Friday, July 29, 2016

The Sidney Ripley Mansion -- No. 16 East 79th Street

Before Henry H. Cook erected his massive stone mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street, he took steps to assure the exclusivity of the neighborhood.   He purchased bought the entire block from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, 78th to 79th Street; and then slowly and methodically sold off the plots of what became known as “the Cook Block” with the codicil that only high-end, single-family homes could be built on the site.

In 1912 The New York Times would recall “Not only, according to his idea, was the block to be used for private homes forever, but the new houses were all required to be of a certain type of construction, and he would not sell to any one who was not able to or willing to improve his plot in splendid style.”

By the turn of the century Manhattan’s millionaires had reached the Cook Block.  In 1901 Sidney Dillon Ripley, treasurer and director of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, commissioned Warren & Wetmore to design a 35-foot wide mansion at No. 16 East 79th Street.  It was the first step in what would be a very long and possibly frustrating process.

On January 11, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide mentioned that the foundations were under way.   More than two years later on February 13, 1904--at a time when substantial construction projects were often completed within 12 months—the Guide noted that the house was still under construction.   By July the interior trim was being installed; and finally on November 26, 1904 the mansion was completed.

In 1908 when Wurts Bros. shot this photograph, the foundation was being dug for the J. Woodward Haven mansion at No. 18from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Warren & Wetmore had designed a five-story brick-and-limestone urban home reminiscent of 18th century London.  The neo-Georgian design featured a rusticated limestone base and columned portico above a two-step porch.  The red brick of the upper floors formed a canvas for the white stone window enframements and cornices, and bandcourses.  A dignified Georgian balustrade crowned the cornice, upon which perched four massive stone urns.  It slightly disguised the mansard roof with its copper-clad dormers.

Sidney Ripley had married Mary B. Hyde in 1886.  Mary’s brother, James H. Hyde, was the principal shareholder of the Equitable Assurance Society, where Sidney was now a high-level executive.  The Evening World said of the Ripleys in 1905, “[they] are well known in society.  They have given many entertainments and last year’s coming-out ball for their daughter, Anna, at Sherry’s was the largest of the season.”

Mary Hyde Ripley in 1889, three years after her marriage.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

After waiting three years for their new home to be completed, they would not live in it very long.  On the evening of Tuesday, February 21, 1905, just three months after moving in, Ripley noticed a slight pain in his abdomen; but gave it little thought.   But later that night the pain was so intense that the Dr. Joseph A. Blake, was called. 

Blake recognized the problem as appendicitis, but was seriously concerned about his patient’s condition.  He called for Dr. W. T. Bull and they decided an immediate operation was necessary.  The Evening World reported “The physicians were amazed at the rapid advance of the disease, which appeared in a malignant form.”

The long operation in Ripley’s bedroom was completed at around 8:00 the following morning.  Almost immediately the doctors were aware that peritonitis had set in.   Two days later there was little hope.  The New-York Tribune reported that Ripley’s condition was “extremely critical” and that “The crisis is rapidly approaching.”  Sidney Dillon Ripley died in his new home later that afternoon, on February 24, 1905.

Ripley’s standing in New York business and society was evidenced at his funeral at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 27.  Not only was the church filled with powerful businessmen and politicians like Peter Cooper Hewitt, Chauncey M. Depew and Elihu Root; but his pallbearers included Oliver Ames, August Belmont, and H. C. Deming.

Mary Ripley left the 79th Street mansion, never to return.  She leased it that year to Charles and Gustavia A. Senff, whose country home was at White Stone, Long Island.  (The New York Times deemed it “one of the finest residences on Long Island Sound.)  Others would lease the mansion over the next few years—like James W. Lane who took it in 1909—but Gustavia Senff would eventually return for good.

Charles Senff was related to the Havemeyer family—the Sugar Kings.  He was a director of the American Sugar Refining Company and, like his relatives, had amassed a fortune.  He died at the Whitestone estate on August 23, 1911 at the age of 74, leaving his widow an estate valued at approximately $11 million.

At the time Mary Hyde Ripley was considering marriage to Charles R. Scott.  It was most likely this that prompted her to sell No. 16 East 79th Street in January 1912.   The sale caught the attention of real estate operators city-wide.  “The price paid for the Ripley dwelling is said to establish a record for the sale of a private residence of that size on a side street,” noted The New York Times on January 24.  The newspaper added “It contains a number of large rooms admirably designed for entertaining.”

The buyer was recently-widowed Gustavia A. Senff.  She paid Mary a staggering $400,000 for the mansion—about $10 million today.  Gustavia would be moving into an exclusive neighborhood.  Her neighbors would include millionaires Stuyvesant Fish, James B. Duke, Isaac D. Fletcher, and J. Woodward Haven.

Gustavia filled No. 16 with the priceless artworks she and Charles had collected.  The paintings ranged from Old Masters to modern masterworks and the Senff collection was well recognized during their lifetimes.

The mansion was the scene of Gustavia Senff’s upscale entertainments; like her occasional hostings of the exclusive Thursday Evening Club.   No hint of scandal or disrepute could be linked to the address until she left New York in 1921 for an extended trip abroad.

On August 16 that year the New York Herald reported that “Mrs. Charles H. Senff…well known in New York society, has joined the list of Americans who have rented historic English houses during temporary residence abroad.”  The article said she had leased Cobham Hall in Kent for the autumn; followed by Invercauld Castle in Scotland.

Gustavia would not return for a year, and in the meantime would be living among history.  The Herald pointed out, for instance, that “several British sovereigns have lived or been entertained” at Cobham Hall.

While she was gone she leased No. 16 to millionaire and mining engineer Edward M. Breitung.  She had barely boarded her steamship when her tenant was arrested on September 21, 1921 following a raid on a tenement house brothel.   “Mr. Breitung was alleged to have been in the apartment of a Mrs. Kifr, at 840 Madison Avenue, with two women when the place was raided by detectives,” advised the New-York Tribune.

Brietung escaped prosecution.  On November 10 the Tribune reported that his case was discharged after the judge, Moses R. Ryttenberg, decided that “only persons deriving remuneration from the violation” were subject to court action.

When Gustavia A. Senff returned to No. 16 so did respectability.  She stayed on until her death in the house on November 15, 1927.

In April 1929 the mansion was purchased by Lewis Nixon, Jr. and his wife, the former Sally Lewis Wood.   Married in 1891, the couple had an adult son, Stanhope Wood Nixon.  Nixon had retired from the United States Navy the year he married Sally; the same year that he designed three battleships—the Oregon, Indiana and the Massachusetts.  He was now the President of the Nixon Nitration Works.

Sally, who included among her ancesters General Andrew Lewis of Colonial Virginia, was a member of the Colonial Dames of America and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In the fall of 1936 Sally fell ill.  Her condition did not improve and at 10:00 on the night of June 15, 1937 she died in the 79th Street house.

No. 16 continued life as a single-family home until 1956.  That year an interior conversion resulted in doctors’ offices throughout the first four floors, with two apartments on the fifth.  Sadly, at this time the exterior was altered as well.   The elegant portico was removed and the window surrounds drastically reduced, including the loss of their handsome cornices.  Although the lovely Georgian balustrade survived above the cornice, its hefty stone urns were removed.

Among the many doctors who practiced from No. 16 throughout the next decades, none would draw as much attention as Steven Levenkron, a psychotherapist who specialized in eating disorders.  In 1981, began treating pop singer Karen Carpenter who suffered from anorexia.

In 1979 the lower floor of No. 16 was converted to an art gallery, the Saidenberg Gallery, the first in several to be housed in the space.  Today it is home to the Bjorn Ressle Fine Art gallery.

Warren & Wetmore’s once stunning neo-Georgian mansion still hints at its former glory.  And it perhaps makes us wish that landmark laws had been in place a few decades earlier.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 28, 2016

No. 20 Jones Street

In 1794 Dr. Gardiner Jones laid out a short lane in Greenwich Village.  The block-long road took his name, becoming Jones Street.  Half a century later, around 1844, developer George Schott completed a row of stylish Greek Revival rowhouses on the block.

Like its neighbors, No. 20 was faced in brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Three bays wide and three stories high over and English basement, it was intended for a financially-comfortable family.  But this section of Greenwich Village would quickly decline.  By 1857, when William M. and Eleazar B. Brown owned the building, it was already being operated as a boarding house.

Greenwich Village was the center of the black community in the 19th century.  Nearby Minetta Lane was familiarly called Little Africa.   When Jacob Ramsey, Jr. moved into No. 20 Jones Street around 1880 the tenant list was racially-mixed; there were two other white families in the house.  

Ramsey was going through difficult domestic problems at the time.   He took rooms in the house when he and his wife, Vandalia (called Vannie by friends) separated.  Vandalia suspected Ramsey of cheating and sued for divorce in July 1880.  But when she could produce no evidence, the case was thrown out.

Jacob then sued Vandalia for divorce, claiming that it was she who was unfaithful.   But she was intent on proving her case and preserving her reputation.  She hired a private detective who, unfortunately for her, was not an accomplished sleuth.  Ramsey complained that the detective “has been dogging his footsteps night and day,” according to a newspaper.

It culminated in a confrontation in the Jones Street house at 11:30 on the night of Sunday, October 31, 1880.  That night, after the downstairs doorbell was repeatedly rung, a boarder went to the door.  Two women and two men insisted they needed to see Ramsey.  The boarder was reluctant, but “after some urging,” opened the door and pointed the way to Ramsey’s rooms.

In the group was Vannie Ramsey; her sister, Annie Weller; the private detective, Edward R. Scott; and a friend, Frank Sleeper, a pump manufacturer.  They were positive they would find Jacob Ramsey in a compromising situation with a woman.

The four quietly moved to Ramsey’s door and one of the men knocked on it, saying that “a gentleman wished to see him.”  When Jacob cracked the door open a few inches, the group rushed in, knocking him against the bed “violently,” according to The New York Times.

Ramsey was wearing his trousers, shirt and slippers.  Before he could get to his feet he was threatened with physical violence.  “Sleeper was armed with a formidable looking walking-cane, which he brandished over Ramsey’s head,” said The Times.

As the two women searched the rooms, Scott “then struck him with a club and Sleeper hit him in the stomach with a cane,” reported the The Sun.  Ramsey later complained that when he demanded to know by what authority they had burst into the house, Scott shook the billy club in his face and replied that the weapon was his authority.

Ramsey had all four arrested for assault.  At a hearing on November 5 they pleaded not-guilty and a trial date was set.  Justice Smith instructed Sleeper and Scott to “bring when them the weapons with which they were armed when they broke into the room.”  He also advised Jacob Ramsey that “If you are troubled again in this manner, defend yourself.”

Ramsey’s landlord, Willard C. Hunter, lived in the house.  In October 1882 he demolished a similar house across the street, at No. 17, and hired architect C. E. Hadden to replace it with a three-story brick stable.

Although the S-shaped iron shutter dogs, used to prevented exterior shutters from banging in the wind, appear original; they do not appear in early 20th century photographs.

By 1893 all the tenants in No. 20 Jones Street were black.  Most had come to New York from other areas, looking for a better life in the North.  In 1889 Douglas M. Berwick arrived from Jamaica, leaving his wife and three children behind.  Berwick had been an attorney in Kingston before coming to New York.  Now he worked in a jute factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The former lawyer’s hopes never came to pass.  On July 31, 1893 The Sun reported “Douglas M. Berwick, a middle-aged man and a native of Jamaica, was found dead in his bed yesterday morning at his boarding house, 20 Jones street.”  The coroner attributed his dead to a stroke.

There was another death in the house later that year.  Even in the North, most people of color could find jobs only as servants, laborers, or other lowly positions.  Edward S. Taggart was a porter on New York Central trains.  The 28-year old shared a third floor room at No. 20 Jones Street with another porter, named Elliott.

In November Taggart became ill, and his condition worsening to pneumonia.  Around 4:00 on the morning of November 28 Elliott was awakened by the sound of the window being opened.  He looked around just in time to see his roommate jump to his death.  The Evening World remarked “It is thought Taggart was crazed from fever.”

A resident named Taylor was searching for work in May 1902.  He was careful to identify his race in the advertisement he placed in the New-York Tribune.  “Useful Man – By colored Southern man; experience in gardening, coaching or horses; good reference.”

A year later neither Taylor nor his wife was working.  In April 1903 he placed another advertisement: “Gardener—Cook.  Southern couple, colored; man thoroughly understands gardening coaching and care of horses; wife good cook or houseworker.”

Another couple was looking for work that year.  On June 13, 1903 a tenant named Birchard placed an ad; and like Taylor combined his wife’s abilities with his:  “Coachman and Gardener—Colored; wife good cook; private or hotel; reference.”

A year earlier the Greenwich Settlement House had been organized in a renovated house at No. 26 Jones Street.  The Settlement House movement sought to improve the lives of the impoverished by training them in domestic arts and income-producing trades. 

The conditions of the poor on Jones Street exemplified the desperate need.  In 1902 the infant mortality on Jones Street was, according to The New York Times, “125 to 1,000, more than twice what it was in other parts of the city.”

In 1910 Greenwich House purchased Nos. 18 and 20 Jones Street for use as low-income housing.  Indigent tenement dwellers had little opportunity to enjoy the out of doors; and their children’s play and exercise was limited to the dangerous streets.  The rear yards of the Greenwich House properties were renovated to resolve the problem.

The New York Times announced on May 16 “At 18 and 20 Jones Street a basket ball and handball court has been fitted up for boys, while in the yards back of the Settlement, at 26 and 28 Jones Street, a small park is to be opened for the use of mothers and small children.”

A decision was made in 1918 that the houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Jones Street should be rented not to the needy; but to more affluent tenants to increase the funds of the Settlement House.   A renovation costing $7,000 was initiated that provided “steam heat, electricity and plumbing.”   Completed in December, the new apartments were quickly rented and The Sun listed the eight females who had signed separate leases in December. 

The following month The New York Times remarked on the upgrades to the apartments.  Each house previously brought in a total of $70 per month.  “The results are $310 per month for each house and all the apartments were rented on long leases.”

Although a spacious new settlement house was erected on Barrow Street in 1917; the growing work of the organization taxed the space.  The Jones Street properties filled the need for spill-over work like pottery making, metal work and cabinetmaking.   In 1927 No. 20 Jones Street was renovated and in December The Times noted “The new Crafts Building at 20 Jones Street is taking shape; there the handicraft operations will have more room to develop.”

In 1927 the house at No. 16 had been demolished, to be replaced by the Greenwich House Workshops. Two women shop workers in No 22 take a break to get fresh air.   photo New-York Historical Society
 On November 18, 1929 the Settlement House added another feature to No. 20 Jones Street.  It opened a tea room “where luncheon, tea and dinner will be served every weekday.”  The Times explained that “The purpose of the tea room is to provide a workshop for girls in connection with the Domestic Science Department of Greenwich House, and to offer training both in business and the dining routine of the home.”

Through the tea room girls learned nutrition, cooking skills, serving, the handling of money and accounting, and social skills through interacting with the public—all important abilities in making one’s way in life.

By 1941 No. 20 Jones Street had become the Artists and Writers Kitchen.  The venue staged art sales to benefit struggling artists.   In December that year a “Christmas portfolio” sale was held “to raise funds to provide free meals and other aid for indigent artists and writers,” announced The Times.  Among the nationally-recognized artists who donated works were John Sloan, Arthur William Brown, DeHirsch Marguiles, Peggy Bacon and Gordon Grant.

In 1947 architect Henry T. Howard and his wife, Jane, purchase Nos. 18 and 20 from Greenwich House.  They renovated the two buildings to modern apartments, and removed the outdated stoops.   Skylights were punched through the roofs to provide studio lights.  The renovations were completed in 1949 and two years later the Howards sold the buildings as a package to Tyte-Hanfield Co., Inc.

At some point during this time actor Kirk Douglas lived in a top floor apartment, according to his autobiography The Ragman’s Son.  It was apparently a short stay, since his film career had already begun to take off.

Architect Harley Jones purchased the house in 1994 and rebuilt the lost stoop.  He sold it to Jacinta Orlando and her lawyer husband Gus Samios in 1988.  They did a gut renovation in 2004 that resulted in a basement apartment below a single-family triplex.  Their celebrity tenants in the basement apartment was singer-songwriter Steve Earle and his wife, Allison Moorer.

In September 2010 the house was put on the market for $7.9 million.  The listing created an oddity in real estate offerings.  The owner of the house next door, No. 18—which had been for so much of the 20th century handled as a package with No. 20—decided to sell; but only if it were sold together with No. 20.  The combined offering was $16.5 million.

No. 18 (left) still manages without its stoop.
Although the Greek Revival doorway to No. 20 Jones Street was long ago lost, with its restored stoop it retains 1840s appearance.  The brownstone sills and lintels and dentiled fascia board survive after a long and sometimes harried history.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The "Metaphysical University" - No. 51 Bond Street

By 1830, when the marble-trimmed house at No. 51 Bond Street was completed, Bond Street was emerging as perhaps the most enviable address in Manhattan.  Its costly residences, a few entirely faced in marble, were home to some of the city’s wealthiest citizens.

No. 51 was one of a several Bond Street homes built simultaneously by speculative builder Timothy Woodruff.  The three-and-a-half story house sat above an English basement and was faced in Flemish bond red brick.  Handsome molded lintels and pedimented dormers of the Federal Style blended with elements of the emerging Greek Revival Style: the understated cornice and what The Sun later described as “a big marble stoop and fluted marble pillars at the entrance,” similar to surviving examples on Washington Square.

The completed residence became home to Wall Street broker William Osborn in 1831.  He would be the first in a rapid-fire string of occupants.  Osborn moved to No. 45 Bond Street in 1834.  Interestingly, Lieutenant Graham of the United States Navy, the next occupant, left in 1837, and also later moved to No. 45.

In 1844 Dr. Alfred L. Seton lived at No. 51; but it quickly became a high-end boarding house.  According to Valentine’s Manual of Old New-York decades later “Among the lodgers were Charles Wilkens, music teacher, and his sister, Harriett, dancing teacher; and Thomas Pyne, a dealer in hides and furs at 164 Water street, the second door above the famous moss-covered paint store of 'Old Billy Post.'"

No. 51 was once again a single-family home when Robert H. Bowne moved in in 1849.  The Bowne family had been in New York since John Bowne arrived from England in 1649.  Robert H. Bowne was the principal in Bowne & Co., founded in 1775 by Quaker merchant Robert Bowne.  (Robert Bowne was also a founder of the Bank of New York, the Bank of America, and was highly involved in the planning of the Erie Canal.)  Located at No. 149 Pearl Street, Bowne & Co. “stationers and printers” focused mainly on financial printing for banks and insurance companies.

Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was highly involved in the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in 1836.  In 1855 she was a manager of the Asylum, which sent the children at the age of 12 to be “place in the country” as indentured workers.

The  Bownes owned the house until 1860, when the wealthy couple moved to No. 46 West 11th Street.  It was purchased by Martha G. Billsland who had operated an upscale “china, glass and earthenware” shop at No. 701 Broadway in the 1840s and ‘50s.  With the widow in No. 51 Bond Street was her daughter, Elizabeth Billsland.

Martha seems to have retired from business by the time she purchased No. 51.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, was just getting started.  On May 26, 1865 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune that read:

Mrs. M. G. Brown, metaphysical physician, from Philadelphia, discoverer and proprietor of the celebrated “Metaphysical Discovery” for deafness and every disease which flesh is heir to, is now at her office, No. 51 Bond-st., and would be glad to see all who are using her Metaphysical Discovery; also those afflicted in any way.  She positively assures the world that there is no other antidote that will reach the cause of disease.  Her discovery treats the cause, and not the effect.”

Mrs. M. G. Brown was, in fact, Elizabeth Billsland, who was 27 years old at the time.  While she reinvented herself as a spiritual healer with metaphysical understanding and powers, her mother rented rooms for additional income.  In 1866 she advertised “To let, without board, the Second Floor, elegantly furnished, singly or together.”

By 1869 in addition to her Metaphysical Discovery, Elizabeth was manufacturing two other patent medicines “by the barrel” in her basement: the “celebrated” Poor Richard’s Eye Water, and her Scalp Renovator.  The Metaphysical Discovery sold for $3 “per package;” Poor Richard’s Eye Water could be had for 75 or 25 cents, depending on the size; and Scalp Renovator sold for $1 or 50 cents.  The cures were rather costly—the Metaphysical Discovery costing about $53 in today’s dollars.

That year she also wrote a 52-page book, the Metaphysical Pamphlet, under the name of Mrs. M. G. Brown.  She advertised “Let all suffering from deafness, blindness baldness, catarrh, noises in the head, discharges from the ear, consumption, weakness, tightness of the chest, cough, stuffing or accumulation of phlegm or any disease flesh is heir to, to enclose 10 cents to No. 51 Bond street.”  Elizabeth insisted the dime book was “worth hundreds of dollars to the sick and also to inquiring minds.”

Elizabeth Billsland went even a step further that year.  On September 4, 1869 an advertisement in The New York Herald proclaimed “A Happy Day for the Suffering” and announced “Mrs. M. G. Brown, Metaphysical Physician, will receive patients for treatment on and after September 6, at the Metaphysical University, 51 Bond street, New York.”  She promised that her metaphysical treatment “has been tested for eight years, and never failed in a single case.”

As the years passed, Elizabeth expanded her claims for her patent medicines.  In January 1871 an advertisement urged “Test the Wonders of Mrs. M. G. Brown’s Scalp Renovator on the scalp and on the feet.”  And in December 1872 an ad promised “Mrs. M. G. Brown’s Metaphysical Discovery is a sure preventive and cure for Pneumonia.”

It appears Elizabeth Billsland was ever seeking ways to expand her questionable business.  A Special Notice appeared in The New York Herald on November 20, 1873 announcing “A Free Dispensary and Lecture Room for the poor will be opened in the basement of the Metaphysical University…on Mondays and Thursdays, from 10 to 2, beginning October 23.”

Close inspection of the announcement made Elizabeth’s motives clear.   She seemed altruistic at first glance, saying “There are an unlimited number in the city unable through disease to earn their daily bread.  Some, in their distress, become frightened and resort to suicide.  Now a general invitation is given to the poor of all nationalities and creeds to come and get cured, be made strong and well, receive new constitutions and be ready to go forth and earn an independent living.”

But she added “Let the poor who come to the Dispensary bring three bottles with them.”  The bottles, of course, were to be filled with Metaphysical Discovery.  And, signing the ad Mrs. M. G. Brown, she noted “Consultation fee, $5.”  (A charge of about $102 in 2016.)

Elizabeth made good use of the new Lecture Room.  On January 20, three months after its opening, she offered “Free lectures daily this week at Two o’clock” in the “Hall of the University.”  Mrs. M. G. Brown, President of the Metaphysical University would be speaking “on Paralysis and Heart Disease.”

The resourcefulness (and debatable ethics) of Elizabeth Billsland seemed to have no end.  She came up with an ingenious, if rather heartless, plan to distribute her patent medicines later that year.  On November 19, 1874 a want ad appeared in The New York Herald:  “Wanted—Fifty intelligent women who have diseases which they cannot get cured.”

She offered the desperate women free bottles of Metaphysical Discovery, guaranteed to cure them, in exchange for work as traveling saleswomen.   Elizabeth would supply the medicine “gratuitously to those who are suitable to send out as agents into the country towns to make known to the masses the wonder-working power of the Metaphysical Discovery over disease of every kind.  Many such are in the field now doing wonders among the people.”
Martha G. Billsland died at No. 51 Bond Street on July 23, 1881 at the age of 72.  Her funeral was held in the house four days later.  The ample finances of the mother and daughter were evidenced by the notice that “Remains will be taken to Woodlawn by special car.”

Before long Elizabeth reinvented her deceased mother, as well.  A reporter from The Sun wrote a few years later “She is Miss Elizabeth Billsland, but for business purposes she styles herself Mrs. M. G. Brown.  Her mother, she says, was an English woman, to whom great spiritual revelations were made.  These revelations Miss Billsland relates were imparted to her.”

The article went on “One of the revelations is to be accomplished not by putting medicines into the mouth, but by applying them to the scalp, the ears, and the eyes.”

In her pamphlet The Metaphysician, Elizabeth explained:

The hair is a field of grass; the eyes are plants; the sight of the eye is a metaphysical plant, a messenger to the mind.  The tongue is a plant of no ordinary character.  The teeth are shrubs, with roots far down in the earth, which demand moisture—as a necessity—passed into the system through the eyes, ears, and scalp—watering pots devised by God for the use of the people in watering the plants of their bodies.”

Elizabeth’s Metaphysical University drew the attention—and then the obsession—of a 19-year old girl, Julia Cargile, in 1888.  She lived with her mother, Mrs. Agnes L. Rhodes, in the attic room of a lodging house on East Washington Place.  The Sun described her as “rather slight in stature, and modest in dress and demeanor.  She was of the Southern type of beauty, dark eyed, and rich in complexion, but her face wore almost constantly look of worry and sorry.”

Her mother said on June 17, “Lately she had been devoting her mind a good deal to the alleged discoveries of the ‘Metaphysical University’ in Bond street which had, I believe, a powerful effect upon her.”

The Sun reported “Julia was particularly sensitive about their poverty.  Casting about for something to do she heard in some way of the ‘Metaphysical University,’ at 51 Bond street, and being led to believe she could get employment there she wrote even while she was in the South about the matter.  The ‘Metaphysical University’ is a queer shop that has been on Bond street, near Third avenue, for twenty years.  It occupies an old-fashioned dwelling on the south side of the street, a broad brick building of three stories and an attic, with a big marble stoop and fluted marble pillars at the entrance.”

The newspaper remarked “Miss Billsland has just the motherly, sympathetic manner which might attract an untutored young girl in trouble, and it does not appear strange to those who knew Miss Cargile slightly that she should have imagined, in her supposed financial distress, that she could do some work in the ‘Metaphysical University,’ and make some money to meet her needs.”

The girl wrote to Elizabeth in March, explaining that she was “poor” and would be glad to work in return for a room for her mother and her.  Elizabeth declined the offer.  After trying to find work for three months, Julia wrote to Elizabeth with another offer:

If you will pay me $3 a week, I will make it my business to observe persons and hand them a little slip of paper, reading “Poor Richard’s Eye Water, 51 Bond street, might help you.” And to others I think proper I could give another slip written by me, saying “The Metaphysical Discovery, 51 Bond street, would benefit you.”  The latter slips would not be so many in number, but as there are many people here wearing glasses and many with cataracts in their eyes, the little papers relating to their eyes might bring you in a great many customers, so many, in fact, that you might be able to issue the pamphlet soon.  If you wish to employ me in any way, please inform me.  Julia Cargile.

Elizabeth Billsland did not respond initially; but after a few days sent a note saying she could not hire the girl.   Julia and her mother went to bed that Saturday night, and about 4:00 in the morning Mrs. Rhodes was awakened by her daughter’s moving around the room. 

“She saw her take a pitcher and go out as if for water,” reported The Sun the following day.  “Presently she heard footsteps on the stairway to the roof, then she heard a little noise on the roof, and then at once, before she could do anything, she saw a white object fall in front of her window.  She looked out, and on the pavement four stories below was her daughter lying in a heap, motionless.”

The newspaper added “A caller at the ‘university’ yesterday did not tell Miss Billsland that Miss Cargile was dead, but said she had a bad fall.  Miss Billsland said she was sure the scalp water would cure her, and said she would send some to the girl.”

The Sun took the opportunity to paint a detailed description of Elizabeth Billsland.  “The ‘President of the university’ is a weak, voluble little woman of 45 years, more or less, with not an extra ounce of flesh, a big nose, a very black hair, parted scrupulously in the middle, plastered down on each side over her ears, and done up in a severely plain knot behind.  She talks at a rate of 190 words a minute in a subdued voice, and almost every third sentence is a quotation from Holy Writ.”

Elizabeth died in the Bond Street house on November 20, 1903 at the age of 65.  Four decades of selling patent medicines had been good to her.  The following year, on June 22, The New York Times wrote “it is believed that [she] left more than $3,000,000.”  The value of the Bond Street has was estimated to be about $10,000.

Bond Street, once the residential epicenter of Manhattan’s wealth and culture, was how lined with cheap millinery factories and loft buildings.  No. 51 was sold at auction on July 2, 1905 and within a month the buyer leased the “entire building” to The Vienna Window Cleaning Company.

For a few years the former house retained, essentially, its former appearance.  Seiler & Co. shared the building with the window washers.  The firm manufactured “silk and straw pompons.” 

A variety of businesses would call No. 51 home over the next few decades.  By 1910 the Standard Utility Company was here; and in 1912 Morris Palester, “dealer in millinery supplies,” was in the building.  In 1915 The African Feather Novelty Co. manufactured “flower and feathers” here, while Feintuch Bros. constructed hats.  Their millinery shop was down the block at No. 24 Bond Street.

No. 51 was the headquarters of the Window Cleanrs Union in October 1917 when it served notice that its 1,200 members would go on strike “unless they get a substantial wage increase.”  The Sun ran a headline on October 15 “Window Cleaners Revolt.”  The article explained the workers demanded their $18 a week salaries be increased to $24 a week.

Rookie police officer Frank Franzone was on Bond Street at about 10:00 on the night of December 16, 1919 when he noticed a man come out of No. 51 and throw a long sack into the back of a truck.  He waited in the shadows as another man appeared and tossed another sack into the truck.  The Evening World reported “About that time the driver saw him and started his machine, but Franzone held his revolver against the windshield until he stopped.”

The robbers disappeared into the building and hid, soon to be apprehended.  The seven sacks of silk from Max Steinberg’s loft were valued at $8,000.

For several decades No. 51 would continue to be home to millinery and related operations.  The same year that the burglary of Max Steinberg’s shop was thwarted, Susman & Shapiro were manufacturing millinery here.  By 1923 Steinberger Brothers, Inc. was in the building, “converters of artificial silk, twists, and yarns in all sizes.”

At some point the marble stoop and elegant entrance way were removed.  A business front replaced the English basement, a long group of windows was gouged into the parlor floor, and the red brick was painted.  In 2002 a scrap metal processing business was operating from the former basement, where Elizabeth Billsland had her Metaphysical University’s Lecture Room.  The firm used the second floor as storage.

That year the upper floors were converted to joint living-working quarters for artists—just one per floor.  Today the molded lintels of the upper stories and the arched dormers survive, albeit timeworn.   With a little imagination the passerby can imagine a marble-trimmed mansion on an exclusive residential block; and perhaps envision a time when Elizabeth Billsland ran her questionable Metaphysical University here.

photographs by the author