Thursday, March 1, 2018

The T. E. F. Randolph House - 261 West 11th Street

The gently curved cornice above the entrance was originally mimicked above the windows.
In 1868 Mrs. W. Doscher completed construction of two upscale homes at Nos. 61 and 65 Hammond Street in Greenwich Village.   Between them was a Greek Revival house built in 1836, the now out-of-date style of which made Mrs. Doscher's new homes even more striking in comparison.

Architect William Naugle had melded the Italianate style with the highly popular French Second Empire.  Sitting upon rusticated brownstone English basements, the houses rose three stories to a stylish mansard roof clad in multi-colored slate shingles.  The elliptically-arched openings were graced by handsome curved cornices.

A year after the houses were completed Hammond Street was renamed West 11th Street.  Mrs. Doscher rented the houses, and in 1871 was looking for new tenants.    Her advertisement in The New York Herald described: "three story high stoop, mansard roof; all modern improvements."

The new occupants of No. 261 were the family of  Thompson Edgar Fitz Randolph; and it appears Randolph persuaded Mrs. Doscher to sell rather than lease.  The well-to-do Randolph was a member of the Produce Exchange and a trustee in the Knickerbocker and Nevada Silver Mining Company.  He had married Marie Antoinette Ireland in 1857 and theirs would have been a full house--the couple had eight children.

The family had barely moved in before it was the scene of a somber gathering.  Antoinette's brother, Lewis F. Ireland, died on November 26, 1871, and the funeral was held in the West 11th Street house.  Three years later, in December 1874, the funeral of Antoinette's mother, also named Antoinette, was held here.

The Randolphs were active members of The Church of the Strangers.  A relatively new congregation, it had been founded in 1866 with about 16 members.   The congregation rapidly grew, with 15 members added in 1867 and more than 50 in 1869.  The astonishing success of the fledgling church no doubt had much to do with the wealth and prominence of several of its early member.

For instance, when the congregation needed $50,000 to purchase the old Mercer Street Presbyterian Church for its permanent home, Cornelius Vanderbilt "stepped in without solicitation, bought and paid for the desired edifice, and then presented it a free gift to the Pastor and Church of the Stranger," according to The New York Times.  And in 1887 Joseph S. Taylor, in his A Romance of Providence pointed out "The wall behind the pulpit had been repainted and ornamented with appropriate inscriptions through the liberality and good taste of Mrs. F[rances]. A. Vanderbilt."

Randolph held the positions of clerk of the church's Board of Finance, and president of its governing body, the somewhat oddly-named Monthly Meeting.  Antoinette did her part as well.  When the women members staged a bazaar--a popular fund-raising method--in December 1874 The New York Times said it "promises to be a decided success.  The display of novelties is rich and varied,  and the prices charged remarkably low."  Among the ladies "presiding at tables" was Antoinette.

The Randolphs rubbed shoulders with some of Manhattan's social elite.  On December 30, 1881 The New York Times reported on Mrs. Vanderbilt's first reception since the death of the Commodore.  Among the 1,000 invitees were any number of Vanderbilts, as well as names like Schieffelin, Ostrander, Kennedy, Townsend and Pratt.  Included in the list was Antoinette Randolph.

The multi-colored fishscale shingles survive on the mansard.
The opening of the transcontinental railroad sparked a new tourist industry.  By the last decades of the 19th century  wealthy families booked tickets with "excursion" companies which provided sightseeing trips to America's now-accessible beauties.  In May 1890 the Randolphs left New York on a train full of other moneyed couples to see the "picturesque regions of the Rockies and Southern California," as reported in the Los Angeles Herald on  May 11.

The Randolphs were gone from No. 161 by the turn of the century.   It was owned by Clausine M. Benson and his wife Marylouise by 1907.  Clausine had only arrived in America on the steamship Byron on October 21 1903; but the pair was financially comfortable.   Marylouise, for instance was a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History.

The couple seems to have been operated No. 161 as an upscale boarding house when Harry A. Harris lived here.  A graduate of the University of Michigan he had left his position as Chief Draftsman and Power Engineer with the Stromberg-Carlson Telephone Mfg. Co. in 1907 to become Central Office Inspector of the Western Electric Co.  Also living in the house was Harry F. Burgess who had graduated fro Yale University three years earlier.

The following year The Sun reported that Clausine Benson had leased the house to William H. Overacre "for a private dwelling."  How long he remained is unclear; however following Benson's death in May 1918 the house became the property of Mrs. Heloise de Forest Haynes.

Despite modernization, the stone enframement of the entrance was preserved and the original outer double doors are still in place.
Heloise owned the house only until 1921, when she sold it to William B. Hale.  But by then she had converted it to a multi-family dwelling.  Department of Buildings documents restricted it to "not more than two families cooking."

The most celebrated occupant would be the colorful actress and theatrical producer Eva Le Gallienne.    She moved into the house in 1926, the same year she founded the Civic Repertory Theater in the old Theatre Francais on West 14th Street.  A lesbian, Eva did not hide her sexuality and she apparently shared the apartment here with her set designer, Gladys Calthrop.

Eva's Civic Repertory Theater was home to actors like Burgess Meredith, John Garfield and Leona Roberts.  But being accepted in her troupe was not a simple process.  When 19-year old Bette Davis interviewed with her in the fall of 1927, Eva threw down a gauntlet.  She asked Davis questions like "Why should acting students study the movement of animals?"

According to Grace May Carter in her biography, Bette Davis, "She wondered what that had to do with acting. As the famous actress probed and prodded her, Bette felt uncomfortable, defensive, even stupid."  A week later Davis received a rejection letter.  Eva told her that she "was not serious enough in her approach to acting and would not be admitted."

While few of the original interior details remain, this 1868 Italianate mantel survives.  photo via Douglas Elliman Real Estate
In 1947 No. 161 was converted to a triplex apartment in the lower floors, two apartments on the third floor and one on top.  Sadly, at some point the carved cornices of the windows were shaved flat, and the Italianate stoop railings were replaced.   Despite the losses, the house still exudes the elegance of the 1860's when the Randolph family filled it with expensive furnishings and art.

photographs by the author

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