors, both distinguished by cast iron framed openings and brick piers broken by stone bands, were separated by an aggressive cornice more expected at roof level.  The upper portion of building was dominated by two massive arches, adorned with elaborate terra cotta capitals and foliate molding.  A series of arched openings connected by continuous terra cotta egg-and-dart molding dignified the top floor.   A decorative shield in heavy relief bore the initials of Boehm & Coon.


Even before the first brick had been laid "a large manufacturing firm" had leased the building.  That company was Boehm, Levine & Co., "rufflings and novelties" manufacturers.  Whether Alexander Boehm, one of the principals, was related to Abraham Boehm is unclear; but highly probable.  The firm took the upper five floors.  

The fussy fashions of the 1890s demanded intricate pleats and "ruchings."  Somewhat surprisingly, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers' Monthly Journal included a column titled "Our Fashion Letter."  Its January 1892 article explained that ruchings, a series of tight pleats, "are now largely taking the place of Medici and other styles of flaring collars, both on cloth and silk dresses and on wraps."

Boehm, Levine & Co. was up to date on their styles.  An advertisement in The Journal on July 13, 1896 sought "Experienced hand pressers on ruchings; also fluters and crimpers."

In 1899 the firm still occupied the top five floors.  The ground floor now housed paper box maker Gerbereux, Flynn & Co., and Heller & Kaufmann, ladies' neckwear manufacturers occupied the second floor.

On May 7 that year fire broke out in the paper box store and factory at around 9 in the morning.  The New York Times reported "The nature of the material caused the flames to spread rapidly, accompanied by a dense smoke."  Two firefighters were overcome by the thick smoke and Acting Chief Croker, known as "Smokey Joe," was cut by broken glass.

The stalwart firemen bounced back.  The Sun reported "Fire Chaplain Smith examined the men and decided that they needed a doctor rather than a priest. He gave them medicine which he got at a nearby drug store and they resumed work in a short time."

When the blazed was extinguished, the companies on the upper floors had suffered $1,000 in smoke and water damage.  Gerbereux, Flynn & Co. was less fortunate.  It sustained losses of $4,000, nearly $120,000 in 2017 dollars.

The cast iron piers of the store front incorporate Renaissance Revival style decorations.

In 1902 Boehm & Coon sold "the modern buildings" to the Providence Life Realty Company.  In 1910 the owners advertised the store and basement, and one of the upper lofts for rent.  The ad noted "horsepower furnished."

Tenants within the next few years included Banner Knee Pants and Kotch Brothers, another paper box manufacturer.  In 1916 the paper box union struck several firms in the immediate neighborhood.  Labor disputes often included violence in the first decades of the century, and this one was no different.

Perhaps surprising to 21st century readers, one of the leaders of the strike was 15-year old Sarah Dubrowitz.  The feisty teen led workers as they marched up and down Wooster Street on August 30, 1916.   Management could be as rough as the unions; and a group of paid anti-strikers assembled in front of Kotch Brothers.  The presence of the thugs kept the demonstrators away from the entrance to the building.

When an automobile pulled up in front of No. 82 Wooster Street with a suspected striker inside, "a gang of strikebreakers surrounded" it, according to The Times.  The terrified driver was fortunately rescued.  The newspaper added "The police, however, released the auto from the crowd."

Before long the last of the apparel firms left the Wooster Street building.  In 1917 the Gold Seal Battery & Electric Co. took space.  And in 1918 Frank P. Kruger, dealer in "dried fruits, nuts, etc." leased the entire building.  The firm subleased floors to other tenants like the J. Z. Tool Co., which moved in in 1918; and the Quartin Manufacturing Company.

Frank P. Kruger eventually moved from dried fruits to candy making.  The smell of chocolate wafted out onto Wooster Street even after the company, probably a victim of the Depression, declared bankruptcy in 1930.  The Waldes Chocolate Company was making candy in the building at least through 1933.

The newly-founded Miller Paper Company became the building's main tenant.  In 1931 Mark Miller founded the company on a single floor here.  He added another floor in 1934, and in 1938 expanded into the store space.  The following year Miller Paper Company took yet another floor.  Finally, in 1946, the firm purchased the building.

When Mark Miller died in November 1963, the Soho neighborhood was just seeing the seeds of change.  The loft buildings built in the second half of the 19th century were neglected and, in many cases, largely vacant.  Artist George Maciunas saw potential in their vast spaces.  According to Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro in their 2010 Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo," Maciunas wrote "Normally the artist requires long unbroken spaces with high ceilings and adequate illumination and these needs can only be met by commercial lofts."

The Times described Maciunus as "a young ex-Lithuanian who calls himself an agitator by profession."  In 1967 he purchased Nos. 80-82 Wooster from the Miller family and created Soho's first artists' co-op on the upper floors--despite its use as residential space being illegal.  Downstairs, Jonas Mekus, filmmaker and critic, laid plans for a 260-seat theater of the Film Culture Non-Profit Corporation.

On May 26, 1968 The Ford Foundation announced a $40,000 grand "to renovate the Filmmakers Cinematheque at 80 Wooster Street.  The funds will be used to convert the building into a 225-seat theater for the showing of experimental and avant-garde films, add space for archives and for the uses of the Film Culture magazine staff."  The New York Times reported that additional space would be used "to facilitate activities of the experimental film-making group" headed by well-known artists like Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol.

By now George Maciunas, through his Fluxhouse Cooperatives, Inc., had set up three more co-ops in Soho.  On June 16, 1968 The Times explained "Fluxhouse obtains mortgages, performs legal and architectural services, does renovation work and (if members want) manages the buildings."

In 1974 the Filmmakers Cinematheque space became home to Anthology Film Archives.  Weekly screenings were offered from the group's extensive collection of "the venerable great and the experimental new in the world of film."  The Anthology Film Archives also held live performance art, like Joan Jonas's Mirage dance work in September 1977.

In the meantime, the difficult Maciunas went head-to-head with the artist owners until he finally stormed away from Soho and Manhattan in general.  He died at the age of 47 in 1978.  The following year the residential spaces at Nos. 80-82 Wooster Street became legal.


As the century wound down, the ground floor space became Gallery Henoch.  And as is the case with so many of the district's loft buildings, today it houses an upscale boutique.   Rather hidden away on Wooster Street, the building that some call the birthplace of Soho is often ignored overlooked.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Samuel Borchardt House - 349 West 86th St



Builder Terence Farley had been highly involved in the development of the Upper West Side in the 1880s.  Two of his sons, John and James, continued his business under the name Terence Farley's Sons.  A third son, Joseph, struck out on his own.

Like his brothers, Joseph A. Farley produced high-end speculative residences.  He often turned to the talents of architects Janes & Leo, and such was the case in 1900 when he began construction on two nearly-matching mansions at Nos. 349 and 351 West 86th Street, just off Riverside Drive.

The houses were completed the following year.  Farley had taken out a $40,000 building loan to construct the lavish residences--more than a million dollars today.  Already known for their Parisian-inspired apartment buildings and mansions, Elisha H. Janes and Richard L. Leo had produced two Beaux Arts beauties that would have been more expected on the east side of Central Park.

The entrances, a few steps above the sidewalk, were centered within rusticated limestone bases.  Above, the architects distinguished the otherwise twin houses by brick color--beige at No. 349 and red for No. 351.  The second, or piano mobile, level featured three sets of French windows fronted by a stone balustrade.  The frothy brackets upholding the balcony above dripped floral carvings.


An ornate iron railing protecting the balcony of the third floor was echoed at the fifth; where the bowed facade terminated to create a spacious outdoor area.  The French-style residences had all the bells and whistles expected of the style--ambitious, ornate pediments; leafy garlands, and intricate carvings--except a mansard.   The houses ended rather abruptly in flat cornices instead of high roofs pierced by fussy dormers.

Farley sold both of the 25-foot wide houses before they were finished.  No. 351 sold on January 18, 1901, and No. 349 about two weeks later.  The latter became home to another developer, Samuel Borchardt.

The 34-year old Borchardt and his wife, the former Eva Rosenfield, would have a daughter, Evelyn, and a son, Stuart.  Born in San Francisco, he was president of S. Borchardt & Co..  Keeping the business in the family, Eva served as vice-president.

Like most wealthy women, Eva was active in charities and her name was routinely listed as a supporter of the Jewish Protectory and Aid Society.  But she made time for lighter diversions, of course.  On August 11, 1907 the New-York Tribune commented that "Never before has Paris been so full of Americans as this summer" but "The German watering places are also receiving an exceptionally large quota of smart American visitors."  Among those smart visitors were the Borchardts.  The article noted "At Franzenbad a beauty contest was held a couple of days ago, and the prize was awarded to Mrs. Samuel Borchardt."

Two views of Eva Borchardt's bedroom reveal a French decor in keeping with the home's exterior.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Borchardts were among the first winter residents of Palm Beach, Florida--established as a resort by Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler in 1902.  They built their estate, La Solana, on Sunset Avenue in 1905. 

Samuel's name appeared in The New York Times for a heart-warming incident that occurred on September 11, 1910.  He was seated in his limousine as it passed along Fulton Street in Queens, when a 13-year old boy, John Bieuchner, ran into its path.

The newspaper reported "It knocked the boy down.  He got up dazed, and started to cry when he saw blood dripping from a wound in his scalp."

Borchardt got out of the limo and said "Jump in here, little boy, and we'll give you a nice ride."  He directed his chauffeur to head to the nearest hospital.  The thrill of riding in the expensive automobile made Bieuchner forget about his wound.

The Times wrote "The boy jumped in, and his crying changed to smiles of delight as the auto sped through the streets."  After his cut scalp was bandaged, Borchardt gave the boy a ride back to his home.

The  article ended: "'Thank you for the ride,' said the boy as he was left in his mother's care."

The developer was busy putting up large apartment buildings on the Upper West Side at the time.  Three months before the incident he had filed plans for a 12-story apartment building on the south east corner of Broadway and 98th Street; and five years later erected another on the same block.

As Borchardt razed private homes for his apartment buildings, other developers were doing the same closer to home.  Little by little the West 86th Street block was transforming to one of multi-family buildings.  Yet the two matching French mansions held on.  At least for now.

The Great Depression did seem to greatly disrupt the Borchards' (they dropped the "t" from the name during the anti-German fervor of World War I) lifestyle.  In 1930 Evelyn was attending Vassar and Stuart was at the University of Pennsylvania.  Samuel was retired by now.  He and Eva were at La Solana in March when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 63.

In reporting his death the following day, on March 9, The New York Times mentioned that "he owned much property along Park Avenue and in the Broadway and Wall Street sections."  He also owned extensive Palm Beach property.  Borchard left an estate of about $500,000--more than $7 million in today's dollars.

The house next door had already been purchased by Dr. John A. Harriss, president of the Broadway Association and of the Rivercrest Realty Corporation.  He also owned the entire blockfront on Riverside Drive between 86th and 87th Street, and the properties at Nos. 348 to 352 West 87th Street.

Now, in May 1931, he offered Eva $85,000 for her house.  The Times noted "By acquiring the Borchard house the syndicate's holdings will be enlarged to 150 feet on Eighty-sixth Street."  The implication was clear--a massive apartment building was in the works.

But instead the house was leased to the Academy for Allied Arts.  Before they moved in, however, Eva had to remove the costly antiques and artwork, including Pieter Brueghel the Elder's "Peasants' Wedding Feast," for which her husband had paid $100,000 in 1928.

The Academy remained in the mansion until 1945.  It offered classes in music, drama, painting, sculpture and drawing.  The academy also staged regular art exhibitions, music recitals and dramatic presentations. 

By now the Borchardt mansion was the last on the block.  No. 351 had been razed in 1938 along with eight mansions along Riverside Drive, to make way for the expansive Art Moderne-style Normandy apartment building.  

Two years after this photograph was taken in 1936, the red brick No. 351 was demolished.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Frothy Beaux Arts private homes were decidedly out of fashion and on April 7, 1946 The New York Times remarked that architect J. M. Berlinger had embarked on a mission to modernize "old private homes and tenements which...represent a burden on the owners."  Among the buildings the article described as constituting "an eye-sore and a neighborhood drawback" was No. 349 West 86th Street.

The renovations did not extend to the facade, thankfully.  The house was leased for several years to the Normandy Democratic Club; and then in 1950 the Borchard Management Corp. offered for sale the "Handsome mansion, unusual size, perfect for Group or Individual."

After exactly half a century, the Borchard family's ownership came to an end.  The house was purchased by Russian Prince Serge Bellosselsky and his wife, the former Florence Crane.  The exiled prince donated it be used as the House of Free Russia.

Run by an organization composed of representatives of 30 Russian American organizations, the group explained that the building would be "used as a center for anti-Communist Russians in this country."  Three-hundred people attended the dedication on December 1, 1951, including Metropolitan Anastasius, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church overseas and spiritual leader of all exiled Orthodox Russians.

Vladimir Jabaeff, vice president of the Russian American Union thanked the prince and princess and said "Henceforth every Russian will know that in New York there is a house which is his and which has been conceived as a rallying place for the enlightenment and spiritual fortification of the Russians in dispersion.  Henceforth no Russian shall be lost in this gigantic city."


The architectural integrity of the mansion was threatened nearly four decades later when, on December 24, 1989 the Russian Aid Society announced it had made what Richard D. Lyons of The New York Times called "an unusual real estate deal" with two developers.  The symbiotic alliance would result in dropping nine additional stories onto the building, planned to contain 11 luxury residences and 3,200 square feet of medical offices.  The Russian organization would share in the income from the doctors' offices.

Architect Anthony Morali drew the plans for the $5.5 million project, which promised that the exterior would "resemble the 1870 facade."  The developers were off by 30 years in their historical facts.

For whatever reason, the project fell through; but, sadly, not before the interiors were gutted.   The Russian Aid Society sold the house in 1999 for $1.4 million.   Developers had a 15-story condominium in mind; but neighbors launched a successful revolt against the project.

The reconstructed interiors successfully recreate the 1901 flavor.  photos via Curbed New York
A new buyer, Randall Rackson, brought the shell back to a private home with seven fireplaces, eight bedrooms and 14 baths.   In January 2013 he placed it back on the market with a significant jump in price: $50 million.  After its several brushes with demolition, the stubborn hold out is the last relic of the Gilded Age on the West 86th Street block.

photographs by the author

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 Cemetery...is 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.


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 building...at 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