Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Terra Cotta Beauty at Nos. 22-24 E 41st Street

In 1899 the march of commerce up Fifth Avenue had changed much of the residential neighborhood around the massive Croton Reservoir between 40th and 42nd Streets.  Yet the houses on the east side of the Avenue and the blocks between Fifth and Madison Avenues were still, for the most part, private residences.

That year the popular and successful actress Maude Adams purchased the brownstone house at No. 22 East 41st Street, paying $35,000—a respectable $950,000 in today’s dollars.  Sitting above a high stone stoop, it was unusually narrow for the still-upscale neighborhood; only 12.6 feet wide. 

The actress, whose full name was Maude Ewing Adams Kiskadden, had begun starring in plays by J. M. Barrie two years earlier, including The Little Minister.  Six years later she would introduce the playwright’s character Peter Pan to the New York stage.  It was her most memorable role and contributed to her being the highest paid performer of the day—earning over $1 million a year at one point.

Maude escaped from the public eye within her brownstone house.  The Theatre Magazine spoke of it in 1903.  “The few visitors who have been admitted to the narrow four-story English basement house which Miss Adams owns at No. 22 East Forty-first Street, describe it as an oasis of scholastic peace amid the roar of the busy metropolis.  Servants glide noiselessly about, speaking in the hushed tones of those accustomed to the enforced quiet of a sickroom, and as if watching jealously to guard a nervous and highly strung temperament from the jar of city turmoil.”

Maude Adams relaxes in her parlor -- The Theatre Magazine, 1903 (copyright expired)

By 1904 Maude Adams’s tranquil block would face upheaval.  The magnificent New York Public Library had replaced the Croton Reservoir and developers were purchasing up the old houses.  On June 12, 1904 The New York Times remarked on the real estate fever.  It reported that the 1860 brownstone mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 41st Street, originally costing $14,000, had just sold for $40,000.  “The advancing values in the side streets just off Fifth Avenue is nowhere more apparent than at this point.  A striking comparison is afforded by 3 and 4 East Forty-first Street, almost directly opposite each other, and of very nearly the same size.  Michael Coleman bought No. 3 at auction in 1901 for $59,950.  No. 4 changed hands recently at $107,500.  No. 11 East Forty-first Street was sold in 1901 for $54,500.”

Not oblivious to the changes, when her next door neighbor, Mrs. Emma A. Streeter, put No. 24 on the market in January 1905, Maude Adams snapped it up.  “With the recent demand for new building sites on Fifth Avenue…real estate men say that Miss Adams’s purchase giving her control of a frontage of 25 feet is a shrewd speculative move,” said The New York Times on January 11.

The actress continued her peaceful life in No. 22 and waited.  Then, in 1912 the Holland Holding Company purchased Nos. 18 and 20 East 41st Street.  Within a year a striking terra cotta-clad Gothic Revival office building 20 stories tall rose on the site.  As it rose the firm’s advertisements boasted of “light on four sides.”

It was a selling point that could be obliterated if Maude Adams sold her property to a developer with a skyscraper in mind.  In a pro-active move to prevent that, the firm approached Adams.  On September 27, 1912 The New York Times announced that she leased Nos. 22 and 24 East 41st Street to the Holland Holding Company.  “The lease was arrange to give protection to the easterly light of a twenty-story office building, which the company is preparing to build on the adjoining fifty-foot plot,” it said.  The newspaper noted that Holland Holding “intends to replace the present structure[s] with a five-story business building.”

George & Edward Blum, the same architects responsible for the 20-story office building, would design the structure to replaced Maude Adams’s houses.  Both buildings were encased in terra cotta—but the similarities stopped there.

The architects surrounded the central portion of No. 22-24 in an oversized-picture frame.  The tiles here and in the window sprandrels reflected the popular Art Nouveau and Arts-and-Crafts styles of the period.  .

 Each floor was flooded with sunlight from the expansive windows.  Like its big brother next door which announced “No Manufacturing Allowed,” the building would preserve the upscale tone of the street by leasing to salesrooms.

Tenants came quickly.  In 1914 N. Levin & Co., men’s custom tailors, signed a 10-year lease for the third floor.  Wallace Novelty took the top floor that same year.  Wallace would stay on for years, selling wares like its most well-known item, the electric lamp that “stands, hangs, clamps or sticks any place and at any angle you put it.” 

Wallace's biggest money-maker was its $2 versatile lamp -- Hardware Dealers' Magazine, February 1915 (copyright expired) 

The following year Wallace advertised for regional salesmen.  An ad in the Richmond, Virginia Times-Dispatch warned potential applicants “Haven’t time to talk to any but energetic hustlers.”

The building was fully-occupied in 1915 when the store and basement were rented by the Defiance Manufacturing Co., sellers of architects’ supplies and drawing materials.  The following year Maude Adams decided to liquidate the property.  On December 27, 1916 the New York Clipper announced that she had received $703,000 for the building.  The actress walked away with what would amount to about $14.5 million today.

The 1920s saw similar tenants in the building.  Pincus I. Rosenblum, “merchant tailor,” moved in in 1922 and the Standard Gas Equipment Corp. was here by 1926.  In 1922, however, there was a terrifying turn of events.

When the Holland Holding Corp. constructed the two buildings, they included a joint vault underground used for storage.  The Alliance Bleacheries Company stored concentrated acids and chemicals there.  Large carboys contained caustic substances like sulphuric and muriatic acids, and were kept in the vault behind closed doors.   Improperly sealed, the large bottles began seeping fumes.

On New Year’s Eve 1922 two porters noticed the choking fumes.  With no one in the building, the fumes had risen throughout the building.  The New York Times reported the following day, “Although the door of the vault was closed the fumes leaked through the cracks in the casing.  When the members of the rescue squad opened this door they found the air so heavily laden with the dense acrid fumes that even with their gas masks on they could not stay in the vault more than fifteen minutes.”

The men worked in relays, each man having his oxygen tank refilled at each rest period.  The “powerful acid fumes quickly exhausted the oxygen supply carried,” explained the newspaper.  As pedestrians crowded onto East 41st Street to witness the work, they were quickly repulsed by the pungent fumes.

The firemen and rescue squad worked for two hours attempting to air out the building; but found that the fumes merely spread again.  It was then that a large tank containing about 220 cubic feet of chlorine gas was discovered leaking in the vault.  In what today might be considered a rather environmentally unfriendly move, Deputy Fire Chief Joe Martin ordered that the tank be dumped into the East River.

The Depression years saw the building still occupied.  The New York Office of Philadelphia-based Adrian Bauer Advertising Agency was here in 1936.  A year later the century-old stationery firm H. K. Brewer Co purchased the building and established its permanent uptown headquarters here.  And in 1939 women’s wear retailer Frances Antonier took the second floor.

Somewhat ironically, remembering Maude Adams, in 1970 H. A. Adams Associates was in the building.  The firm’s advertisements cautioned “Before you alter, buy or sell a brownstone, avoid the pitfalls…it’s smart to consult our experts.”

The unbelievably intricate terra cotta designs incorporate a mixture of styles.

Two years before the Adams ad appeared in New York magazine, Patrick Cooney arrived in New York from Ireland.  His street level restaurant, O’Casey’s would leave its mark on the Blum brothers’ design.   O’Casey’s still operates behind a faux Irish pub front.  While its dark wooden façade is immensely preferable to the plastic signage and metal storefronts of delis and electronics shops; it is hard not to wish the delicate terra cotta structure had survived intact.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Jacob Dreicer House -- No. 4 East 78th Street

A decade after speculative builders had lined the blocks branching off Central Park with identical and monotonous brownstone rowhouses, the 78th Street block between Fifth and Madison Avenues was still mostly undeveloped.  In 1871 Silas M. Styles had erected three such homes; but nothing further would happen on the block until the 1880s.

When architect Edward Kilpatrick purchased the 23-foot wide plot at No. 4 East 78th Street, he intended that this home would stand out.   The Queen Anne style was on the cutting edge of residential design and No. 4 would embrace it with passion.   Kilpatrick began construction of the home in 1887 and when completed in 1889, it had all the architectural bells and whistles expected in the fanciful style.

A dramatic, sweeping stone stoop rose to the asymmetrical entrance floor.  Three levels of rough-cut brownstone, including the basement, were surmounted by a story of red brick with brownstone trim.  A steep mansard with a copper-clad dormer capped it all.  As attention-grabbing as the off-set porch was; it was trumped by the broad arch of the second floor.  A mid-century photograph shows the arch filled with glass panes—if these were original, this area may have been intended as a conservatory of sorts.

The sweeping stoop emphasized the offset porch.  Note that the stone fence to the right terminates in a wonderful carved lion's head.  photo by Berenice Abbott from the collection of the New York Public Library

As construction neared completion, on January 5, 1889, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Kilpatrick had sold the house to “Fannie wife of Arnold Falk.”  The Falks took out a mortgage of $24,000 on their new home, about $590,000 today.

Falk, with his brother Gustav, was a partner in G. Falk & Bro.  Born in Germany, Falk had started out in business in America as a cigar-manufacturer.  In 1859 he and his brother partnered to import leaf tobacco from Holland and Hamburg, and export American tobacco to Europe.  America’s Successful Men of Affairs said of him in 1895, “Success came to this house through their enterprise, industry and good character.”

The Falks would not enjoy their upscale new home for long.   Arnold died in Heidelberg, Germany on June 18, 1891.   The house passed rather quickly through new owners.  In 1895 it was purchased by Mary A. McLaughlin, whose husband was a police captain.  He was placed under harsh scrutiny by the New York State Senate’s Lexow Committee that same year.  The committee was formed specifically to weed out corruption and graft within the New York City Police Department.

Delicate carving rims the maw-like arch.

Frederick A. Burnham, President of the Mutual Reserve Fund Life Association, purchased the home from the disgraced couple.  He was as well known for his chess-playing abilities as for his business acumen.  Burnham regularly appeared in newspapers reporting the results of chess tournaments.  In April 1897 he sold the house for about $75,000.  At the time the family of Jacob Dreicer was living at No. 118 East 64th Street.  But before long they would move into the fashionable home off Central Park.

Dreicer had come to New York from Russia in 1866.  Two years later he established his jewelry business at No. 1128 Broadway.  At a time when American socialites were interested mainly in pearls, Dreicer brought with him an appreciation for brightly-colored gems like emeralds, rubies, and sapphires.  Decades later The New York Times would remember that “colored stones were valued by many persons as little more than colored glass.”

The Dreicer name became synonymous with exquisite jewelry.  In 1885 Jacob took his son, Michael, into the firm as a partner, changing the firm’s name to J. Dreicer  & Son.   Unpleasant publicity came to the family towards the end of 1897 when daughter Mary (known as Mamie) filed for divorce from her husband, Max Lasar.  To make matters even messier, Max, a diamond dealer, was arrested for smuggling, and $100,000 worth of unset diamonds seized on December 3.

In reporting the arrest, The Sun mentioned “Mrs. Lasar, was a Miss Dreicer, a daughter of Jacob Dreicer…who, with his son Michael, keeps a swell jewelry store at 292 Fifth avenue.  The marital troubles of Mr. and Mrs. Max Lasar have attracted considerable notice.”

By 1911 Jacob and his wife Gitel were living in the East 78th Street house.   The area had been plagued by burglaries that year.   On February 22 The Times said “Residents of the block have been agitated because three weeks ago thieves entered the home of Jacob H. Schiff and stole clothing of two servants from their rooms…Also about the same time, it was learned last night, thieves attempted to pry off one of the iron bars guarding the Clark art gallery.”

Then on February 21, Mary Ryan, a servant in the Colfax house at No. 9 East 78th Street, was startled by two men on the roof of a three-story extension behind the mansion.  She threw open the window and demanded to know what they wanted.

“We’re private watchmen,” one snapped.  “Shut the window and forget it.  We are looking for burglars.”

So Mary did.  But later, when she happened upon Thomas Smith, a watchman for the gargantuan mansion of William A. Clark, she mentioned the encounter to him.  Suspicious, Smith rushed back to the Clark house and up to the fourth floor where the art gallery bar had been tampered with earlier.  He saw the beams of flashlights on the gallery roof and telephoned police.

While police rushed to the mansion, the thieves were apparently scared off by Smith.  In the meantime the Dreicers were entertaining in their home.   The Dreicer’s butler, Henry Whitehead, who lived on the top floor, was busy with the reception.  The burglars jimmied open a fourth floor window and made off with some of Whitehead’s clothing and a box of cigars.  Police surmised they heard the voices of the people below and were frightened away before they could take anything of value.

Following her divorce, Mamie and her son, Walter Lasar, had come to live with her parents.   In 1916 the somewhat pudgy young man graduated from Yale, where his classmates had referred to him as “Dubie.”  Later that year a college publication said “Lasar is undecided about his future occupation.”

That year the Dreicers did renovations to the house.  On September 30 the Record & Guide reported that they had commissioned architect Henry O. Chapman to add an apartment and one-story addition to the house at a cost of $2,500.

The Dreicers, like all wealthy families, were acutely aware that their mansion was a tempting target for burglars during the summer months when the family was away.   It was possibly the 1911 burglary that prompted them to install a burglar alarm.  But on Monday, May 27, 1918 when the Dreicers closed the house and headed for their summer estate at Lawrence, Long Island, they forgot one thing.  The Sun, on May 31, said “The burglar alarm protecting the big stone residence of Jacob Dreicer of the Fifth avenue jewelry firm of Dreicer & Co. at 4 East Seventy-eight street  was left unconnected for the first time in many years.”

As luck would have it, Walter Lasar went back to the house around dusk on May 30.  When he reached the front door, he saw that the glass doorknob had been broken.   Rather than enter, he rushed to Fifth Avenue and hailed a policeman.

Officer Joseph Healy went inside, stationing Walter on the stoop.  Floor by floor the policeman checked the house; finally hearing the sound of labored breathing and footsteps “of persons who obviously were struggling under a heavy burden,” reported The Sun.

Healy pulled his nightstick and handgun and crouched on the staircase.  When the burglars appeared, he pounced, ready for a fight.  But “the two were so frightened at the figure that jumped from the dark that Healy had little trouble in catching both before they knew what was happening.”

The two “husky boys” were school-aged.  William Kelly was 13 years old and his accomplice, Thomas Cody was just 12.  The boys had crammed everything they could carry into suit cases.   At the 67th Street station police said “the contents of the suit cases were worth several thousand dollars.  Especially valuable appeared the glittering contents of several small boxes filled with stones of various sizes, shapes and coloring, many of them diamonds.”

The young criminals were turned over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Walter Lasar soon became less undecided about his future and in 1920 had risen to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Section of the U.S. Army Reserves.  That year Gitel Dreicer was looking for a new girl to serve in her dining room.  An advertisement in both The Sun and the New York Herald on May 15 read “Wanted: A competent waitress with best of reference.”

The following year would be devastating for the Dreicer family.   On July 26, 1921, Michael Dreicer was at his summer estate, Deepdale, formerly owned by William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.  The 54-year old jeweler died unexpectedly that day.   His father was deeply affected.  Less than a month later, on August 14, the 82-year old Jacob Dreicer died suddenly in his Lawrence, Long Island summer house.   The Evening World attributed his death to a broken heart.

“There was a strong tie of respect and affection between them and it is said the son’s death was a mortal blow to the father.”

Living in the East 78th Street house with Gitel Dreicer were two of her three daughters and two grandsons.  Mamie had retaken her maiden name of Mary Dreicer and interestingly enough, Walter also renounced name Lasar name, becoming Walter Dreicer.  Frances was widowed.   The population of the mansion was reduced by one in April 1922 when Frances’s son, Louis S. Davidson, married Alice Virginia Ansbacher in the Ritz-Carlton.

The women lived together on East 78th until December 6, 1933 when Gitel Dreicer, 89-years old, died.   The estate was divided equally among Mary, Frances, and their married sister Regina who lived at No. 270 Park Avenue.

Walter Dreicer never married, living on in the in the house until his death at the age of 44 in October 1938.   His funeral was held in the mansion on Thursday morning October 6.

The brownstone carvings included seashells between the cornice brackets.

A decade later the house was divided into large apartments, one each on the parlor and second floor; and two on each floor above.  A doctor’s office was established in the basement.  It was most likely at this time that the wonderful brownstone stoop was removed and a more commercial entrance installed at sidewalk level.

Perhaps the most noteworthy resident in the renovated house would be the young Woody Allen.  Eric Lax, in his Woody Allen: A Biography, mentions “As part of his continuing education, every afternoon at four o’clock Woody walked the four blocks from his apartment at 4 East Seventy-eighth Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent half an hour studying a different exhibit.  His choice for viewing was sequential rather than random and so eventually, by doing his thirty minutes each day, he studied the whole museum.”

Despite the tragic loss of the dramatic stoop; Kilpatrick’s robust design still makes a bold statement on the block among the more expected limestone-fronted mansions of the period.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The King Jagiello Statue -- Central Park

When nationalities world-wide began planning their pavilions for the New York World’s Fair of 1939, none could be prouder than Poland.  Only two decades earlier, in 1918, Poland had finally regained its independence after 123 years of partition and foreign rule. 

Germany had done its best to stifle the Polish identify—outlawing the language, giving Polish-named towns German names, and teaching only German in the schools.  But as the 20th century dawned, a fervent nationalism arose among the Polish people.    Henryk Sienkiewicz dared to write Krzyzacy, a novel about the medieval roust of the Germans by the Poles in the 1410 battle of Grunwald led by King Wladyslaw Jagiello.

In 1910 internationally-renowned pianist and ardent nationalist Ignacy Paderewski erected a massive monument to Grunwald in the center of Krakow.  Atop the monument was a great bronze equestrian statue of the king.  Paderewski addressed the crowd at the unveiling, saying in part “We sincerely wish that every Pole and every Lithuanian…would look at this monument as a sign of a common past, a testimony of shared glory, and the herald of better times.”

Paderewski's gift would inspire the World's Fair statue.

The Polish Pavilion in New York’s Flushing Meadows would be dominated by an architecturally fascinating tower of gold.  The items on exhibition inside brought together the traditional and the modern; all a celebration of a reunited Poland.  Perhaps as a not-so-subtle reminder to the Nazis who were increasing in power, the entrance of the Pavilion was guarded by a large statue of King Jagiello.

A 1939 World's Fair postcard depicts the Polish Pavilion.  

Designed by sculptor Stanislaw Kazimierz Ostrowski, it was greatly inspired by the Krakow statue.  But unlike that sculpture, which depicted the king’s arms at his sides, Ostrowski’s Jagiello raised his arms above his head holding the two swords handed to him by his enemies, the Teutonic Knights of the Cross.  The crossed swords were symbolic not only of the defeat of the Germans; but of the king’s unification of Poland and Lithuania.

The Polish Pavilion opened on May 3, 1939—the anniversary of the signing of Poland’s first Constitution in 1791.  But although the country presented a joyous façade; while Polish girls danced in traditional dress and American tourists admired the exhibitions of art and culture, things were not going well at home.

Girls in traditional costumes dance before the statue in 1939.   The amazing filigree facade of the tower can be seen at right.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
A year earlier Germany had annexed Austria and now it invaded Czechoslovakia.  On September 1, 1939, four months after the World’s Fair Pavilion opened, the Germans invaded Poland.  The move incited Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany.  World War II had begun.

Mayor Fiorella La Guardia was infuriated at the German aggression and on October 11, 1939 he dedicated Pulaski Park in the Bronx, named in honor of Polish patriot Count Casimir Pulaski.  In his dedication he declared “no power on earth could destroy the spirit of the Polish people.”

In a further act of support, he asked Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to make the Polish Pavilion a permanent part of Flushing Meadow Park.  The New York Times on October 12, said “He termed the golden structure a replica of a medieval Polish tower, “the finest thing, architecturally, in the foreign area of the Fair—we all think so.”

The newspaper added “He has also asked, in the name of the city, for the equestrian statue of Polish King, Jagiello, which stands in front of the pavilion.  La Guardia called the sculpture “very fine.”

Meanwhile at home, with the Germans advancing on Krakow, the citizens attempted to hide the Grunwald Monument behind a barricade of wooden planks.  It was to no avail.  The German Army dismantled the 60-foot high monument and the statue to King Jagiello was melted into bullets.

Although the World’s Fair continued through 1940, the Polish Pavilion closed in 1939.  The United States would not enter the conflict for another year; but while tourists and New Yorkers strolled the boulevards of the Fair the carefree atmosphere was much muted—especially so when they passed the silent pavilions like that of Poland and of Czechoslovakia. 

When the Fair closed Ostrowski’s defiant sculpture was presented to the city by the Polish Government.  It was removed from its base and placed in storage.  “A committee of Polish organizations, of which Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia is honorary chairman, is raising $25,000 to prepare the site for the statue on the park lawn near the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Charles Grutzner, Jr. in The New York Times.

Finally, on June 2, 1945 ground was broken in Central, west of the obelisk near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The cornerstone was laid on June 17 and the unveiling took place on July 15. 

Nearly a month before the first spade of sod was removed, The New York Times wrote “King Wladyslaw Jagiello is about to fare forth on his great bronze steed from the darkness of a city warehouse and take his place in the sunlight of Central Park in time for the 535th anniversary of the battle of Grunewald [sic].  It was there that this Polish king routed the Teutonic Knights in one of the most crushing pre-Eisenhower defeats ever met by German military might.”

That the statue of a victorious King Jagiello over the Germans would be erected almost simultaneously with the end of German occupation of Poland did not go unnoticed.  Despite the unspeakable atrocities endured by the Poles under German occupation—including the mass murder of millions—La Guardia’s declaration to “no power on earth could destroy the spirit of the Polish people” seemed to have borne out.

The Times quoted historian Jan Dlugosz who wrote following the Grunwald defeat, that the Germans’ own handcuffs and leg irons were used against them.  “God justly punished their pride, for the Poles bound them hand and foot with these very same fetters and irons.”

The monument to King Jagiello in Central Park became a symbol of Polish nationalist, determination and pride.  Banks of flowers, for decades, would appear on Polish holidays and patriotic anniversaries.  In 1986, forty years after its unveiling, it was cleaned and restored by the Parks Commission. 

It happened just in time.  In 1975 the city was shouldering $3.3 billion in debt and was on the verge of bankruptcy.  Now, while the city was climbing out of the fiscal hole, it was still struggling.  In 1987 there were only seven or eight workers to care for the 800 statues and 700 public monuments.  They took home a combined salary of $175,000 a year. 

The New York Times, on March 9, 1987, lamented the condition of statues and monuments.  “Acid rain, automobile fumes and factory emissions have eaten away at bronze and turned marble sponge-like.  Vandals have torn off heads and arms, pausing only to cover granite pedestals with spray paint.  Repairs exceed city budget.”

Twenty monuments needed immediate repair—at an estimated cost of $1.3 million.  Among them was the statue of King Jagiello.  The City was realistic.  There was no way it could pay for the manpower and the cost of restoring the works of art.  So it initiated the Adopt-a-Monument project; the sold program nationwide that sought private money to care for and restore individual monuments.

The King Jagiello statue was one of the first two to be adopted.  The American Conservation Association provided $30,000 to its restoration that year.  As a result, the heroic statue with an amazing history survives in glorious condition today.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Lost Hotel Belmont -- 120 Park Avenue

At the turn of the last century, a rather handsome two-story building stood at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 42nd Street.   It housed Peter Tivnan’s restaurant and the Hetherington drugstore (and before that, Schoonmaker’s Drugstore).  As excavation for the coming Fourth Avenue subway commenced in 1902, the Victorian structure was razed.

One block to the south stood the massive Murray Hill Hotel which opened in 1884.  Before long the aging hostelry would have competition in the 23-story Hotel Belmont.  

The drugstore and restaurant were razed for construction of the subway -- The Sun, September 29, 1918 (copyright expired) 
Because of the sharp turn its route had to make at 42nd Street, the subway necessarily had to go under the now-vacant plot.  The Subway Realty Company (most of the stock of which was owned by the Interborough Rapid Transit) purchased the land, which it rented to the Hotel Belmont Company at $125,000 per year.  The complex set of negotiations was eased by the fact that millionaire August Belmont, Jr. had founded the Interborough and, not surprisingly, was highly involved in the Hotel Belmont Company.

In order to construct a substantial structure above the subway, massive columns had to be installed that reached five stories below street level.  On January 24, 1904 the New-York Tribune reported “These pillars, three times the size of any of the others [in the subway project], are of solid steel, incased in brick, and they support the new Hotel Belmont, now building.  Practically the entire weight of this huge structure rests on these pillars, supported on the subway roof, intervening between them and its foundations.”

As the subway and the hotel were constructed, August Belmont left his mark in the design of both in the form of a siding for his private subway car.  The “Mineola” would cost more than $11,000 to construct and was fitted out like the luxurious private train cars millionaires used above ground.

On September 25, 1904 as the hotel began taking form, the New-York Tribune noted “The ground area of the Hotel Belmont contains 22,000 square feet and its cost is estimated at $5,000,000, or $240 a square foot.”  The great expense would be understandable when its doors opened for business in 1906.

In December of that year, The Architectural Record said “To this monster hotel one might aptly apply the expression for large New York enterprises:  A city in itself.  On entering it the spectator experiences a sensation as in a large department store:  Where shall we go first?”

It was most likely no coincidence that Belmont chose for his architects Warren & Wetmore, who simultaneously worked on the magnificent new Grand Central Terminal across 42nd Street.   Despite the building’s grandeur and size, The Architectural Record was less than impressed with the exterior.  It called the cornice “ponderous” and “rather loud.” 

Turning to the lower floors the critic described “In it the two great entrance features, one on Park avenue, the other on Forty-second street, with their marquises in glass and wrought-iron, form the eyes, the centres of interest.  In the Park avenue elevation the stone pedimented windows are given such importance that they appear to fight the ironwork for supremacy and this antagonism of the windows and entrance is further emphasized by the negative way in which the intermediate long windows of the first and second stories are treated.”

Architecture critic H. W. Frohue found the cornice "rather loud."

Writing for the periodical, H. W. Frohue was as unforgiving regarding the interiors.  “The decorative treatment of the ceiling and wall surfaces calls for less enthusiastic praise.”  Regarding the lobby decorations, it said “Supporting the beams and on each side of the piers which look quite able to support their loads, there have been placed ponderous Atlas-like figures executed in white staff.  Aesthetically one can find no excuse for them, nor do they give any particular character to the room.”

Frohue disliked the ponderous Atlas-like figures in the lobby -- Architectural Record December 1906 (copyright expired)

The red marble entrance hall, said Frohue, “is rather cold and uninviting…The brilliant chandelier of cut glass in the centre forms the most attractive spot of decoration in a rather expressionless interior.”  The critic summed up the public spaces by saying it left an “impression of vastness.”
The Palm Garden featured exquisite crystal chandeliers, marble columns and a frescoed ceiling -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Despite H. W. Frohue’s tepid opinion, the hotel saw the comings and goings of wealthy travelers.   Among them was Mrs. Eva Briel Werner who arrived on Tuesday January 14, 1908.  The wife of Frederick A. Werner whom The World termed “a millionaire business man of New York and London,” she was 35 years old and, according to the newspaper, was “prominent in social life on both sides of the water, wealthy in her own right.”

In 1901 the Werners had lost two children.  “Since she has been inconsolable,” said The World. “Her ailment has been chronic.  She was given all the freedom in the world by her husband because he believed that travel and excitement would aid her.”

In March 1907 the pair was in London; but Eva traveled to New York as a guest of Mrs. Henry Wellington Wack of Riverside Drive.  Mrs. Wack’s husband was counsel to King Leopold of Belgium.  Now, nearly a year later, Eva Werner checked into the Belmont, locked herself in her rooms and began writing heartfelt letters to friends and family.  “In them she spoke of death, saying she had to die.”

Eva placed her jewelry—valued at $16,000—in a suitcase and left a diary in her room.  One entry read “I am not worthy of the love and kindness of my husband and all of my friends, and I must die.”

She walked out of the Belmont that evening and when she had not returned by Thursday, police started a search of hotels, hospitals and sanitariums.  Weeks later the mystery of her disappearance appeared to have been solved when relatives in Boston sent word to police “to no longer continue a search for Mrs. Werner, as she was found alive and well,” reported The World.

It is possible that the wealthy Boston family simply wanted to put a stop to the uncomfortable publicity.  What is certain, however, is that Eva Werner was by no means alive nor well. 

Eva Werner -- The Evening World, January 17, 1908 (copyright expired)

Five months after her disappearance, the body of Eva Werner was found in the East River by Pier 14.  When the badly decomposed body was brought to the morgue only remnants of a brown dress remained; but the label “Slattery & Co., Boston” was still legible.  It was enough for Eva’s brother to identify her.

The Hotel Belmont rises high above the Murray Hill hotel in 1908.  Park Avenue still boasts lavish mansions.

On July 8 that year 20-year old Nathan Schultz checked into the Hotel Belmont.   His arrival coincided with a rash of spectacular burglaries of the finest hotels in New York—including the Waldorf-Astoria, the Grand, and the Plaza.   The New-York Tribune said the thief had “led the police a merry chase for the last few weeks.”

In the suite on the 14th floor next to Schultz were Mostyn Cookson and his wife who were visiting from England. What the Cooksons did not know was that the man in the suite next door was New York’s most sought-after crook, Nathan Levine.  And what Levine did not know was that Cookson was a Major in the English Army.

Around 2:30 on the morning of July 9 the daring robber climbed out his window and along the three-inch wide stone coping 200 feet above the sidewalk and into the Cookson rooms.   After pocketing $2,000 of Mrs. Cookson’s jewelry, he was discovered by the woman.  He tied her up and threatened to kill her.

“She screamed and aroused her husband, who disregarded Levine’s threats and beat him thoroughly after knocking a revolver from his hand,” reported the New-York Tribune on July 10.  “Major Cookson covered the burglar with the captured revolver until the hotel employes and the police arrived.”

In Levine’s rooms the police found two revolvers, two “dark lanterns,” a dagger, several bottles of knock-out drops, and a box of red pepper.  As the Major and Mrs. Cookson sailed home on the steamship Baltic on the afternoon of July 9, Nathan Levine was being transported to Sing Sing prison to serve a sentence of 10 to 40 years.

Postcards pictured the Dining Room and the immense lobby fireplace.

A bizarre incident occurred the following year when Father Joseph Hirling was hurrying to Grand Central Terminal on April 13, 1909.  Mistaking the Hotel for an annex of the train station, he entered.  He walked to an elevator but it was too crowded, so he walked into the open door of another one.  The elevator was not there.

The priest plunged 60 feet down the shaft where he was found unconscious by hotel staff.  “For a long time his name and how he met his injuries were unknown, but late last night he recovered consciousness and explained,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.   Despite suffering a broken right leg and several bruises, the unfocused priest recovered.

The Hotel Belmont, like all hotels, saw repeated suicides or attempted suicides through the years.  One of the most disturbing was that of 28-year old Jergen E. Muhlensteth.   The man had been butler to Dr. E. D. Kelsey in his home at No. 44 East 29th Street until June 1909 when he resigned “saying that he wished for a better position.”

He volunteered to join the U.S. Army but a month later, following a physical examination, received a rejection letter.  The rejection apparently ate away at the dejected man and six months later he checked into the Hotel Belmont.  Later the Army’s rejection letter was found, torn into many pieces in his room.

Muhlensteth threw himself from his 11th floor window that faced the interior air shaft.  His body crashed through the glass ceiling of the lobby and smashed to the floor among terrified guests.  The coroner arrived within ten minutes, and determined that he had been killed instantly with a fractured skull.

The hotel’s proximity to the train terminal made it a favorite for meetings of groups with far-flung attendees.  Such was the case when Senator Franklin D. Roosevelt called a meeting “to discuss the coming Presidential campaign and the question of the leadership and principles of the Democratic party in the State of New York,” said The Sun on July 14, 1912. 

Roosevelt said in a letter to independent Democrats, “It was the unanimous sentiment that the present methods of leadership in this State are utterly destructive of future party unity and success; that unless the present stupidity, arrogance and selfishness give way to an intelligent regeneration of the Democracy a State ticket capable of being elected will not be nominated and the success of Wilson and Marshall will be placed in jeopardy.”

As is the case today, upscale hotels in the first decades of the last century not only saw society functions, suicides and political events; they were the scenes of scandalous trysts.   In 1913 the suave Frenchman Jean Millon was chief chef at the Ritz-Carlton.   His highly-paid position afforded him the ability to mingle in his off hours among Manhattan’s socially elite.  Such was the case on March 10 that year when he dined at the exclusive Maxim’s restaurant.

Charles Lehman’s wife was there that night and introduced Millon to wealthy friends, Ernest Eidlitz and his wife.   The couple had been married in 1907 and, it appears that the spark that had died in their relationship reignited between the chef and Mrs. Eidlitz.

A few days later a basket of fruits and candies arrived at the Millon residence, a gift to the married woman from Millon.  When she hosted her own birthday party on March 22, Millon was “one of the honored guests,” according to The Evening World.  The attraction grew.  On April 10 Ernest Eidlitz waited until 3:30 in the morning for his wife to return home.

Things escalated when Marion Sterner was in the Hotel Belmont on May 23, a little more than two months after Millon had met Eidlitz’s wife.  She later testified that she “saw Millon and Mrs. Eidlitz at the Hotel Belmont drinking wine and later they registered as ‘J. Beanaux and wife’ and went to room 51.”

Eidlitz put two private detectives on his wife’s trail.  It all came to a dramatic conclusion when the lovebirds were followed into the Hotel Belmont on the afternoon of May 27.  After once again drinking wine downstairs, they registered as “Michaud and wife” and went to a suite of rooms.

Their romantic afternoon was soon shattered when Eidlitz’s lawyer and the two private investigators banged on the door after waiting a short period.  The Evening World reported on July 23 “finally the door was opened by Millon, wearing little clothing.  They went into the bedroom…and found Mrs. Eidlitz in bed.”

Devastated by the humiliating and scandalous press, Eidlitz’s wife fled to Paris rather than appear in court.   Eidlitz sued his wife for divorce on June 2, then sued the French chef for $50,000 (a substantial $1.15 million today) for alienating his wife’s affections.

Staff at the Hotel Belmont were apparently well taken care of.  At the time of Mrs. Eidlitz’s shocking affair the nation was swept with labor upheaval and worker strikes.   Earlier that year, in January, Manhattan’s most exclusive hotels were pummeled by waiter strikes led by the Industrial Workers of the World.

Representatives of the group told reporters that they “would send their well dressed strikers into the hotels, accompanied by equally well gowned women—their wives or daughters.  They figured they would not attract attention and cause disorder by such a method.”  Once inside, they would incite the waiters and kitchen help to walk off the job, leaving wealthy patrons at unattended tables.

On January 11, 1913 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (described by the New-York Tribune as “a slim and pretty young woman, with tired eyes) went to the door of the Hotel Belmont with “two gaily clothed strikers.”  The Tribune said that she “there bade them come out only when they had called a strike among all the waiters and kitchen help there.”

She waited.  And waited.  And finally went back to strike headquarters alone.  Later she found out that not only had the Hotel Belmont staff not participated in the strike; her two associates had been arrested.  “The two men walked into the Palm room of the hotel and then started to call about them the waiters in the room.  They told the waiters who they were and asked that they all ‘get together’ and call a general strike.”   Instead they called police.

Two decades after its doors were opened, they were closed.  On May 3, 1930 it “passed into the ranks of the immortals among the famous hostelries of Manhattan,” said The New York Times the following day.  “The hotel, for twenty-three years a landmark of the Grand Central zone, ended its career quietly and without ceremony.”

The wealthy full-time residents had been told of the closing just a week earlier.  At noon on the last day, they gathered in the main dining room for the last meal served in the grand space.  “It was a solemn luncheon, prepared by Pierre Camin, chef, and served under the direction of Joseph Parkes, the maitre de hotel.”

Within weeks the furniture, chandeliers, carpets, fireplaces and other decorative and utilitarian items of the hotel were sold at auction.   Among the items was “the historic, rather quaint bar,” as described by The New York Times on June 19, 1930.

After 23 years the grand hotel was slated for demolition  Architectural Record December 1906 (copyright expired)

In the days of Art Deco skyscrapers and streamlined, jazz age décor, Edwardian decoration was ill-regarded.  The heavy bar brought a bid of $2.  To up the price, auctioneer James P. Silo placed a “gin bottle, a seltzer bottle and two drinking glasses” on the bar.  The Times said “They stood in full view, where thousands of other bottles and glasses had stood—not so very long ago.”

The move brought a second bid--$27.   Silo brought down the hammer and Irving Finn of the Bronx had purchased the striking relic.  “Mr. Finn said he would present the bar to a friend who owns a home in the country,” said the newspaper.

Rumors were rampant regarding the site.  On August 30, 1930 it was reported that the city’s tallest office building would replace the hotel.  But demolition did not begin until April 1931.  Newspapers repeatedly spoke of the proposed 60-story office building, until July 1931 when The Times ran a headline “Abandon Plan for Skyscraper on Site of Hotel Belmont.”

The hotel would sit vacant and silent for three more years.   The building that replaced it survived until the 1982 Philip Morris Building took its place, designed by Ulrich Franzen & Associates.
photo by John 832
many thanks to reader P. Alsen for suggesting this post

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The 1911 Chemists' Club -- No. 52 E. 41st Street

photo by Historic Districts Council
As the first decade of the 20th century faded, the brownstone homes between Fifth and Madison Avenues had begun falling.  Tall commercial structure replaced the residences as homeowners escaped northward ahead of the tide of business.

In January 1910 architects York & Sawyer filed plans for a building that would be a bit different.  The New-York Tribune explained that the proposed “ten story clubhouse and office building” would be erected “for the Chemists’ Club, of which Dr. Morris Loeb is president, at Nos. 50 and 54 East 41st street.” 

Private men's clubs had evolved from strictly social clubs to include more specific organizations.  There were athletic clubs like the New York Yacht and the Links; political clubs; clubs for alumni of various universities; erudite clubs like the Century or Grolier; and professional clubs for members with occupations ranging from acting to the legal and engineering trades.

The neighborhood was not totally unexpected for a professional club; the United Engineering Societies Building was completed in 1907 at No. 29 West 39th Street three years earlier.  Within a month of the filing of the plans, The New York Times remarked on the rapid development of the 41st Street block. 

“In the centre of the block, on the south side of East Forty-first Street there has recently been finished a six-story office building.  Adjoining it to the west, at Nos. 40, 42, and 44, a twelve-story office building, exclusively for doctors and dentists, is about to be erected, while to the east, at 50 to 54, the new ten-story Chemists’ Club is in process of erection.  Both of these new buildings will cost about $200,000.”  The cost of the new clubhouse would translate to about $4.75 million today.

The Chemists’ Club was, in 1910, just 12 years old; having spun off from the American Chemical Society in 1898.  Its president, Professor of Chemistry Morris Loeb of New York University, was the major force behind the construction of a permanent home for the club.  Born into the wealthy New York banking family, he not only pushed hard for his vision, but financed much of it.

The New-York Tribune reported on what readers could expect.  “It is to be an artistic structure of white marble, in the style of the French Renaissance of the Louis XVI period, finished with Ionic pilasters and balconies at the second story and similar decorative balconies at the top story.” 

The Club would take up the lower five floors, leaving the upper floors for laboratories.  On the main floor was a large auditorium with balcony for lectures and meetings.  Social rooms and a dining room were on the second floor.  The New-York Tribune noted “The fourth and fifth floors will be devoted to living and sleeping rooms for the members, below which will be the library and museum.”

By the time the building opened on March 17, 1911 two stories had been added and the construction cost had risen to $500,000.  The three-day ceremonies began with Morris Loeb handing the key to Dr. Russell W. More, the new club president.  Unlike the ceremonial openings of other buildings and clubs, the remarks that day were less general.  “A special address was delivered by Prof. Jaques Loeb of the Rockefeller Institute on the ‘Physiological Developments and Recent Experiments in the Mechanism of Life,’ which he is now carrying on at the institute,” reported The New York Times.

The newspaper noted “One of the special features of the building is the board room, which has been fashioned to represent a laboratory in the days of alchemy.”  That reproduction space included a “vaulted roof, flag-stoned floor, iron-bound chest, high writing desk—even the fireplace with strange black pots and alembics upon it, and, overhead, just outside the door, a winding stone stairway just like those by which the wizards of the black arts used to steal away from prying eyes to juggle with fire and crucibles, transmute base metals to gold, conjure up devils, and otherwise qualify for execution at the hands of the public hangman.”

Over the conference table where the directors met hung a huge stuffed salamander, “held in high esteem by the alchemists of bygone times,” said The Times.  Actually, it was not a salamander.  One of the members explained to the paper “We couldn’t find a salamander anywhere, though we searched high and low, so we had to get the next best thing—an alligator.”

Morris Loeb received a private laboratory on an upper floor.  This was partly a response to his generous contributions to the building fund.  In 1907, when the clubhouse was first proposed, he donated $50,000.  He later added another $25,000 to the fund.

On Saturday, March 18, a dinner was held for the members and a classical concert on Sunday brought the opening ceremonies to a close.

The New York Times, on March 10, explained the need for the additional floors.  Calling the building “absolutely unique in the world,” the newspaper said additional laboratories had been included to be leased by outside chemists who could not afford their own space.  “There are no less than three laboratories, fitted out with all sorts of apparatus, and open to any chemist who presents proper credentials and satisfies those in charge of the place that he is what he represents himself to be.  As soon as he has done this, he may hire one of the laboratories by the week or month and set to work immediately to conduct any experiments he pleases, even a most secret nature, since nobody will disturb him once he has taken possession.”

The Club itself now engulfed six floors.  “Above are offices occupied by chemists of all descriptions—bacteriological chemists, analytical chemists, chemical engineers, and others with all sorts of impressive titles and letters after their names.”

The Chemical Museum “will rank ahead of anything of its kind in this country,” predicted The Times.  “It is the aim of those interested in it to have on file typical samples of every chemical that may be of interest.”   The club’s library was already nearly unsurpassed in the country, containing chemistry books and periodicals.  Chemists nation-wide shipped donations to the library.

The Chemists’ Club Building would see lectures and meetings on a vast range of scientific topics.  On April 6, 1912 the American Peat Society held a meeting here to discuss the problems of waste lands and peat swamps.  One of the topics of the meeting was the proposal to drain the New Jersey “Drowned Lands” and turning them into farmland.

Morris Loeb had been reelected President of the club that year.  On September 2, 1912 he and his wife hosted a reception in the clubhouse for hundreds of chemists attending the 8th International Congress of Applied Chemistry.  Scientists from as far away as Japan, China and South Africa mingled with American and European chemists. 

That night Professor Loeb no doubt basked in the success of the building he had so long envisioned and worked for.  It would be the last grand function he would attend in the Chemists’ Club.

In 1912 New York and the country at large suffered the terror of a typhoid epidemic.  On September 21 Loeb developed signs of typhoid fever.  After suffering only a little more than a week, complications of pneumonia set in and his condition rapidly declined.  Eighteen days after falling ill, Morris Loeb died on October 8 at his country home in Seabright, New Jersey.

In reporting on his many significant scientific and philanthropic contributions, The New York Times said “Among the monuments to his memory is the fine new home of the Chemists’ Club, at 50 East Forty-first Street, which was built and equipped primarily through his efforts and his generosity.”

In 1913 the Chemists’ Club opened its library—by now considered to be the largest chemical library in the country—to the public.  It was an unselfish and unusual move for a private club.  Although the library was reserved for members only on weekends and Mondays; on all other days non-members could make use of the vast collection.  “In addition a Department of Research has been established which will be open to the public on the payment of fees,” reported The Times on February 27.

The club would also see the presence of the world’s most esteemed scientists; as was the case on September 22, 1915 when Thomas A. Edison was guest of honor at a dinner here.  That year began, as well, discussions on various topics sparked by World War I which would last for years.  On October 8 I. F. Stone, President of the National Aniline and Chemical Company, predicted that at the end of the war benzol would be used instead of gasoline to power automobiles.  The war had necessitated the need for alternate fuels and Stone pointed out that “careful experiments for automobile purposes show that benzol has a motive power about 25 per cent greater than gasoline” and he predicted that the cost would be significantly lower.

A year later, on September 25, 1916, an afternoon session of the American Chemical Society announced that alcohol derived from sawdust—a common industrial waste product—made an efficient and inexpensive fuel for automobiles.  “There is no longer any question of commercial success in the manufacture of alcohol for automobiles,” said chemical engineer Arthur D. Little.  “Experiments have shown that alcohol can be manufactured for sale as low as 25 cents a gallon, and at that price it will undoubtedly be preferable to gasoline.

“Alcohol is cleaner than gasoline for use in internal combustion engines, and it will not explode or easily catch fire, and it will develop practically as much horse power as gasoline.”

It appears that the nation was paid more heed to John Rockefeller than to Arthur D. Little, however.

As the United States joined in what had been a purely European conflict, anti-German tensions at home developed.  On April 1, 1918 the New-York Tribune announced that “’The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry’ to-day will publish an article demanding that alien enemy German members be thrown out of the Chemists’ Club, 50 East Forty-fifth [sic] Street.”

The Club stood behind its members, disregarding what could have been negative public opinion.  A spokesman responded “To my knowledge no enemy aliens are members of the club, but if the writer of that article can prove that there are, the club would feel indebted for such information and would promptly expel any members whose Americanism was not 100 per cent.”

Under pressure--or in an effort to prevent problems--almost a month to the day afterward the club distributed a communication and questionnaire to its members.  The notice announced new rules:

That the German language shall not be used in conversation in the club.
That all disloyal criticism of the United States government of the Allies must be avoided in the club.
That any member, resident or non-resident, whether an American citizen or not, whose sympathies favor the enemies of this country, is requested to resign.

The Chemists’ Club continued to be unafraid of standing up against the mainstream.  On July 1, 1921 the President of the club, Dr. John B. Teeple, and American Chemical Society Director Charles H. Herty, spoke out against the Volstead Act.  Not only did they assert that “vast business enterprises, involving millions in revenue and certain necessaries of modern life, are threatened with disruption by Federal and state legislation restricting the production of alcohol;” but Teeple went so far as to say that the Anti-Saloon League “has been guilty of misrepresentation of facts in attempts to force prohibition legislation.”

The club’s and the society’s efforts, of course, were unsuccessful and Prohibition became law.  Nevertheless when a conference of industrial alcohol manufacturers was held, it convened in the Chemists’ Club auditorium.  The conference included Prohibition enforcers and manufacturers of legal alcohol (such as for medical purposes).  According to Brigadier General Lincoln C. Andrews, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of prohibition enforcement, who had called the meeting, he sought “to win the cooperation rather than to arouse the resentment of legitimate manufacturers of alcohol.” 

The New York Times said “He admitted that the Government’s policy in liquor law enforcement in the past had at times embarrassed them and he desired to avoid this in [the] future.”

Meetings regarding warfare had, during the First World War, centered mostly on fuels and chemical components of ammunition.  When World War II erupted, the topics repeatedly focused on chemical warfare.  For years the devastating effects of the enemies’ use of agents like mustard gas, sneeze and nausea gas were discussed at the Chemists’ Club lectures and meetings.

In the 1970s the Chemists’ Club sold its neo-Classical home.  Renovated as a boutique hotel, it reopened as the Dylan Hotel.  York & Sawyer’s handsome and refined façade remains intact, carefully preserved and restored.

non-credited photos taken by the author