Saturday, April 19, 2014

The 1902 McKeever House -- No. 120 East 65th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In the first years after the Civil War the Upper East Side saw rapid development.  In 1874 architect F. S. Barus designed a string of six brownstone-fronted homes, Nos. 120 through 130 East 65th Street, for Robert and Margaret Morrison.  Barus had been busy for several years designing tenement buildings and what the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide termed “brown-stone second-class dwellings.”

Just a year earlier the 65th Street block on which the homes stood was considered by some to be on the “wrong” side of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue).  The soot belching locomotives that ran down the center of the avenue made it less than desirable for respectable homes.  The thoroughfare was a delineation line, of sorts, between the fashionable blocks off Central Park and the more middle-class areas to the east.  But in 1875, the same year the houses were completed, Cornelius Vanderbilt and the City of New York buried the train tracks.

Real estate values on Park Avenue and the blocks to the east suddenly rose.  The Morrisons’ speculative homes were up-to-date and commodious.  At 20 feet wide and four stories tall above an English basement, they were intended for comfortable merchant class families.  No. 120 soon became home to D. L. Newborg, head of D. L. Newborg & Son, a men’s clothier.

The Newborg family moved out late in 1885.  The Real Estate Record & Guide noted on November 28 that year that Newborg “has sold the stone-front dwelling…on terms which have not transpired.”

It was most likely Harold Clay Werner who purchased the house from Newborg.  The educator had earned his PhD from Columbia College and went by the professional name H. C. Werner.  In 1870 he had married Susan Hallowell (and by 1900 had legally changed his name to Harold Hallowell Werner).  Werner sold the house on May 25, 1894 for $30,000—a tidy $785,000 in today’s dollars.

The proper Victorian rowhouse became the St. Joseph’s Home for Babies.  Operated by the Dominican Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary, the home was established on November 1, 1897.  Here the nuns fostered “children under 2 years of age who are orphans, half-orphans, or abandoned by their parents,” as described in the Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of the State of New York.

By now millionaires’ mansions were sprouting along Fifth Avenue opposite the Park and the fashionable tone of that neighborhood spilled as far east as the orphanage.  The Home would not be here long. 

In 1902 it was a private home again, owned by Isaac Chauncey McKeever and his wife Julia.  For blocks around, old brownstones were being razed and replaced by modern mansions; or remodeled as updated, stylish homes.  The McKeevers commissioned S. E. Gage to renovate No. 120.

An architect and engineer, Gage had already transformed several high-stooped houses to prim neo-Federal homes and he would do the same for the McKeevers.  Completed in 1902, Gage somewhat surprisingly kept the parlor above sidewalk level, retaining the English basement.   He turned the stoop to the side, giving it an interesting dogleg configuration and embellished it with especially handsome open newels and simple railings.
Somewhat surprisingly for the East Side, Gage used a dog-leg stoop.  The ironwork is especially handsome.  photo by Alice Lum

Burned headers in the Flemish bond brickwork created the suggestion of antiquity.  Splayed stone lintels at the third floor, multi-paned arched openings at the second with attractive fanlights, and an interesting parlor floor window with a Gibbs surround combined to form a formal Colonial look.

As it does today, the remodeled house snuggled up against Victorian brownstones in 1911 -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The wealthy McKeevers and their three daughters rubbed shoulders with Manhattan’s socially elite.  During the summer season of 1917 Julia and daughters, Marianne and Frances, stayed at the exclusive Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.  Like most other monied husbands, Isaac stayed home, traveling to the resort on weekends or when time permitted.

The Sun noted that on September 29 that year, “Isaac Chauncey McKeever joined Mrs. McKeever and the Misses Marianne and Frances McKeever.”  Among others summering there who made the newspaper that day were Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mr and Mrs. Harry Sachs, and Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Bull.

The United States entered World War I that year; and the carefree circuit of social seasons, dinners and dances became a bit more somber.  And many social functions, like weddings--normally planned out for months and executed in elaborate ceremonies--were thrown into upheaval.

And so it was for the McKeever family.  On the afternoon of September 23, 1918 Edith McKeever married Ensign Boughten Cobb of the United States Navy in the chantry of St. Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue.  “The wedding was arranged hurriedly, as Ensign Cobb, who has been stationed for some months at a foreign port, obtained a two weeks’ leave here to wed,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.

The McKeever family was followed briefly in the house by Edward Purcell Mellon and his wife, the former Ethel Churchill Humphrey.  The immensely wealthy Mellons summered in their country estate Villa Maria at Southampton, Long Island.  It was here in August 1919 that a burglar made off with $3,000 worth of Ethel’s diamonds and some cash (close to $40,000 in today's dollars).  In reporting the theft, The Sun noted that “Mrs. Mellon’s city residence is at 120 East Sixty-fifth street.”

It is possible that the Mellons merely leased the home that year; for on March 26, 1920 it was sold, along with No. 118 next door, to the Guaranty Trust Company.  The sale did not bode well for the survival of the two homes, since the institution purchased the adjoining lots to the rear at No. 121 and 123 East 66th Street.

The following day Charles H. Sabin, president of the Guarantee Trust Company, announced he would “give up his new home, which he bought shortly after its completion…at 12 East Sixty-second street, for a larger house which he will build at 118 and 120 East Sixty-fifth street, through to 121 and 123 East Sixty-sixth street.”

On January 20, 1920, two months prior to the announcement, George B. Hedges had married Marjorie Burnes.  Called by the English artist Philip Burne-Jones, “the most beautiful woman in America,” Marjorie was divorced from Sidney C. Love and had, since then, gone by her maiden name.  She entered the marriage with her own substantial fortune, including “much real estate in Chicago,” according to the Evening Public Ledger.

For some reason, Charles Sabin’s grand plans for a block-through mansion never materialized.  No. 120 became home to George and Marjorie; who also maintained their country estate in Westbury, Long Island, with the double-entendre name, “The Hedges.”
photo by Alice Lum

The Hedges were in the house at least through 1928; but by 1930 it was home to Andrew Shiland and his wife, the former Harriette Louise McAlpin.  That year, on September 4, a daughter was born to the couple at their summer home in East Hampton.  The Shilands were already parents of daughter Leonore, who would be educated at Miss Porter’s School at Farmington, Connecticut and later at the Chateau Brillantmont in Lausanne, Switzerland; and then in Paris.

Harriette involved herself in charities, which frequently involved entertainments in the house.  On January 5, 1935 she hosted a reception and tea for the benefit of the children’s surgical and orthopedic wards of the New York Post-Graduate Hospital.

As the summer season of 1938 came to a close, the Shiland household was a flurry of activity as Leonore’s debut neared.  The festivities began on December 5 at the Bachelors Cotillion in Baltimore; and ended on December 20 with a reception in the 65th Street house followed by a dinner at the Pierre.
photo by Alice Lum

After nearly two decades in the house, the Shilands moved on and in 1946 the house was converted to a two-family residence.  Today little has changed to the exterior since its radical make-over in 1902.  S. E. Gage’s somewhat liberal interpretation of its 18th century prototype blends nicely into the handsome blend of styles along the block.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lamb & Rich's 1883 No. 486 Broadway

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

In 1879 the neighborhood of Broadway and Broome Street was a commercial area of light manufacturing and apparel and fabric-related businesses.  At the southeast corner stood No. 486 Broadway, a four-story loft building occupied by just such concerns.

On the first floor of the Broome Street side, at No. 437 was the stationery store of Ernest Renstow and on the Broadway side cloth dealers Adams & Allen operated their store.  The second floor was occupied by Stewart Hartshorn whose company manufactured window shade rollers.  A. Seligman leased the top two floors.  He was a corset manufacturer and importer of cotton and linen goods.

During the last week of March that year Arthur D. Weeks purchased the building in foreclosure and The New York Times reported that he intended “to demolish it to make room for a handsome building.”  Despite his intentions to raze the structure, Weeks insured it for $35,000.  Within a week it was gutted by fire.

On April 3 around 9:30 in the morning, according to The New York Times, fire broke out on the third floor.  “The flames originated from some unknown cause, in the rear of the third floor, among a quantity of manufactured stock ready for shipment.”

Arthur Weeks never got around to replacing the burned building.  Instead the property was transferred to William De Forest by 1882 when he commissioned the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich to design a modern store and loft structure. 

The architects were a busy pair at the time.  The year before they had completed, among other projects, four houses for Anthony Mowbray at Nos. 821 to 827 Madison Avenue, The Strathmore apartment building at No. 1674 Broadway, and 30 architecturally-harmonious houses for John C. Henderson far uptown on Henderson Place and the surrounding blocks.

Lamb & Rich’s finished building, completed in 1883 was the epitome of 1880s design taste.  The hulking orange-red brick structure was, for the most part, Romanesque Revival in style.  But the architects dipped into Moorish Revival and added a touch of Queen Anne as well.  Rough cut brownstone, terra cotta, cast iron and glass highlighted the brick and relieved the mass of the Broome Street façade.
Note the creative cast iron ribbons around the circular motifs in the frieze.  Whimsical bosses adorn the window spandrels.   photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

The relatively narrow Broadway elevation was just two bays wide; each arched opening emphasized by brick eyebrows.  The windows of the fifth and sixth floors were grouped together within a cast iron framing.  Here the spandrels were decorated with seemingly-random floral bosses influenced by the Aesthetic Movement.

It was on the wide Broome Street side that Lamb & Rich pulled out the visual stops.  Three stories of cast iron nestled in between what to the eye became brick towers.  In this middle section a steep mansard roof broke the straight planes of the flanking brick sections.  Four bell-shaped caps on the corners of each tower completed the design.
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

The architects were apparently pleased with the completed building.  Among the initial tenants were the offices of Lamb & Rich. 

Another early occupant was the Davis Quilting Frame Company which had offices on the fifth floor.  H. T. Davis was President and Chairman of the firm, owning $65,000 worth of the stock.  Two of the other trustees, Kelly Gavin and Tennis H. Cox held $5,000 in stock each.  Despite Davis’s substantial majority, he struggled for power with the two.  The New York Times said “For some time past Messrs. Girvin and Cox have been running things their own way, outvoting several little proposition of the President.”

Things came to a head at the meeting of trustees in the office on July 7, 1885.  “At yesterday’s meeting,” reported The Times the following day, “[Cox and Girvin] voted an adjournment to prevent Mr. Davis from presenting a motion.  The result was a quarrel, in which Mr. Davis drew a revolver on his opponents.”

When Davis pulled the gun, Cox rushed to the elevator.  On the street he found a policeman who returned to the fifth floor office.  Davis was disarmed and arrested.  His story was radically different from that of his partners, however.

“Mr. Davis claimed that Mr. Girvin had sprung at him with a cane and that Cox had attempted to draw a pistol on him; that he started to flee, but was pursued into the hall, where he drew the revolver in self-defense.”

To prove his story, Davis insisted that Cox be searched.  No weapon was found.  The three were taken to Jefferson Market Police Court where Davis was charged with pointing a pistol at Girvin.  Three days later the men appeared before Justice Ford.  Girvin reiterated that Davis “pointed a revolver at him and made murderous threats.”  Davis held fast to his story, as well.

According to The New York Times on July 10, 1885, “Mr. Davis insisted that he was attacked by Girvin and Tennis H. Cox, the other Trustee, and kept them at bay by putting his hand in his pocket.  Mr. Davis also insisted that Mr. Cox had a Derringer pistol and that he could not draw it because it became entangled in his pocket handkerchief, and that Mr. Girvin menaced him with a hickory cane.  An attempt was made to prove that Messrs. Cox and Girvin had threatened Mr. Davis’s life.”

Unable to untangle the conflicting stories, the judge decided to hold Davis for trial.
photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

On November 3, 1888 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on a major lease signing.  “The Mechanics’ & Traders’ Bank will remove in January to No. 486 Broadway, corner of Broome Street.”  The bank took the ground floor, becoming the building’s most visible tenant.

In the meantime the upper floors became home to companies that drew less sensational press than the Davis Quilting Frame Co.  Wilson Brothers opened their New York salesroom here in 1889.  The menswear manufacturer had branches in Paris and Chicago as well.  In announcing the move, the firm made “special mention” of its white shirts, negligee shirts and neckwear “because we have added greatly to our facilities for manufacturing in each of them.”  Wilson Brothers imported much of its shirting materials and noted “Many of these fabrics are well adapted for fine Night Shirts and Summer Underwear.”
H. Robitsek & Co. advertised in The American Stationer on March 13, 1890 (copyright expired)

Also in the building at the time was H. Robitsek & Co.  The firm imported leather to be manufactured into purses, chatelaine bags, card cases and other leather accessories.  It had branches in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London as well.

The Philadelphia department store of Partridge & Richardson had an office in the building in 1894, managed by W. G. Miller who lived in East Orange, New Jersey.  Each morning he took the local train at 8:05 that arrived in New York 35 minutes later.  The morning of January 15 seemed no different other than a thick fog.  Miller later recalled that the fog “did not seem to make any difference, for the train whirled along at its usual rate of speed.”

This morning would definitely be no normal commute.  An Extra Edition of The Evening World hit the streets at 2:00 with the headline “RAILROAD HORROR.  Perhaps 25 Lives Crushed Out on Hackensack Meadows.”  The South Orange express ran into the Dover express in the fog at the Hackensack drawbridge.

Miller, unbelievably, proceeded on to work.  The Evening World said “He walked three miles after the accident, boarded another train at the Delaware junction, and was one of the first passengers to reach the city after the accident.”

Before leaving he assisted in removing two of the dead from the wreckage.  “There had been seven bodies recovered when I left the scene of the accident,” he told a reporter in his office at No. 486 Broadway later. 

The horrific situation makes his walking away to go to work somewhat inexplicable.  “When I left the scene nothing whatever had been done towards sending for relief trains or physicians,” he said.  “I walked several miles to the junction and caught a train to the city.”

In 1898 the N.Y. Sewing Machine Emporium was “Up Stairs” here.  The company leased and sold several makes of the machines to manufacturers.  It was a well-chosen location as the silk, woolen and apparel district clustered around the building.

N.Y. Sewing Machine Emporium offered instructions on the machines "thorough and gratis."  The Sanitary Commission Bulletin, March 1898 (copyright expired)
That same year the Mechanics’ and Traders’ State Bank survived a run on the bank.  Fernando Baltes was President and was asked to resign “because his business transactions outside of the bank were found by the Directors to be such as to create unfavorable comment,” reported The New York Times on October 22.  Unfortunately, the “unfavorable comment” reached the ears of depositors and on October 21 a mob of panicked customers descended on the tellers.

One man tried to cut in line, yelling “But I want my money right away!”  The Times said “When he was reached in the line he handed in a check for $70—his entire account.  He grasped the bills feverishly, stowed them carefully away in a well-worn wallet, and when he reached the street ran as fast as his legs would carry him, evidently fearing that some one would pursue him and take his hoard away.”  The newspaper reported “Many women in the line seemed on the verge of hysteria until they were paid.  The men gallantly gave them the right of way.  When the women got their bills they stowed them away in many queer pockets and receptacles, and seemed happy.”

One man received his savings; but then thought better of it.  “Another depositor presented a check and received $600 in shining twenty-dollar gold pieces.  When he got outside he appeared to be thinking the matter over, and five minutes later was back again handing the gold pieces in to the receiving teller.”

By 3:00 when the doors were closed depositors had withdrawn about $370,000—a significant $10 million by today’s standards.  Yet 126 other customers had faith and deposited $117,000 during the near-riot.  The bank weathered the one-day storm and continued on at No. 486 Broadway until 1901.  That year the bank moved north to the corner of Broadway and Prince Street.

On November 21, 1906 when William Waldorf Astor purchased the building it was filled with apparel companies and fabric dealers.  Narragansett Woolen Co.; E. B. Reynolds & Co., dealers in “cloths and cassimeres;” Thistle Fiber Mesh Underwear; Verdier & Hardy underwear makers; and Peerless Union Underwear Co., were all in the building.

In 1910 a substantial list of raw silk importers and “thrown silk” dealers were here.  Among them were Jardine, Matheson & Co.; L. Jouvard & Co.; and Universal Silk Mills.

The building received bizarre press in 1915 as a result of a teen-aged girl’s active imagination.  Helen Pelkus had been employed by Mrs. Joseph Ormorsky of No. 32 West 24th Street to care for her young son.  When Mrs. Ormorsky noticed items missing from the house, she discharged the 14-year old nanny.

Helen went back to the Lincoln School in Bayonne, New Jersey and the Ormorsky household returned to normal—for awhile.  At the time New York was terrorized by the Black Hand, the organization that had assassinated Franz Ferdinand of Austria and was now responsible for bombings and other forms of extortion.  In June 1915 Mrs. Ormorsky opened a letter that read:

I am letting you know I am coming over some day and kill your boy.  If you want to save him, you will have to give me some money.  I took the stamps you missed.

The author had drawn a dagger below which was written “This is what I am going to kill your boy with.”  The back of the envelope read “Return to Jack the Ripper, 486 Broadway.”

Not only Mrs. Ormorsky, who immediately went to the police, but her neighbors were terrified “and they saw that their children did not get out of their sight,” reported The New York Times.  Detectives had a pretty good idea of who Jack the Ripper was, and they did not look for him at No. 486 Broadway.

Helen Pelkus was arrested at her school on June 19 “on a charge of having sent a black hand letter.”  The Times explained “The girl was arrested after detectives had scanned the writing of many of the Lincoln pupils.  She confessed and said she did not think the matter was very serious.”
Terra cotta tiles, creative brickwork and two sets of surviving small-paned windows add charm - photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

Lamb & Rich’s wonderfully unconventional building survived through the 20th century when many of the loft and commercial buildings of the district suffered abuse.  In 2012 the top two floors were converted to “joint living quarters for artists.”  A clothing store occupies the former Mechanics’ and Traders’ Bank space.  An unfortunate but necessary set of complicated fire escapes screens the Broome Street façade like cast iron scaffolding; yet the fantastic design shines through.

many thanks to Joseph Ciolino for suggesting this post

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Chester A. Arthur Statue -- Madison Square


On November 18, 1886 Chester A. Arthur died in his beloved home on Lexington Avenue.  He had became the 21st President of the United States when James A. Garfield was assassinated five years earlier.  Within six months of his death a committee had been formed to erect a statue of the former President.  Interestingly enough, the statue being discussed was intended “to distinguish his grave in the Rural Cemetery near Albany,” as explained by The Sun on May 7, 1887.

At the first meeting, held in the Chamber of Commerce, “It was then voted that not more than $10,000 should be expended for this purpose,” according to the newspaper.  But by the time of the next meeting, just a few weeks later on May 6, The Sun said “Already more money had been offered than was needed, and many gentlemen who had not been present at the first meeting were anxious to contribute.”

With an excess of funds and many other wealthy citizens eager to contribute to a memorial, a second committee was chosen “to take such other action as might be necessary to erect a statue of Arthur in this City.”  Empowered with the influx of funds, committee president Cornelius Bliss estimated the group could spent three times as much on the New York City statue as it put aside for the Albany monument.  The New-York Tribune reported on May 7 “The statue, it is expected, will cost about $30,000.”

As funds poured in, the committee selected Ephraiam Keyser as its sculptor.  Five long years later the nine-foot high clay model of the statue was ready for exhibition.  “The former President is represented in the act of speaking at a Cabinet meeting,” reported the New-York Tribune on April 13, 1892.  “He has a document folded in his left hand, which is hanging by his side.  He has just taken off his glasses and is making a gesture with them in his right hand.  The likeness is said to be excellent, and the pose easy and dignified.”

The New York Times added, “The figure is erect, the shoulders are thrown back, and one foot is thrust ahead of the other.  The Prince Albert coat is buttoned close to the figure, the right arm is bent at right angles at the elbow, and the fingers toy with the eyeglasses…The bared head is thrown slightly backward, and the eyes gaze out on an ascending plane.”

On February 9, 1893 The Sun printed a depiction of the Keyser statue (copyright expired)
Casting and finishing the bronze statue would take about four months.  All that stood in the way was the approval of the committee.  “Sculptor Keyser will adopt whatever suggestions as to minor changes in the details of the figure are made by members of the committee, and the statue will then be cast in bronze.”

Perhaps Keyser’s downfall was his over-the-top design of the base.  “There was a large circular foundation, and in front of the statue of Arthur were two female figures, one on either side, bearing aloft a globe meant to inclose a lamp or an electric light,” said The New York Times.

The work on the statue went ahead and on December 26, 1892 it was exhibited in the foundry of Henry Bonnard Bronze Company at No. 430 West 16th Street.  “The statue is nine feet two inches high and the weight is 1,800 pounds,” reported The Evening World the following day.  “It has been cast in one piece with the exception of the plinth.”

The statue was intended to be erected in the traffic circle at Central Park, at Fifth Avenue and 59th Streets.  The Park Commissioners visited the foundry on January 13, 1892 and were far less pleased than the statue committee.

“We have looked carefully over the statue of the late President Arthur, and we are compelled to report that the work is, in our opinion, not equal to the average of the sculpture in the Park, and therefore cannot recommend it to the Park Board.  We recommend that an effort be made to raise [the] standard of accepted work hereafter.”

Keyser received the news and commented “It must be pretty bad, if it is as bad as that.”

Exactly one month later, on February 13, 1893, The Sun chimed in on the side of the Park Commissioners.  “The rejection of the Arthur statue is, or should be, the beginning of a new era in the administration of park affairs—an era of discrimination, judgment, and good taste in all that concerns public art.”

On June 10, 1899, six years after the statue was rejected, the New-York Tribune wrote “So little noise was made over the work that it sank out of the sight of the general public, and no doubt many persons will be surprised to hear that the statue will be unveiled in Madison Square next Tuesday afternoon.”

The newspaper made no mention of the sculpture’s critical failure, or that in the meantime the committee had commissioned George Edwin Bissell to start from scratch.  Somewhat surprisingly, the now-acceptable work by Bissell was a near copy of Keyser’s statue.  Even the hand-held eyeglasses carried over to the new design.  The chair behind the figure “is a fac-simile of one he used when in the White House,” reported the Tribune.

The monument was unveiled on June 13, 1899.  It was a rather understated affair considering the prominence of the honoree.  “The ceremony attending the unveiling was brief,” reported The Sun the next day.  “Two or three hundred invited guests sat in the chairs placed around the platform which was erected in front of the statue.”


The most noticeable difference between the Keyser monument and the completed Bissell design was the base, designed by esteemed architect James Brown Lord.  The New-York Tribune described the restrained pedestal as “of polished Quincy granite, eight feet high, surmounted by a plinth one foot high.  The general aspect is one of repose and dignity, and in conformity with the effort which has been made in this direction is the simple inscription which will [appears] on the pedestal: Chester Alan Arthur.  Twenty-first President of the United States of America.”

Not long after the unveiling, vandals climbed the statue and removed the bronze eyeglasses of the President.  George E. Bissell recast the spectacles and these, too, were promptly stolen.  They lasted until April 1912.

Around 1900 the northern rim of Madison Square was still lined with brownstone homes.  A hansom cab (left) and a peddler's dray share 26th Street.  A close inspection reveals Arthur's missing eyeglasses.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWBLP01M&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Bissell told The New York Times “A third pair of rims were then modeled and cast in bronze, and these were placed securely in the hand, and now these have been stolen, making the hand an enigma as to its pose.”

The Times agreed, saying “The fact that something is missing about the statue is plain to any one.  In his left hand the President holds a half open book, while the position of the right and the way the fingers are held indicates the article which is missing.”

Bissell, whom The New York Times referred to as “the venerable sculptor,” was annoyed.  “He suggests that it might be a good thing to have policemen watch the city statues at night, if no other way can be found of protecting them from those whom the police now call ‘the statue thieves,’” reported the newspaper on April 5, 1912.

More than a century after Chester A. Arthur’s bronze likeness lost its third pair of eyeglasses his right hand remains empty.  Apparently the President will never get a fourth pair.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The St. John's Day Nursery--No. 223 E. 67th Street

The Day Nursery was indistinguishable from the private carriages houses on the block--like that of John D. Crimmins at right.
In 1886 the Sisters of Charity had operated the New York Foundling Hospital for 17 years.  At the time of its founding in 1869 the problem of unwanted babies born to unwed mothers was a serious problem; resulting in infants being abandoned on the steps of churches or orphanages, or worse, simply discarded to die.  The work of the nuns saved thousands of lives.

But now they recognized another problem.  Indigent mothers who found meager work were forced to leave their children at home alone or on the streets.  The Sisters of Charity organized the St. John’s Day Nursery where impoverished women could drop off their children while they worked.

At the time, millionaire John D. Crimmins and his family were devout Catholics.  Crimmins not only gave generously to the Church, donating altars, sculptures and paintings to St. Patrick’s Cathedral of which he was a prominent parishioner; but the entire family spent each Christmas Day in white aprons serving dinner to the poor, elderly women at the Little Sisters of the Poor on East 70th Street.

As the wealthy philanthropist planned his upscale private carriage house at No. 225 East 67th Street, he included another next door for the Sisters' new project.  Completed in 1887 the St. John’s Day Nursery was outwardly indistinguishable from the high-end stables along the block.  Like Crimmins’s, it was brick-faced and generally Romanesque Revival in style.  Brownstone trim and a handsome brick corbel table below the cornice added to the visual appeal.
The interesting square-headed eyebrows with the inward curling ends at the Nursery's second floor reappeared over the Crimmins stable's carriage entrance.
The ground level would provide stable accommodations for the Foundling Hospital while upstairs the Day Nursery had rooms.  On October 30, 1887 The Sun reported on the newly-completed structure. “Sister Irene, Superior of the New York Foundling Asylum, who for a long time back has had greatly at heart the establishment of a day nursery under Catholic management, has charge of the new institution, which is over a large stable built for the use of the Foundling Asylum.”

The newspaper said “The building occupies a full lot of 27x100, is well built of brick with blue stone trimmings, and adjoins one put up for the same purpose in first-class style by Mr. John D. Crimmins.  Access to the upper stories is by wide easy stairs, wainscoted as the building is throughout.”

The New-York Tribune, in announcing that “The nursery enables many mothers to go out and work, while their children are fed, dressed and cared for by charity,” added “The nursery rooms have been given by John D. Crimmins.”  The Sun described the interior arrangements.  “The first and second upper stories form two large, light, and well-ventilated rooms, which can each be divided by sliding doors into large front and back ones.  There is on each story a water closet and a lavatory adjoining to and communicating with the main room in the rear.  The janitor’s dwelling is on the uppermost story.”

Crimmins increased the square footage of the Nursery by dedicating the entire third floor of his carriage house to its use.  A door connected the two buildings at this level.  “This will be used for a refectory and a dormitory, where children can be fed, and, when tired or drowsy, allowed to rest.”  Crimmins installed a bathroom and a range “at his own expense” and paid for the furnishings throughout.

The Sisters of Charity and John Crimmins had carefully selected the location.  While the block was lined with comfortable rowhouses of middle and upper-middle class families, as well as the lavish carriage houses of the wealthy; it bordered on the working class neighborhoods closer to the East River.  The Sun explained “As it is near, on the east, to a populous district inhabited by laboring people, it has before it a prospect of great charitable usefulness.”

The St. John’s Day Nursery was open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and accepted the children of working women “from eighteen months to five years old, without distinction of nationality, creed, or color.”  The New-York Tribune praised the nuns’ work saying “The nursery enables many mothers to go out and work, while their children are fed, dressed and cared for by charity.”  The institution relied solely on donations to keep it running and, therefore, there was an endless stream of bazaars, benefits and other fund raising events.
Some of these were held in the nursery building itself; such as the one on Wednesday, May 16, 1888 or the more inventive “chocolate” and bazaar on November 15, 1889.  For the latter, the nursery rooms were decorated and donated items were sold by chance.  The New York Times reported on the articles of “fancy work” including one show-stopping item.  “Chances were sold on a large pillow of chrysanthemums and lilies, given by Miss Addie Hearn,” it said.  “Among other donations were some worsted articles made by the inmates of the Insane Asylum at Harrison, N. Y.”

At the time of the “chocolate” and bazaar The Times reported that “The number of children rescued from the life of the street during the past year by this nursery is 275.”

By 1892 the Day Nursery was handling 50 children per day and John D. Crimmins remained among its staunchest financial supporters.  On December 27, 1893 the toddlers, none older than five, who received little Christmas at home got it here.  They staged a Christmas pageant of sorts for Archbishop Corrigan “and many society people.”  The Times reported “A large Christmas tree, presented by John D. Crimmins, was loaded down with good things for the children, and the walls of the large hall were hung with evergreens.  The children recited poems and sang cradle songs from the top of a table, which had been transformed into a mimic stage.”

The program was closed by an “intricate march” and after the distribution of gifts the children sat down to a real Christmas dinner.  The Archbishop was especially impressed with a recitation and song by a five-year old German girl “in which a cradle and a doll played an important part.”

In 1902 St. John’s Day Nursery was still handling 50 children per day.  “This means that they were not only kept warm and clean and well fed, but were also taught to eat and sleep at regular hours,” said the New-York Tribune.  The Nursery operated an in-house employment agency of sorts to help mothers find work.
On Wednesdays women were invited to the nursery to sew for the children.  Those who did not want to actively participate could become a patron for $15 a year (about $400 today).  Or, if a person did not want to contribute money; food and fabric for making children’s clothing was always accepted.

Without a doubt the most spectacular benefit held for the nursery was the performance of Cinderella at the Metropolitan Opera House in January 1898.  Deemed by one newspaper as a “monster” production, it included fully 3,000 voices and the “World’s Greatest Artists,” according to one advertisement.  John Crimmins was highly involved in arranging the benefit.  Among the features promised, according to the New-York Tribune on November 27, 1897, were “the marches of all nations, by four hundred young girls; the drill of the American Guards, the grand ballet of roses…and the sparkling revel of fairies, butterflies, fireflies, hornets and bumblebees in which several hundred young women will participate.”

By the turn of the century fewer of the benefits were held in the Day Nursery.  Instead concerts, “euchres,” and dances were held at upscale venues patronized by New York society.  On December 1, 1905 a bazaar—which would have been held above the stable on 67th Street two decades earlier—was held in the Waldorf-Astoria.

Now the nursery had doubled its workload, handling 100 children every day.  The New-York Tribune, in describing what it called “one of the prettiest bazaars of the season,” noted that John D. Crimmins’s daughter was partly in charge of the tea room for the event.

On November 9, 1917 John Crimmins died in his mansion at No. 40 East 68th Street of pneumonia.  Two years later, on October 21, 1919, J. A. Root purchased the Crimmins carriage house at No. 225 for $22,300.  It was now described as a “three story brick garage, apartment and workshop building."  The sale did not bode well for the St. John’s Day Nursery which had used the upper floors of the Crimmins building.

The Sisters sold their aging nursery building to the fabulously wealthy Robert Goelet in October 1922.  He converted it for use as his private garage.  When real estate operator Bradford N. Swett bought it from the Goelet Estate 45 years later, in August 1967, The New York Times mentioned “The garage can hold five cars.  There is an apartment on each of its two upper floors.”  Swett paid $100,000 in cash for the building.


That the charismatic structure at No. 223 East 67th Street had ever been the daytime refuge of needy children was long forgotten.  Within the year the former St. John’s Day Nursery had been converted to the New York Zendo Shobo-Ji (Temple of True Dharma) by the Zen Studies Society.  A half century later the institution, founded in 1956, remains here.  It serves as a Zen practice and training center.

photographs taken by the author

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Geo. Nichols House -- No. 108 E. 37th Street

photo by Alice Lum


At the 19th century dawned, the sprawling country estates of Manhattan were doomed.  The relentless northward expansion of the city spurred the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan which laid out the regimented grid of streets and avenues.  One by one the farms and estates were developed with houses, stores and churches.

What had been the country estate of Robert and Mary Murray held out until 1847 when their descendants created the Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement.  It ensured that development of the land would be limited to upscale brick or stone residences, churches and private stables.

Among the homes built in the Murray Hill area was the rowhouse at No. 108 East 37th Street erected for Jacob Voorhies, Jr. around 1866.  Voorhies was a “grader” of roadways and with the rapid development of Manhattan at the time of the Civil War, he was not only a busy man; he became a very wealthy one.  As a matter of fact, it was Voorhies himself who had graded the roads in the neighborhood.  In 1863 he petitioned the City Council “for extension of time to complete the grading of Twelfth-avenue from Thirty-seventh-street to Forty-second-street.”

Like the other homes on the block, the Voorhies home was four stories high over an English basement.  A broad brownstone stoop rose from the sidewalk.  The new, fashionable neighborhood was populated by some of the most respected names in Manhattan society.  Voorhies was well-known in yachting circles.  He was a member of the Brooklyn and the New York Yacht Clubs and owned “the celebrated Madeleine and other fast yachts,” according to The New York Times.

With the opening of the summer season of 1871, the Newport community was intrigued by the addition of the “Cliff Cottages”—an experiment in luxurious rental properties.  The New York Times said “These are nine in number, a little south of the bathing beach; adjoining is a hotel for the exclusive accommodation of those occupying the cottages.  The grounds are tastefully laid out, each family having separate grounds and flower-beds, and which are kept in order by the association.  Stables are provided also, with servants’ apartments at the hotel.  Surely it is a novel idea.”

Among the wealthy families to take one of the cottages that first season were Jacob Voorhies and his wife.  Their neighbors that summer included Livingstons, Lawrences, Stokes and equally moneyed families from Providence, Hartford and Philadelphia.

On the night of November 29, 1871 the jewels of New York’s wealthiest socialites glistened in the glow of the Academy of Music’s chandeliers as a grand ball was held in honor of the visiting grand Duke Alexis of Russia.  Leslie’s Illustrated Paper reported “At nine-o’clock, the guests began to arrive, and during the next hour carriages were continually driving up in front of the Academy.  At ten o’clock the interior of the building presented one of the most magnificent scenes that has ever been witnessed in the city.  The brilliantly illuminated decorations and elegantly dressed ladies combined to entrance and bewilder the spectator.”

The elaborate decorations were evidenced by the Grand Duke’s table.  “The table was tastefully arranged with a profusion of choice and natural flowers.  The ornamental confectionery and other designs on the table included two temples of the Czar Alexander; two monuments of Washington, with cupids and American flags on top; two imperior meringues, with American eagles and flags of both nations, and two ships of war, made of nougat and spun sugar.”

Jacob Voorhies and his wife were there that night, rubbing shoulders with the cream of New York society, including Caroline Astor, several Roosevelts, Livingstons, Schermerhorns, nine Morgans and no fewer than six Vanderbilts.

In January 1878 Jacob Voorhies, Jr. died in the house on East 37th Street.  It became home to Edward R. Carpentier, whose name was often spelled “Carpenter” in newspapers.  He died in the house on Sunday evening, June 10, 1883 at the age of 62.  Carpentier’s brother, Horace Walpole Carpentier, moved from California to New York and took up residency in No. 108 East 37th Street.

The colorful Horace W. Carpentier, had traveled to California during the Gold Rush.  He was a “Major General” of the California State Militia, became Oakland’s first mayor (he was ousted by angry citizens when it was discovered he had finagled complete control of the waterfront for his own profit), and was president of the California State Telegraph Company and the Overland Telegraph Company.  It was Carpentier who sent the first transcontinental telegraph message—addressed to President Abraham Lincoln.

Now in New York, Carpentier shared the 37th Street house with his young cousin and ward, Maud Alice Burke.  The attention of the press would be focused on the household when Prince Andre Poniatowski of Poland arrived in New York in 1892 and showed interest in young Maud.  The Prince’s brother, Prince Charles, had married Maud Ely Goddard of New York a decade earlier, and it appeared this prince was following his lead.

Although Prince Andre insisted to reporters that “he did not come to America to seek a rich wife and that he refrained from talking to rich girls,” he quickly proposed to Maud Burke in February 1893.  Maud accepted and The Evening World commented that “Prince Poniatowski came rather prominently before the public through his announcement.”

Royal titles did not impress Horace Carpentier, however, and he vehemently opposed the engagement.  Maud was no match for her guardian and The Evening World said “After many varying reports that the engagement was off, then that it was renewed, it was finally authoritatively declared to be broken, and Miss Burke returned to California.”

Maud may have realized that her guardian was correct in his assessment of the prince when, just a few months later newspapers reported “It is authoritatively announced that Prince Andre Poniatowski, of Poland, the former fiance of Maud Alice Burke, will marry Miss Sperry, daughter of the Stockton (Cal.) millionaire.  Miss Sperry’s father owns the Stockton Flour Mills and controls the California flour trade.”

In the end, Horace Carpentier got his way and Maud Alice Burke got her title.  At 4:00 in the afternoon of April 17, 1895 she married Sir Bache Cunard in the house on 37th Street.  The groom’s family was “largely interested in the Cunard Steamship Line” and by marrying a baronet, Maud became Lady Cunard.

Horace, at the time, was not well and on April 18 The New York Times mentioned that “When the engagement of the couple was announced about a week ago, it was understood that the wedding would take place in June.  Only two days ago, it is said, was it decided to hasten the wedding.  The wedding was a very quiet one, owing to the illness of Mr. Carpenter [sic].”

The newlyweds sailed off to England on the steamship Lucania, leaving Horace alone in the house until his aged niece, Maria Hall Williamson moved in.  Maria, who was the widow of General James A. Williamson, was ten years younger than her uncle.  She died in the house at the age of 80 in January 1916.

Two years later, on January 5, 1918, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that “General Horace W. Carpentier, who donated a chair of Chinese language and literature at Columbia University about sixteen years ago, plans to give his fine dwelling at 108 East 37th street to Barnard College, when he dies.”  Carpentier’s donation gave him use of the house until his death; and, oddly enough, “It is also stipulated that for six years after his death, it will continue in possession of one he will name at some future time.”

If newspapers thought that the pre-mortum bequeath meant that Carpentier’s health was failing, he vociferously denied it.  Two weeks after the announcement, The Sun reported “Gen. Horace M. Charpentier [sic], hale and hearty in his ninety-third year, was walking blithely about his home at 108 East Thirty-seventh street, expressing a militant opinion concerning newspapers that insisted upon visiting him with serious illness.  The General said his health was bully and that, after all, there was a touch of kindness in the references to his illness that gave to the error some mitigation.”

Despite his protests, Carpentier died in the house on January 31.  The strong-minded millionaire donated the bulk of his estate to colleges and universities and generally ignored family.  Saying that “in my well-considered opinion, I have heretofore been fairly liberal in their direction,” he explained that the fact that he did not give his next of kin more than $2,000 was “not through oversight or failure of memory.”

Most surprising was his ignoring Maud in the will.  She had broken her engagement to the Polish prince under threat of being disinherited.  Now, apparently, Carpentier felt she was faring well enough without his money.

Before the year was up, the house was purchased by J. P. Morgan, who lived nearby at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue.  The Sun reported on December 24, 1918 that Morgan purchased the house “to preserve the residential character of the section.”  Perhaps the best way to ensure that the character of the neighborhood was preserved would be to move his newly-married daughter into the house.

Jane N. Morgan was married to George Nichols on November 14, 1917.  Nichols was a partner in Minot, Hooper & Co., cotton goods dealers.  A clubman and yachtsman, he owned the yacht The Edythe and held memberships in several of the city’s exclusive clubs.

The title to No. 108 East 37th Street was transferred to Jane and in 1921 architect Charles A. Platt was commissioned to make over the outdated Victorian.  For two decades wealthy Murray Hill homeowners had been updating their expensive properties by stripping off the brownstone facades and recreating up-to-date homes.  No. 108 would soon join them.

Platt removed the stoop and moved the entrance to sidewalk level.  The old brownstone front was replaced by a neo-Federal façade of red brick and white stone trim.  The reserved, formal design featured splayed lintels, handsome paneled double doors below a leaded transom, and Flemish bond brickwork.  The renovations were completed, according to The New York Times, in 1922.
photo by Alice Lum
Five years later George Nichols brought Platt back to add an addition on the roof.  The family would stay in the house for three decades; during which time the newspapers followed George’s yachting activities, the daughters’ engagements and marriages, and the comings and goings from Newport and Long Island summer homes.  Then, on December 10, 1950, The New York Times reported that Jane had sold the house to the Murray Hill Management Corporation.

The new owner wasted no time in announcing its plans to convert the house “into luxury apartments.”  Completed in 1951, the conversion resulted in two apartments per floor and a doctor’s office on ground level.  Another renovation in 1987 left the doctor’s office intact; but resulted in two duplexes—on the second to third and sixth to penthouse floors—a single apartment on the fifth and two apartments on the fourth floor.

photo by Alice Lum
Charles Platt’s proper 1921 exterior, however, is little changed.