Thursday, March 5, 2015

The 1834 Wm. Cooke House -- No. 141 West 4th Street

Evidence of the raising of the top story to a full floor shows in the mismatched brick and the change in bond.

In 1834, as commission merchant William Cooke erected his Greek Revival home at No. 141 West 4th Street, lavish mansions began ringing nearby Washington Square Park.   While the Cooke home would be less grand, it nevertheless reflected its owner’s financial and social status. 

The orange brick was laid in Flemish bond; a costly carry-over from the high-end Federal style homes of a few years earlier.  Instead of brownstone trim, Cooke opted for white marble.  The stoop, with its interesting wing walls, sheltered the entrance to the English basement; the areaway of which was protected by especially handsome iron railings. Cooke’s house was two full stories tall, topped by an attic level with shorter windows; as typical of the architectural style.   

The handsome ironwork featured sideways palmettes within the bottom panels.

William Cooke married Caroline Pratt, daughter of Anson Pratt and Sally Beebe Pratt.  Six years after moving into the West 4th Street home they had daughter Lucy in 1840.

In 1859 Dr. Shelling, the pastor of the Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church, purchased the two butting lots towards the park.  Three years later the elegant white marble church edifice was completed. 

The Cooke family lived on in their brick home drawing little undue attention over the decades.  That would briefly change--tragically so--in 1887.   Not far away, on Seventh Avenue was the Central Methodist Church, which was similar in appearance to the Washington Square M. E. Church.  Next door to Central Methodist lived 75-year old Henry Lockwood.

Lockwood came from an old and respected New York family.  His grandfather was a Colonel in the revolutionary army.  The New York Times mentioned “At the home of his brother, with whom he had lived, at 25 Seventh-avenue, there is an autograph letter from George Washington to his grandfather.”

Henry Lockwood began his career as a compositor and in 1853 traveled to Boston to learn the new process of electrotyping.  He returned to New York after six months and set up an electrotyping office in the American Bible Society.  Here he produced the first electrotyped copies of the Bible.

On Friday evening, December 30, 1887 the elderly man left his home to visit a friend on East 4th Street near the Bowery.  Coming home in the dark, he apparently became disoriented and mistook the Washington Square Church for the Central Methodist Church; and subsequently the Cooke house for his own.  At around 9:00 Cooke’s next door neighbor, Mrs. Julia Hart, discovered his body “on the marble door steps at 141 West Fourth Street,” as described by the American Printer and Lithographer.  The New York Times opined “He had evidently succumbed to heart failure, consequent upon old age.”

On Thursday, January 22, 1891, the 83-year old widow Caroline Pratt died in the house.  She had lived here just short of six decades.  Her funeral was held in the parlor the following Monday morning.

In the meantime, on December 27, 1865 the Wetmore Home for Fallen and Friendless Girls was opened on Houston Street.   The Home described its purpose as “To provide a home for friendless girls who have fallen, or who are in circumstances that may lead to their fall, from want of employment, from destitution, or from evil associations.”  Three years after Caroline Pratt’s death, her house was acquired by the Wetmore Home.  On April 29, 1894 The Sun wrote “It is called the Annex, and is a refuge for those girls who become mothers.  Girls in trouble often appeal to the Home for help.”

“Girls in trouble,” in 1894 meant pregnant, unwed girls and the stigma they carried was severe.  Here, however, “The mother is made to believe that there is still a chance for her to become a good woman, and that it is her duty to bring her child up to be upright.”  The Annex taught the girls a trade so when a place was found for her to live, she could support herself and her baby.

“The Annex is a cosey little house which has been put in thorough repair and furnished by generous donations,” said the newspaper.  “It has a large sunny nursery for the babies, with dormitory accommodations for ten women.  An experienced nurse is in charge and great pains are taken to teach these ignorant young mothers how to care properly for their children as well as to love them.”

The Annex took care of, on the average, eight mothers at a time.  By the time the article was written, “thirty have been sent to places in the country, most of whom have done well and are supporting themselves and their children.”

The Wetmore Home for Fallen and Friendless Girls continued to help unwed mothers here until 1902 when it sold the house for $13,500 to the Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church for use as its parsonage.  It was most likely at this time that the attic was raised to a full floor, with a modillioned pressed metal cornice, and an up-to-date doorway replaced the original. 

A Colonial Revival doorway was introduced at the turn of the century, including a delicate leaded transom.

The church used the house as its parsonage for nearly a quarter of a century before leasing it in March 1926.  The renter promised to use it “for residence occupancy.”   If he, indeed, use it as a single family home; that situation would change within the decade.

In 1938 40-year old Joshua Nilo was renting here.  An unemployed barber from Pennsylvania, he was hiding from authorities.  Earlier, Republican leader Joseph Bruno had been imprisoned on murder charges “following the 1935 political parade ‘massacre’ of opponents of his organization,” described The New York Times. 

Nilo helped in the convict’s escape from Pottsville Prison, then fled to New York City where he hid out.  His luck ran out on August 26, 1938 when police arrested him “as a fugitive from justice.”

The Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church leased the house in September 1939 “to a tenant for altering and occupancy as a rooming house.”  Boarders in the once-refined home continued to be blue-collar workers, like 32-year old Anthony Denardo who lived here in 1945 and worked on the 40-foot water taxi, the Elkay.

The New York Times explained that the Elkay was “one of a number of small boats used to bring the crews of merchant ships and workmen ashore from anchorages in the bay.”  At 2:00 on the afternoon of July 3, 1945 there was an explosion in the engine compartment of the boat.  “Captain Ballette, who was forward at the wheel when the blast spread gasoline flames through other parts of the boat, was the only one of the fifteen persons aboard who escaped injury,” reported The Times.

The newspaper said “Most of the casualties were burned fighting the fire that followed the explosion, but some of them suffered shock and submersion also, when they jumped overboard to escape the fire.”   Seven of the passengers jumped overboard and were rescued by a Coast Guard patrol and two smaller nearby boats.  The most seriously injured was Anthony Denardo who “was said to have suffered serious burns.”

In 1947 the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, Inc. purchased No. 141 West 4th Street from the church.  After renovations the group announced “On November 1, New York Gamma occupied its house at 141 West 4th Street.  Arrangements had been made for the ‘quartering’ of the ‘advance party’ of eight men who moved in on that very first day.  We’ve collected and purchased a good deal of furniture and are halfway through redecoration.”

The house became a destination for out-of-town alumni.  The May 1950 issue of the Sigma Phil Epsilon Journal noted “The wonderful Sig Ep get-togethers that you remember are back again…interest-packed meetings, fun-filled socials, top guest speakers are waiting for you at New York Gamma House, 141 West 4th Street.”

Since 2006 the Malozzemoss House has operated from the old structure.  Run by AHRC, it provides treatment to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and help for their families.  Only a subtle plaque on the façade hints that it is not a single family house.

Well maintained, there is little change to the Cooke house since its turn of the century facelift.   With its colorful and varied history as the home of a well-to-do merchant family, a home for unwed mothers, a parsonage, and a frat house; it survives as a remarkable survivor of the earliest days of Washington Square development.

photographs taken by the author

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Alfred Zucker's 1892 No. 12 Waverly Place

As the last decade of the 19th century dawned, the once fashionable block of Waverley Place saw the rapid demolition of brick-faced homes and the construction of modern loft buildings.  The garment and millinery districts were encroaching on the area and families like that of Henry Maillard and his wife, who lived at No. 12 Waverley Place, were fleeing northward.

Maillard, called by The New York Times “of chocolate and bonbon fame,” was owner of the candy company Henry, Maillard, Inc. and operated a confectionery store in the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  His sugary delicacies earned him a membership in the Chamber of Commerce as well as a substantial fortune.  In November 1890 he too would leave Waverley Place, selling the old 25-foot wide residence to Samuel and Henry Corn.  In reporting the sale The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “A six-story warehouse will be erected on the lot.”

The Corns were among the most aggressive and active real estate developers in Manhattan at the time; and they often worked with Alfred Zucker in the designing of their modern loft structures.  The German-born architect was prolific, producing office buildings, lofts and department stores in New York City.  Now the developers simultaneously gave Zucker two more projects—an 8-story warehouse at Nos. 36 to 38 East 12th Street; and the 6-story structure at No. 12 Waverley Place.

On December 6, 1890 Zucker’s plans were completed for the “brick, stone and terra cotta warehouse…with all improvements, to cost $45,000,” according to The Record & Guide.   The cost would amount to about $1.2 million today.  If Samuel and Henry Corn originally intended their new building to be a “warehouse,” the plan did not survive long.   Instead Zucker designed a striking Romanesque loft and store of cast iron, brownstone and brick with terra cotta touches.

The wonderfully asymmetrical upper floors sat on a cast iron storefront base.  Zucker kept the visual weight of the structure low by his use of color and size of material.   Two floors of chunky stone above the street level gave way to lighter-colored brick.  Fantastic oversized eyebrows flared like wings above the paired arched openings of the top three floors.

But that would all have to wait until labor problems were solved.   On February 23, 1891 contractor K. N. Smith & Co. was given the general construction contract—covering all masonry, ironwork and carpentry.  Samuel and Henry Corn stipulated in the $32,700 contract that work had to be completed by November 15, 1891.

Arguments between the contractor and the owners and architect worsened when the deadline came and went.  Finally in December the Corns stopped issuing payments.  When the money stopped, so did the construction.  What followed was a standoff described by the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide as “amusing.”  The Corns, no doubt, found it much less so.

K. N. Smith & Co. refused to allow the owners entry into their own building.  “The owners employed a body of Pinkerton men and sought to take the building by force,” said The Guide a year later.    The irate Samuel and Henry Corn, who expected to see their building opened early in 1892, instead were tied up in court for a year and the uncompleted structure sat idle when Smith sued for payment.

On May 8, 1893 the Superior Court decided that the contractor had been guilty of “a great lack of diligence” and dismissed the case.

Finally No. 12 Waverley Place opened in towards the end of 1893 and among its first occupants were Samuel and Henry Corn themselves.  The tenant list showed a large representation from the millinery and garment trade, including Hirschberg & Co., a “headwear” factory.   Hirschberg took advantage of available child labor.  Of Hirschberg’s workforce of 32 males and 27 females, 9 of the women were under 21 years old and two of the boys were under 18 (one less than 14 years old).  An inspection by the State that year documented “hours of labor of minors, 53; hours of Saturday, 8.”

Quirky cast iron coexists with chunky stone, beige brick and ornamental terra cotta.  The asymmetry of the design carries over to the off-balanced ornaments on either side of the dentiled sill.

A firm that would put a young boy to work for 53 hours a week was not likely to look favorably on unionizing.  Not long after moving in, Hirschberg’s crew of capmakers was locked out “for being union men” and non-union men were hired to take their place. 

But in the 1890s overworked laborers were beginning to stand up to autocratic factory owners.  It appears that Hirschberg & Co., now faced with a general walk-out, capitulated.  On July 4, 1894 The Evening World reported that the union capmakers “have resumed work at their own terms, and the non-union men, by whom they had been replaced, were discharged.”

Sixty-five year old fire insurance broker Julius Burrow took an office in the new building.  Born in Germany, he had suffered poor health for a decade.  In 1892 the family moved from Brooklyn to Montclair, New Jersey in hopes that a change of air and scenery would be beneficial.   Possibly because of his health, Burrow suffered business problems shortly after taking the new offices.  On January 9, 1894 The New York Times said rather bluntly, “Recently he met with business reverses, which rendered him temporarily insane.”

Neighbors and colleagues could never have known that the seemingly-wealthy Burrows was in financial trouble.  The Times said “The family are well known in Montclair society, but led a quiet life.”

Despite his bouts of “melancholy,” Burrows appeared in “exceptionally good spirits” on the night of January 8, 1894.  The family was still asleep at 6:00 the next morning when the report of a gunshot broke the silence.  The Sun reported “It was thought at first that burglars were in the house, and one of Mr. Burrow’s sons opened his window and discharged his revolver to arouse the neighbors.”

The family then realized that Julius Burrows was missing and the bathroom door was locked.  Julius Jr. climbed out on top of the bay windows and broke the bathroom window.  There on the floor was his father “stretched out dead upon the floor with a 22-calibre revolver by his side,” said The Evening World.

The New York Times reported “On the floor beside the suicide’s body was found a letter, unsealed, which was taken charge of by one of the sons.  On the envelope was written: ‘Let no stranger see this.’”

If, indeed, Julius Burrow had wanted “no stranger” to see the letter, he was confounded in death.  The Evening World spilled its contents to the world:

I have tried to tide over my business troubles by borrowing money.  I find to-day that I am unable to obtain any from my friends and so there is nothing for me to do but die.”

The building continued to house apparel firms, like Max Driesen who took space in February 1896; and Sidney Beller, “a well-to-do young cloak manufacturer,” as described by The Times.   About a year earlier Beller had married Sophie Manworth, “a very pretty Harlem maid.”  But, according to the newspaper on October 2, 1896, “disagreements arose between them.”

The upset Beller placed advertisements in all the morning newspapers on October 1 notifying all persons “that he would pay no bills hereafter contracted by his wife, Sophie Beller.“  He then marched off to the office of his lawyers, C. R. & C. U. Caruth.

As he discussed his marital problems with his attorney, suddenly Sophie walked in.  The sight of his lovely wife melted Beller’s heart.  The Times reported “Beller saw her, and, walking over to her, whispered: ‘Wife, forgive me; I was wrong.  Let us try again.’  A reconciliation was quickly effected, and last night they had a dinner together in its honor.”

One wonders if Mr. and Mrs. Beller appreciated their marital laundry being aired in the newspapers.

In the building at the same time was S. Brett & Sons, trousers manufacturers.  In July 1897 Lebowitz & Burros announced the establishment of its new firm in Cloaks and Furs.  The fledgling firm promised “we will manufacture the finest Cloaks and Tailor-made Suits.”  Another hat manufacturer, McChesney & Fischer, was another tenant at the time.

In May 1901 the building was offered for sale, advertised as a “bargain” by realtor E. D. Cordts.  Later that year, in December, the ground floor retail space was vacant.  A long-running advertisement offered “a nice large store and basement.”

In the meantime the upper floors continued to house garment firms.  In 1903 Cloaks and Furs reported that Seifert & Rosner, furriers, had moved in.  (Unfortunately, the firm filed for involuntary bankruptcy two years later.)   And in 1904 J. Cypres & Co. “manufacturers of seal caps and gloves” signed a lease.

Abramson & Werblin, another clothing manufacturer, started business on July 15, 1905.  The company was destined for bad luck.  On August 18 the following year they were “burnt out,” as reported by The Sun.  Although the company had $1,800 in insurance, the broker was slow in paying out.   On September 8, 1906 The Sun reported that “as they have not received their insurance money yet they could not meet their bills.  Yesterday a petition in bankruptcy was filed against them.”

Maxim Hat confessed its $2 hat was not the best.  Men's Wear, August 7, 1907 (copyright expired)

The pre-World War I factories here included W. Stomel & Son, makers of “boys’ and juvenile clothing;” the Maxim Hat Works; and the Peruvian Panama Hat Co.  The latter company rode the wave of the popular Panama hat craze and in 1914 enlarged its offices and showrooms by taking the entire lower floor.  “In 1915 we added additional lofts at our premises at 12 Waverly Place in order to give us sufficient room for our manufactured advance orders and shipping department,” boasted an advertisement.  The following year Peruvian Panama Hat Co. bragged “we have surpassed all previous efforts, and have produced the largest and best line of Panamas ever offered to the trade.”

As the garment and millinery district moved north of 34th Street by mid century; a variety of new businesses and offices moved into the building.  In 1963 the former showroom space was converted to a “luncheonette” while the upper floors were still described in Department of Building documents as “factories.”

No. 12 was involved in a murder mystery in 1974.  Aspiring actress Karen Schlegel was 22 years old when she left Cresskill, New Jersey a year earlier.  She took an apartment at No. 9 Minetta Street, just four blocks from the Waverly Place building and landed a job as a program analyst for the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.  The New York Times described her apartment as being “a block from the honkytonk atmosphere of Macdougal Street.”

On Tuesday, August 20, 1974 a pocketbook was found in a trashcan near City Hall.  It was given to police, who then called Karen’s parents.   They had not heard from her since Sunday and unsuccessfully tried to reach her at her apartment.

Later that night Karen Schlegel’s body was found on the roof of No. 12 Waverly Place.  She had been dead for about 24 hours.  “Bruises on the upper parts of the body initially prompted speculation that the victim had been murdered elsewhere and that the body was later dragged to the spot where neighbors found it,” said The Times.  An autopsy gave the cause of death as strangulation.  There was no evidence of sexual assault.

A New Jersey friend blamed New York City for her death.  “She was lovely, tall, blond and slim—she was very quiet and sweet, not a tramp or a girl on drugs.  Girls like that are lambs thrown to the wolves of New York.”

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the former factory building was taken over by New York University as its Center for Geonics and Systems Biology.  Converted to laboratories, conference rooms and offices; it was joined internally with Nos. 14 and 16 Waverly Place.

Not everything in the new Center was tedious science.  On December 15, 2010 the meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective took place in Room 108.  “It will cover the ‘science’ of chocolate chip cookies, including subjects like gluten formation, the behavior of chocolate, and chewy versus crispy,” reported the New York Times on December 7.

The University has tenderly maintained and restored Alfred Zucker’s wonderful 1892 façade.  Its quirky balanced off-balance design with its blend of materials, colors and shapes is a gem on an architecturally fascinating block.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The 1871 Ransom House -- No. 34 East 74th Street

In 1870 construction began on a long row of 11 Italianate stone-fronted rowhouses stretching from No. 30 to No. 50 East 71st Street.  Designed by brothers David and John Jardine, they were the speculative project of developers Winters & Hunt.

Four stories tall, the homes were especially dignified with Doric porticos and carved classic pediments over the tall parlor windows.  The architects introduced an interesting feature of rusticated blocks that framed the entrance, cartwheeling over the arched doorway.

The original stoop railings were, most likely, similar those closer to 5th Avenue -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

Among the row, completed in 1871, was No. 34 which became home to the Lewis E. Ransom family.  Born in Newark, New York, he had come to New York City two years earlier and founded the L. E. Ransom Company, importers of dyestuffs. 

The wealthy merchant and his wife, Phebe, had a son, Lewis Buckley Ransom, who was attending New York City College in 1878; and a daughter Angie.  The family maintained a summer estate in Hempstead, Long Island.  In 1877 he would diversify; going into banking by helping found the Chase National Bank with John Thompson and becoming its Vice President.

Conflicts among the bank's board members ended badly for Ransom.  On November 1, 1886 The New York Times announced that at a meeting of the Board of Directors of the bank the day before, both President John Thompson and Lewis E. Ransom resigned their positions.  Ransom did not give up on banking, however.  He became president of the National Bank of Deposit with offices in the Western Union Building. 

Things went smoothly for the bank until the collapse of the economy in 1893.  Early that year the public recognized the shaky financial footing of the country and rushed to the banks to withdraw their money.  Bank runs crippled the economy, resulting in the Financial Panic of 1893—the worst economic depression in the country’s history to date.  Stock prices plummeted, farms were abandoned, more than 15,000 businesses went bankrupt and 500 banks failed.  Among them would be Ransom’s bank.

The Sun gave a biting view of Ransom on May 24 that year  It reported that the National Bank of Deposit “did not open its doors yesterday…President Lewis E. Ransom, after a good night’s sleep, was on hand, as placid and comfortable as you please.  He said he would quit banking and go back to the drug business.

“The depositors were not nearly so serene,” continued the newspaper.  “They banged on the closed doors and wanted to know about things…President Ransom and his subordinate officers comforted them greatly by the announcement that, come what may, they would be paid in full.  A plan to bring about that happy result was immediately put in operation.”

The New-York Tribune, on the same day, was less judgmental towards Ransom.  “There was a steady stream of visiting depositors at the bank yesterday anxious to obtain some idea of the situation.  Some of them were greatly excited, but Mr. Ransom and Mr. Kimball took turns in quieting their apprehensions by statements that the depositors would be paid in full.”

The handsome double doors sit within an unusual rusticated arch.

Following the failure of his bank, Lewis E. Ransom, as he promised, devoted his attentions to the dye industry and gave up banking.  His wife soon fell into a serious illness from which she would not recover.

On Monday, April 26, 1897 Phebe Ransom died in the house.  The following day an anonymous letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune appeared, written in florid Victorian prose.  It said she “was well known to a large circle of friends, who loved her for her simple, childlike, Christian character.  She was kindhearted, gentle of speech, full of the sweet sympathy that comes of abounding charity.  The home where her footsteps were tenderly watched through a long and painful illness, the community which held her always in the highest honor, are alike bereaved by her death.”

Sadness turned to joy nine months later when Angie married Dr. Theron Wendell Kilmer.  Described by the New-York Tribune as “a pretty New-Year wedding,” it was held in St. Bartholomew’s Church at 8:00 on the evening of January 5, 1898.  The newspaper said that Angie “is very well known in New-York social circles.”  Despite the couple’s highly visible places in society, the ceremony was understandably low-key.

“Although it is to be an extremely pretty wedding, it will be of necessity a quiet one owing to the death last spring of the bride’s mother,” explained the New-York Tribune on December 12, 1897.

Three months after Angie’s wedding, another society wedding took place when William S. Gould married Ethel Sanders.  Following their honeymoon, they moved into No. 176 Lenox Avenue.  Before many years the Goulds would be living in the Ransom house.

Despite the outward appearances of financial stability, Lewis Ransom lost his home to foreclosure in 1899.  The New York Times reported on April 19 that there was an outstanding debt of $12,273 on the property.  P. F. Hassey purchased it at auction for $30,150—in the neighborhood of $820,000 today.  It quickly became the home of William and Ethel Gould.

Trouble came to No. 34 East 74th Street when the Goulds hired a new butler, Masahorn Inagaki.  The man was engaged to an American girl who lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey and on February 6, 1903 he disappeared.  And so did the $86 worth of Gould silverware.

The New-York Tribune was, at least by today’s views, more than a bit racist in its reporting.  “A detective traced the Jap to Ridgewood, to the young woman’s house.  He was arrested on his return here.  He had a pawn ticket for the missing articles, the detective declared.” 

Not long after the arrest of the thieving butler, the Goulds purchased a home one block away at No. 47 East 75th Street.  On April 3, 1903 the Evening Post Record of Real Estate Sales reported that William S. Gould had sold No. 34 to Mary Louise Sullivan.

Mary was the daughter of the deceased Pensacola railroad and lumber tycoon David F. Sullivan.  Upon his death in 1833 he left an estate of $1.5 million.  Now Mary would share the 74th Street house with her mother, Emily; her sister Kathleen, and brother-in-law, Malcolm C Anderson.  Anderson was a director in the New York City and Westchester Railway Co.

The Anderson’s summer home was in Westerly, Rhode Island.  It was in their cottage there, on September 20, 1919 that Emily Sullivan died.  Devoutly Roman Catholic, among the special bequests in her will was $2,000 to the Sisters of St. Mary of Sewance, Tennessee.

Mary Louise Sullivan would live on in the 74th Street house at least through the 1920s.  Her varied interested included a membership in the Audubon Society and the Association for the Aid of Crippled Children.  Annually she donated $10 to the Prison Association of New York in her mother’s memory. 

By now the string of houses erected by Winters & Hunt in 1871 had drastically changed.  Edwardian homeowners had either razed and replaced the dated Victorians, or updated them to modern fashionable residences.  But No. 34 remained unchanged—a stubborn dowager among a row of debutantes.

And while other homes would be divided into apartments, it remained a single family home to a succession of well-to-do owners.  In the 1940s it was home to the family of Peter Vischer, editor of Polo magazine.  Later, millionaire newspaper executive Harry F. Guggenheim, president and editor-in-chief of Newsday, moved in. 

Guggenheim was as well known for aviation as for publishing.  He sponsored Robert H. Goddard’s research of space flight and liquid-fuel rocketry and established the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics at New York University in 1925.  In 1929 he served on the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics; a position he retained until 1938.

On the night of May 4, 1969 Guggenheim was away from the house.  For several weeks detectives had been following two suspicious men who seemed to be casing the upscale houses of the neighborhood.  Around 4 a.m. the men slipped into the Guggenheim house using a simple burglary tool.

“Minutes later, “ reported The New York Times the following day, “the two men emerged with a bulging, brightly striped Arnold Constable shopping bag and hailed a cab”  In the bag was $3,000 in cash, and an estimated $10,000 in art, family heirlooms and a ball point pen inscribed “Best Wishes…Lyndon Johnson.”

As the crooks, 39-year old Robert Goller and 51-year old Alphonese Cinque, were about to stash the bag in a Grand Central Terminal locker, the detectives descended and arrested them.  Ironically, in 1937 Harry F. Guggenheim had been President of the Citizens Committee on the Control of Crime in New York.

Barely two years later, on January 22, 1971, the remarkable millionaire died at the age of 80.  The residence continued to house interesting owners—such as former Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, James Shinn and his wife who purchased it in 2007. 

The Shinns, who did some interior renovations, put the house on the market in 2010 for around $16 million. 

Today the Ransom house looks much as it did over 140 years ago.  The stoop railings and fencing have been lost and double-hung windows replace the original panes.  But the proud Victorian is the last intact survivor of the row built when this block of the Upper East Side was first developed.

photographs taken by the author

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Lost McCreery Mansion -- No. 930 5th Avenue

A carriage passes the mansion on the still-unpaved 5th Avenue around the turn of the last century as a coach approaches from the north.  In the background is the Temple Beth El at 76th Street  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1883 the New-York Life Insurance Company issued a $36,600 mortgage on the property at No. 1 East 74th Street.  Construction started on a residence in what would quickly become Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhood.  But the builder’s dreams were larger than his bank account and before the house was completed, the firm foreclosed.

The New York Times reported that “the structure, a small affair 40 feet by 27, passed into the hands of the company.  Another $10,000 was expended in the completion of the building, making the total cost to the company $46,600.”  The amount that New-York Life Insurance had spent building the house would equate to about $1.2 million today.

Later, in an article complaining about the mismanagement of New-York Life Insurance, the newspaper grumbled “It proved to be another white elephant on the company’s hands.  Years passed without renting it, and it was finally sold for $28,000.”

The buyer of the bargain house was wealthy dry goods merchant James McCreery.  He apparently had no intention of living in a “small structure” and set to work replacing the never-lived-in home with a more impressive mansion.  McCreery acquired the adjoining 60-foot plot on East 74th Street, demolished the existing house, and began construction on his new home.

As McCreery’s mansion rose, work was underway on another being built for banker J. H. Schiff, abutting the house to the north.  The McCreery residence would face 74th Street, taking advantage of the 100-foot plot rather than the 27-foot Fifth Avenue exposure.   The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that these homes, along with “the new houses that are in construction, make this neighborhood on the avenue a remarkably handsome one.”

By January 29, 1887 the wide and somewhat skinny mansion was nearly completed.  The Record and Guide said “On the northeast corner of Fifth avenue and Seventy-fourth street, opposite Mr. Pickhardt’s home on the cross street, is a handsome three-story and attic brick house with brown stone trimmings, nearly finished, belonging to James McCreery, the dry-goods merchant.  There is a peaked tower on the street side, and the design has a good deal of the original and striking character that suits the fashions of the day, while it is perfectly restrained within the limits of good taste.”

The McCreery family would not stay long in the new home.   By 1891 it appears they were leasing it to the Keyes family; and on September 12 that year, just four years after the mansion was completed, James McCreery sold the house to Dr. Edward Loughborough Keyes for $170,000.  The title to the property, as was common at the time, was put in Sarah I. Keyes’s name.  While the McCreerys had been content with using the address of No. 1 East 74th Street; Sarah would slowly change over to the more impressive No. 930 Fifth Avenue address. 

Dr. Keyes was a highly regarded urologist and surgeon.  He served as President of the American Association of Genito-Urinary Surgeons and routinely published papers in medical journals.  Immediately after taking ownership of the 74th Street mansion, his father, who had distinguished himself in the Civil War, arrived for an extended visit.

The Epoch, in August 1891, noted “Mrs. Edward L. Keyes of 1 East Seventy-fourth street, has cards out for Monday afternoons in January.  A special feature of these receptions will be the presence of Major Gen. Keyes, her father-in-law, who is spending the Winter with his son, Dr. Keyes.  The gallant soldier represents the best type of courtier and is as admired and sought after in the drawing-room as he was dreaded and feared on the battle-field.”

While her husband combated and studied urinary diseases, Sarah Keyes entertained.  Society pages routinely mentioned her musicales and afternoon receptions.  The location of the mansion and the doctor’s wealth and status resulted in the Keyes rubbing shoulders with Manhattan’s social aristocracy.

Among them was William K. Vanderbilt.  On August 25, 1893 he sailed into New York Harbor with his Glasgow-built yacht, the Valiant, described as “the largest and handsomest steam yacht in the world.”  The New York Times, the following day, said “The simple-minded Staten Islanders gazed at her in amazement, wondering at her being a steam yacht.  She looked more like an ocean steamship, and no small one at that.”

Sarah Keyes may have been a bit jealous of her husband when three months later Vanderbilt invited him on a 10-month cruise on the Valiant.  On November 23, 1893 the all-male party, with the exception of Mrs. Vanderbilt, boarded the yacht.  Included in the small, elite group with Dr. Keyes was Oliver H. P. Belmont, J. Louis Webb, Winthrop Rutherford, and F. O. Beach.  The party was heavily outnumbered by the crew, which numbered 62.

The nearly year-long trip was to take the wealthy passengers to Gibraltar, Alexandria, up the Nile, then to India, and Ceylon.  “It is thought that the Valiant will return to the South of France in time for the Spring season there,” reported The Times.

Dr. Keyes and the other guests could anticipate a luxurious ten months at sea.  The day after the vessel left Manhattan The New York Times noted “The interior decorations are very elaborate, and the staterooms and saloons are fitted up with luxurious taste.  The yacht is lighted by electricity throughout, is heated by steam, and can be cooled by iced air, there being an ice-manufacturing outfit on board.”

But no matter how luxurious the surroundings, and how close the friendly relationships were; it appears that living for too long in relatively cramped quarters may have taken a toll.  Or, as at least one newspaper hinted, it was a young American woman, Nellie Neustretter, “who is said to be the cause of the family troubles of William K. Vanderbilt.”

In either case, just four months into the trip, in March, it “was curtailed by the breaking up of the Vanderbilt party at Nice,” reported The Evening World.  Marooned in France, the millionaire guests were left to their own devices in finding their way back to New York.   The first to arrive home was Dr. Edward L. Keyes.

Reporters descended upon him on April 14, but he was diplomatically coy.  “Not a thing occurred from the first day to the last to mar our serenity and pleasure.  The party broke up at Nice just a month ago, and I think all can say that the cruise could have had no feature added to make it more enjoyable.”

The matter was not so quickly put to rest, however.  On August 29 a reporter from The Evening World went to Keyes’s office.  By now the doctor’s patience had grown thin.

“Well, well, what is it?  Talk quick.  Something about that Vanderbilt matter, I suppose.  What is it?” he snapped.

The reporter asked if he were correctly quoted regarding his initial statement that nothing occurred on the Valiant to mar the guests’ pleasure.

“Anything that I said about that trip is correct,” he answered.

Then the reporter pressed further, saying “But will you kindly tell me if you were correctly quoted in that interview,” Dr. Keyes exploded, firing a profanity at the reporter that shocked the female patients in the waiting room.

The Evening World quoted him. “’None of your----business!’ shouted the doctor, in a voice which could be heard all over the house.  He would say nothing more about the Vanderbilts.”

In the meantime, Edward L. Keyes, Jr. had graduated from Georgetown University in 1892 and in 1895 received his medical degree from Columbia University.  A urologist like his father, he would eventually be as well-known and influential.   On November 17, 1898 he married Emma Willard Schudder in a fashionable St. Patrick’s Cathedral wedding.

Edward and Sarah Keyes would remain in the Fifth Avenue mansion for another eight years.  In November 1906 Keyes purchased the four-story mansion a block away at No. 28 East 75th Street.  He hired architect C. W. Romeyn to do “extensive alterations.”  In January 1907 he sold No. 930 Fifth Avenue to Simeon Brooks Chapin and his wife, the former Elizabeth Mattocks.

Chapin was a successful stock broker and real estate investor.   He had formed the trading house S. B. Chapin and Co. in 1901 in Chicago and the year before purchasing the Keyes mansion he moved its operations to New York City.  Simeon and Elizabeth had four children, Marietta, Elizabeth, Simeon Jr., and Virginia.

Like Sarah Keyes, Elizabeth busied herself with entertainments.  In March 1911 she hosted an afternoon recital by George Barrere, for instance; and on February 29, 1914 she “opened her house, 930 Fifth Avenue, yesterday for the afternoon meeting of the Thursday Musical Club,” as reported in The Times.

In December 1915 Marietta’s engagement to Harold Hartshome was announced.  The wedding took place on Wednesday afternoon, February 28, 1916, in the socially important Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas on Fifth Avenue.

While other Fifth Avenue millionaires spent their summers in Bar Harbor, Newport and other East Coast resorts, the Chapins held on to their Midwestern roots.  Their country estate, Black Point, was located in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The Chapins's conservative, Protestant beliefs were in evidence when they sent out more than 800 invitations for an address by evangelist Billy Sunday in May 1917.   The ballroom of the Plaza Hotel was reserved for the event where the preacher discussed “changing fashions in woman’s garb, craze for money, and ambition to hold public office.”

By the end of World War I the Schiff mansion next door had been altered and enlarged, overpowering No. 930 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
At the time, socialites turned their attention to war relief.  Elizabeth Chapin kept up the work even after the conflict had ended.  With France devastated, she and her daughter Virginia, worked to help rebuild; and they turned to an unlikely source.  On January 27, 1922 The New York Times reported that “A children’s auxiliary of the New York Branch of the American McAll Association was organized yesterday at the home of Mrs. Simeon B. Chapin, 930 Fifth Avenue.  With her youngest daughter, Miss Virginia Chapin, as hostess, there were seventy-five little girls and boys from the leading private schools of the city in attendance.”  The children voted to “undertake the support of a number of war orphans in France.”

Elizabeth kept up the work providing aid to France at least into 1924, when she entertained workers for the “Fresh Air work in France.”

In December that year a 36-inch water main burst at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 75th Street.  The resulting flood poured into the basements of some of Manhattan’s grandest mansions.  “Valuable antiques, tapestries, rugs and furniture worth thousands of dollars were ruined by the flow of water into the entrance halls and basements of homes in the section,” reported The Times.

As well as the Chapin house, the newspaper numbered among the mansions affected those of Mortimer Schiff, Edwin Gould, Edward Harkness, Clarence H. Mackay and John Wanamaker among many others.  “Nearly a foot of water poured into the basement of the Simeon Brooks Chapin home, 930 Fifth Avenue, causing considerable damage,” reported the newspaper.

In 1926 the Chapin children were growing up and leaving the mansion.  Virginia was among the debutantes that season and in August the engagement of Simeon Jr. to Elisa M. Bartholomay was announced.  Within two years Chapin conceived of  better use for the valuable property and the out-of-style house.

When this photograph was taken in 1929 one large apartment house had already been constructed to the north on the site of Temple Beth El.  The Chapin house and the two abutting mansions on 5th Avenue were on borrowed time.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.
On March 9, 1928 The New York Times announced that he had bought Robertson Trowbridge’s house next door at No. 3 East 74th Street.  “He intends to improve the plot with an apartment house from plans by Electus D. Litchfield, architect.” 

The modern co-op building would contain duplex apartments of “sixteen rooms and eights,” one of which Chapin had reserved for himself and Elizabeth.  But it was most likely the Great Depression that stalled Chapin’s plans.  The house survived until 1940 when it, along with the Schiff and Rentschler mansions, was replaced by Emery Roth’s 19-story apartment building.