Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Churchyard Cross (Astor Cross) -- Trinity Churchyard






On September 23 1853 William Backhouse Astor, Jr. married the socially-ambitious Caroline Webster Schermerhorn (known by her closest friends as Lina) in Trinity Church.  The couple would have five children—the youngest, John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV being born in 1864.

Although Caroline spent the first years of her married life focused on her children; she gradually became increasingly involved in society.  Eventually she reigned as the undisputed empress of New York society.  Uncowed by his wife’s imperious personality (she was embarrassed by his middle name Backhouse, for instance, and insisted he use only the initial); William eventually avoided confrontation.  Initially he would while hours away at his social clubs during Caroline’s entertainments; but eventually spent most of the summer season, when the Astors were in their Newport cottage Beechwood, on his yacht the Ambassadress and the winter season in Jacksonville, Florida.

Caroline Astor dressed for a fancy ball in 1875.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In stark contrast to her public reputation; Caroline Astor was a doting mother and grandmother.   Two years after William Astor died in 1892, she and her son, John Jacob Astor, began construction on a massive double mansion on Fifth Avenue at 65th Street.   

As the new century dawned, the aging Caroline Astor’s health began failing, then worsened.   The Evening World mentioned in October 1908, “For more than a year she has received nobody but her physician and her daughter, Mrs. Wilson.  The only sign of life about her house since April last came from the windows of her room.”

“Mrs. Wilson” was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the Astors’ fourth daughter, named, obviously, after her mother.   Known as Carrie, she had married the wealthy Marshall Orme Wilson in 1884.  Following her mother’s move to Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, the Wilsons erected a lavish limestone mansion a block away at on 64th Street in 1903.  When word arrived on October 30, 1908 that Caroline Astor was failing, Carrie rushed from her home to her mother’s bedside.  At 7:30 that night the larger-than-life socialite died at the age of 78.  Carrie was the only member of the Astor family at her side.

Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor was buried in Trinity's Cemetery in upper Manhattan.  Like other Astors, she had been a communicant of the church despite the uptown migration of society.   Within four years her devoted daughter embarked on plans to further memorialize her.

In 1911 Trinity Church had commissioned architect Thomas Nash to design an addition to the church--the All Saints’ Chapel.  It was no sooner completed in 1913 than Nash was working on another Trinity project—a “churchyard cross” commissioned by Carrie Astor Wilson as a monument to her mother.

Thomas Nash's model was exhibited in April 1913.  American Stone Trade, August 5, 1913 (copyright expired)
On August 5, 1913 American Stone Trade reported “Trinity Churchyard, lower Broadway, New York City, will shortly have a unique example of modern sculpture in the form of a churchyard cross to be erected by Mrs. M. Orme Wilson in memory of her mother, Mrs. William Astor.”  The trade journal described the 36-foot tall memorial saying “The design in its general lines follows the idea of the many crosses to be found in England and on the Continent and the great shaft with its superb carving crowned by the figure of Our Lord reigning from His Cross will be most impressive as seen across the churchyard among the trees.”

When Trinity’s rector, the Rev. Dr. William T. Manning saw the completed model in April that year, he advised reporters “It is said that the cross…compares favorably with the finest works of similar art in the older land.  The design embodies the idea of the genealogy of our Lord as given by St. Luke.  In the twelve niches in the shaft are the figures of our Lord’s human ancestors.”

In fact, Nash’s design, with the exception of the crowning crucifix, somewhat surprisingly nearly ignored the New Testament.  Beginning with Adam and Eve, the figures included Seth, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Ruth, Jess, and David.  Only the Virgin Mary represented the Bible from Christ’s time.

Figures like Adam and Eve (top) and Noah depict Old Testament stories.

While the idea of sculpting the memorial in white marble was considered; the decision was to use Indiana limestone.  The choice of the more durable stone was fortunate, resulting in the carvings remaining crisp decades later.   Thomas Nash was an architect, not a sculptor, and his model was sent to James Gillies & Sons in Long Island City for execution.  Here a team of artists worked on the monolith for about a year.

The monument dominates the 18th century tombstones around it.
The memorial cross was dedicated just before noon on May 30, 1914 with what The Sun called “impressive services.”   Rev. Manning made note of the Old Testament motif in his remarks.  “This beautiful structure as a whole will speak of the close relation between the Jewish and Christian religions.  It will remind us that we all worship the God of Abraham,” he said.

The Cross at the time of its dedication -- Stone magazine, June 1914 (copyright expired)

Manning said that the erection of the medieval-type cross in Lower Manhattan was significant.  “It is most appropriate that this striking symbol of the Christian religions should be lifted up…in the midst of the eager crowds and the great business interests in the lower part of the city.  It will give its message every hour in the day to the hundreds of people who enter the churchyard and to the throngs who pass by on the street.”

Stone magazine commented “This cross serves to emphasize the fact that this country is sadly lacking in beautiful and artistic memorials of the kind…Memorials like the Astor cross, scattered through the various churchyards of the land, would do much for the cultivation of public taste…Trinity Church is pointing the way.”

Within the year the Churchyard Cross, which was already assuming the popular name the Astor Cross, became one of the first monuments in Manhattan to be lit at night.  Popular Mechanics pointed out years later in April 1929 that “four floodlights focus their beams on the cross.”

A 1915 postcard depicted the lit memorial at night.
As Dr. Manning predicted, the Astor Cross drew downtown workers.  On November 15, 1943 Life magazine published a photograph of suit-wearing Wall Street types sitting on the base of the Cross during lunchtime.

But the memorial was not merely a convenient place to take lunch.  When the Rev. Dr. John Heuss was formally installed as the 13th rector of Trinity on June 3, 1952, two processions converged at the Churchyard Cross before entering the church.  And when Rev. Heuss celebrated Rogation Sunday on May 6, 1956, he led a procession out of the church to the Churchyard Cross where he recited prayers and the choir sang.


The Astor Cross remains the focal point of the northern churchyard.  Thousands of tourists photograph it every year and Wall Street brokers still sit on its base at noon.  Few, however, realize its purpose—a monument to a queen of Manhattan society and an adoring mother.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Clausen & Hoffmeyer Foundry -- Nos. 508-510 East 74th Street



Hans Christian Clausen was already 33 years old when he arrived in American from Bremen, Germany.  After finding work for a time as a machinist, he partnered with Anton W. Hoffmeyer in 1888 to form Clausen & Hoffmeyer Iron Works.

Iron was by now a major element in modern construction and ornamentation.  Important foundries like Daniel D. Badger’s Architectural Iron Works produced entire building facades; while Jackson Architectural Iron Works produced a host of functional products—coal grates, ornamental masonry supports, lampposts, and lawn furniture among them.

While early advertisements for Clausen & Hoffmeyer hawked “wrought iron;” the firm quickly included cast iron as well.  By the 1890s it was producing ornamental pieces like stoop railings and fencing; as well as more mundane cast iron products like manhole covers.

By 1898 the foundry at 242 East 49th Street was apparently no longer adequate.  Clausen & Hoffmeyer commissioned architect C. E. Miller to design what the New York Times reported on February 20 would be a “two-story brick factory” at Nos. 508-510 East 74th Street.  Miller projected the cost of construction at $8,000—about $236,000 in 2016.

Largely forgotten today, C. E. Miller was responsible for various residences and “cottages,” and had recently designed the handsome St. Thomas Chapel on East 60th Street.   For Clausen & Hoffmeyer’s foundry, he turned to the currently-popular Romanesque Revival style.   The two large arched openings on the ground floor enabled the easy removal of large architectural pieces like cast iron staircases.  Delicate brick eyebrows and serrated brick bandcourses, rather than the more costly terra cotta or stone trimmings, provided the architectural interest.  Clausen & Hoffmeyer added their own touches with the decorative masonry supports and the no-nonsense iron balconies fronting each of the second floor paired openings.  Instead of a cornice, Miller opted for a series of stepped parapets.

The third floor, set back from the parapet, was added in 1996.
According to a State Factory Inspection report in 1900, Clausen & Hoffmeyer employed 20 men who worked an average of 53 hours each week.   The firm was obviously doing well, for four years later Anton W. Hoffmeyer decided to retire at the early age of 47.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the firm was dissolved “by mutual consent on Oct. 31, 1904.”  The journal assured its readers that “Mr. Hans C. Clausen…will continue the business.”

Hans Clausen changed the name of the firm following Hoffmeyer's retirement.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, December 18, 1909 (copyright expired)

Among the foundry workers here in 1906 was Nathan Richmond who, according to The Sun, “had the reputation of being a practical joker.”  But practical jokes in a foundry setting could be dangerous as Richmond found out a few days before Christmas that year.

On Friday, December 21, Richmond decided to play a joke on Ignatz Polak by putting iron dust in his coffee.  Polak did not find the prank funny and struck Richmond in the side with a heavy forge hammer.  Two days later The Sun reported “At first it was not supposed that his injury was serious, but yesterday it was declared at the hospital that he was likely to die.”

While Nathan Richmond lay in the Presbyterian Hospital, Ignatz Polak was held by police “to await the results of the man’s injuries.” 

In 1916 Clausen Iron Works left its foundry, moving a block west to No. 433 East 74th Street.   Nos. 508-510 was purchased by The Standard Iron Works, Inc.   The firm moved in on April 16, 1917, Domestic Engineering explaining “The company’s rapidly growing business has compelled them to increase their facilities.”

That “rapidly growing business” did not support the new location for long.  By 1919 the former foundry was home to the furniture factory of M. Schlesinger, Inc.

Good Furniture, August 1919 (copyright expired)
The factory building would continue to see various uses as the decades passed.  In the 1930s it was a foundry again, home to the Renaissance Metal Works, Inc, “manufacturers of bronze products.”  But in 1942 it was Lakes Laundry, Inc., described by the Department of Buildings as a “wet wash laundry.”

In 1971 the former foundry was converted to the photo studios and offices of Jenkins-Covington Studios.  Here advertising photo shoots were staged, like the series of television ads for Mennen Company’s toiletries in 1978.

After the building became home to a day care center it received a third floor and "penthouse" in 1996.  The addition, set back from the roofline, sympathetically matched the brick color, and echoed the arched openings and stepped parapet of the original design.   The Epiphany Community Nursery School remains in the former foundry building today--a commendable example of the repurposing of a vintage structure.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Edward Brandus House -- No. 16 West 88th Street



In 1897 construction was completed on a row of eight Renaissance Revival rowhouses on West 88th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, stretching from No. 14 to 24.  Begun the previous year, they were designed by Gilbert A. Schellenger for the development firm George C. Edgar’s Sons. 

Nos. 14 and 16 stood apart from their brownstone-fronted, high stooped neighbors.  The matching American basement homes (they were entered directly from the sidewalk level) were glad in gray brick and limestone.  Five stories tall, they featured elegant Ionic porticos, swelled bays and intricate Renaissance-style carvings above the fourth floor openings.

The limestone-clad Nos. 14 and 16 stood in stark contrast to their brownstone neighbors.

No. 16 became home to society art dealer Edward Brandus and his family.  Brandus had married Philadelphia debutante Berthe Henry de la Roche and the couple had a daughter, Yvonne.  The family lived six months in New York, and the remainder of the year in their apartment at No. 39 Avenue des Champes Elysees, in Paris.

from The Successful American, January 1903 (copyright expired)
Born in Paris, Brandus was 40 years old when No. 16 West 88th Street was completed. He was born into a privileged lifestyle.  His father Gemmy Brandus had founded the greatest music-publishing house in Europe and owned the copyrights to some of the most celebrated composers in history—including Chopin, Mendelssohn and Rossini.

In 1894 Edward Brandus opened an art gallery in the old Lorillard mansion on Fifth Avenue at 36th Street and another on the Rue de la Paix in Paris.  The Successful American said of him in January 1903, “Mr. Brandus secures remarkably rare Art Treasures which have enabled him to achieve a great financial success, ranking to-day among the most prominent art collectors and experts in the United States.”

Many of those art treasures decorated No. 16 West 88th Street.  Its rooms were filled with portraits and landscapes, bronze and marble sculptures, Sevres vases, gilt clocks, and a variety of antique European furnishings from French Empire to Rococo.

The Brandus sitting rooms were filled with a variety of styles and artworks.  photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Edward Brandus’s fortunes took a dip in 1903.  It started when he purchased the painting “Louis XIV and His Court in the Park of Versailles” a year earlier from the collection of George M. Tyner for $1,600.  The historic-themed painting was by French artist Jean Leon Gerome, considered by many contemporaries to be a “master.”  But when the painting was exhibited in Brandus’s gallery, the artwork had changed.

The formal dining room (above) featured an unusual fringed glass-and-iron lighting fixture.  The stairhall is pictured below.  photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The 79-year old artist sued Edward Brandus for $2,000 damages in January 1903, charging that he had altered his work.  According to The Sun “In that picture, it was alleged, the effect of light produced by the setting sun and the rising moon had been painted out and replaced by resplendent sunshine.”  The courts ruled that Brandus could neither sell nor dispose of the painting.

Yvonne Brandus posed in her bedroom in 1902.  Both her bedroom and that of her parents' reveal the turn-of-the-century penchant for placing furniture directly in front of a fireplace in warmer months.  photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On the heels of the scandal and embarrassment came bad news in April 1903.  It was reported that Tiffany Company had purchased the entire eastern block front on Fifth Avenue, from 36th to 37th Street with intentions to erect a new store and headquarters.  Included in the sale was the old Lorillard mansion, now the Brandus Galleries.

The Brandus bathroom was the height of modernity.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The combined events may have prompted the Brandus family to leave.  At 8:30 on the night of March 9, 1904 the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria was the scene of the auction of “the valuable collection of Ancient and Modern Paintings, the property of Mr. Edward Brandus.”  The auction advertisement mentioned “rare examples of the Barbizon School and Superb Portraits of Fair Women by the old Masters.”

The title of the 88th Street house was in Berthe’s name.  Two months after the auction she sold it to “Carrie F., wife of Henry B. Smith.”  The Smiths would remain in the house for a few years, during which Carrie involved herself in the expected charity work of a socialite, such as the Hebrew Infant Asylum. 

By 1914 concert organist Edward Rechlin was renting a room in the house which he used as a teaching studio.  The residence was, most likely, owned by William Loring Andrews and his wife, the former Jane E. Crane, at the time. 

Andrews was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was its first librarian, in 1882.  A collector of rare books, he was a founder of the Grolier Club and the Society of Iconophiles.  A prolific author, he oversaw the publication of his books.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art later said his books “are marked by exquisite taste in type, paper, illustration, and binding.”

William Loring Andrews photo via Met museum.org
William Loring Andrews died in the 88th Street house on Friday, March 19, 1920 at the age of 82.  His funeral was held there the following Tuesday morning.  A few days later Howard Mansfield wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, reminding readers of Andrews’ contributions and accomplishments, and saying “In the death of William Loring Andrews New York loses a very fine citizen.”

Jane Crane Andrews sold No. 16 to Henry F. Larrabee.  The family moved in just in time to announce the engagement of daughter Grace Edna Larrabee to Kenneth Meeks McCann on June 22, 1921.  McCann had distinguished himself in World War I, receiving the American Distinguished Service Cross and the British Military Medal.


But, as with the rest of Gilbert Schellenger’s row, life as an upscale, single-family home would not last forever.   By February 1946 when Zapota Vasquez purchased the house, it was described as a “five-story rooming house.”  She quickly resold it to Sixto Santiago in August that year.

In 2015 a full restoration was initiated to return the Brandus house to its former glory and its single-family status.

non-credited photographs by the author

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Lost Assay Office -- No. 30 Wall Street




In 1893, when this postcard was published, the Assay Office (right) sat in the soul of the Financial District.

In 1761 Samuel Verplanck returned to New York from Holland where he had not only completed his education, but married a wealthy wife.  He constructed a lavish, 40-foot wide home on Wall Street.  To the west, his garden abutted the old City Hall.  The upscale neighborhood, which included the home of Alexander Hamilton, would greatly change by the early 1820s.

According to descendant William Edward Verplanck in his 1921 The Site of the Assay Office on Wall Street, “In 1822 Daniel C. Verplanck, only son and heir of Samuel, reluctantly sold the Wall Street front of the property to the Bank of the United States.  The price, $40,000, was deemed a large one at that time.”

Construction of the Branch Bank of the United States began on the site of the Verplanck mansion the following year.  The cornerstone was laid on April 17, 1823.  The two-story structure faced in gleaming white marble was designed by William Strickland.  Both grand and dignified, it was described by architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler nearly a century later, in 1911.  “The general scheme of the front is of that modernized Roman which, in England, is known as Georgian, and in this country, as Colonial.” The completed building looked as much like an English country house as a bank building.

The New York Mirror, Vol VII 1830 (copyright expired)

In 1836 the charter of the Branch Bank of the United States expired.  Although a new charter was obtained; the branch was closed in 1837 “in the widespread crash of that year, and not long after, the bank was wound up with a total loss to its shareholders,” as explained by William Verplanck.

In 1848 flakes of gold were found in Sutter’s Mill, triggering the California Gold Rush the following year.  Five years later, on January 30, 1853, the New York Herald reported that Senator Hunter “proposes to establish an assay office in New York, at which the gold from California or elsewhere may be assayed, and its real value ascertained.  He further proposes that the gold thus assayed shall be cast into bars or ingots of various sizes, and stamped with its value, for which, to the amount any individual may possess, a certificate shall be issued as for a deposit.”

By March $100,000 had been appropriated for the establishment of an Assay Office.  A search for the location seemed to be settled on April 5 when the New York Herald reported Congress had ordered it “be set up in the basement of the Custom House, as soon as possible.”  The Herald was apparently not totally confident on the seemingly temporary conditions.  “So let it be—for it will be a great convenience to Wall street, as well as to returned Californians.  ‘A half a loaf is better than nothing.’ Let the law be carried out.”

Not long afterward, however, the Bank of the United States building (recently being used by the Bank of the State of New York) was deemed a better solution.   The bank sold it to the United States Government for $530,000 according to The New York Times (a staggering $16.8 million today and five times more than the appropriated funds).  Before the year was out, the new Assay Office had moved into the marble building.

Well dressed clients--both male and female--brought their precious metals to the Assay Office.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 7, 1861 (copyright expired)
For more than half a century the Assay Office provided its services, described by Samuel Armstrong Nelson in 1900 in his The A B C of Wall Street.  “The building is employed in assaying, parting and refining crude bullion, coin, jewelry, old bars and the precious metals in such other forms as they may be presented.  All this metal is turned out in the form of bars of various weight, stamped by the Government with letters and figures which certify to the weight and quality of the metal.  Most of this work is done for private persons, who pay a charge which defrays the cost of the labor.”

Perhaps the most unusual job of melting down gold scrap was required of the Assay Office in November 1901.   In 1891 the great Chicago Exposition opened and among its exhibits was a life-size statue of actress Maude Adams cast in pure gold to represent the State of Nevada.  (Maude would later earn her greatest fame when she created the role of Peter Pan on stage.)

Following the close of the fair, the statue was sent from city to city as an exhibit.  But, reported the New-York Tribune on November 17, 1901, “Its days of usefulness in that guise being ended, it was decided to melt it and get the gold.”  The statue reached the Assay Office on Wednesday, November 13 and “on Thursday workmen armed with sledgehammers attacked the statue and pounded it until it was reduced to a number of battered lumps, each small enough to go into a melting pot.”

Three days later Maude Adams was reduced to tidy gold bricks.  The Assay Office estimated their value at $97,000 before being precisely assayed—about $2.8 million in 2016.

In 1892 the Assay Office was surrounded by towering structures.  Within two decades beams would be installed in the alleyway (left) to keep the western wall from collapsing.  King's Views of New York 1892 (copyright expired)

Before long the aged building had not only outlived its usefulness, but showed serious structural problems.  Beams were installed in the alley separating it from the Sub-Treasury Building to shore up the western wall.  A new assay refinery was constructed behind it on Pine Street in 1911 and the Wall Street building was vacated. 

On December 1, 1912 The New York Times noted “For several years the ancient structure…has practically been condemned as useless.”  Henry Clews, who had rented offices in the old structure, added “Last year the Wall Street front was vacated by the staff, and the artistic façade now presents a decidedly unattractive appearance.  Some of the panes of glass in the windows are broken and in places the walls show a tendency to bulge in a very dangerous manner.”

The Times reported that “Wall Street is about to lose its oldest building within the next few months when its old Assay Office, just below the historic Sub-Treasury Building, will be razed to the ground.”  Henry Clews lamented “The building is the best example of architecture in the city, except the City Hall, and I shall be sorry to see it go.”

Not long before the Assay Office was demolished, a picture postcard depicted it and the Sub-Treasury Building.  The latter was constructed on the site of the old City Hall, which abutted Samuel Verplanck's gardens. (Note the bootblack stand at the lower right corner.)
Henry Clews was not the only New Yorker sorry to see it go.  Mayor William Jay Gaynor proposed moving the building to another site.  But the logistics of relocating the 1823 masonry structure seemed insurmountable; and The Times opined “a landmark transported from the associations of its original site becomes virtually a museum relic, and loses the true elements that have rendered it attractive.”

Another proposal suggested what today is referred to as facadism—attaching the white marble front to the new Assay Office structure.  But architects dashed that hope.  “An examination showed that rain and frost had worked into the apertures between the marble slabs and had disintegrated the stones to such an extent that it would be difficult to remove them without breaking them,” advised The Times.  Too, the new Assay Office would be wider than the original; making the old façade unworkable.

On August 19, 1913, as scheduled demolition neared, The New York Times reported “Unless present plans are changed, the façade will be removed and broken up.”  Various historical organizations came to Wall Street “and admired the building, but so far no one has come forward with a request for it,” said the newspaper.

Demolition was, thankfully, delayed and on December 26, 1914 the Treasury Department tried one last attempt to salvage the exquisite façade.  Alfred Brooks Fry, Supervising Engineer for the Treasury Department, was notified that “the marble façade of the old Assay Office in Wall Street is now available for any society or individual that desires to preserve it.”

One far-thinking individual came to the rescue.  In March 1915 American Architect and Architecture predicted that the news that the façade “will be saved, and re-erected on another site will probably be received with satisfaction by every one taking an interest in the conservation of our fast disappearing land-marks.”

The New-York Tribune had recently reported on “excellent authority” that “the Government has presented this façade to Robert W. DeForest, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that it will be re-erected to form the front of a new building soon to be built by the Museum to house Americana.”

The superb Georgian façade was carefully stripped away from the building where it had stood since 1823, its pieces catalogued and stored away for seven years.   In 1922 it was moved to the Metropolitan Museum to become part of the American Wing under construction; then being called The Early American Art Wing.

On June 16, 1923, exactly 100 years after William Strickland’s beautiful bank building was completed, The New York Times reported on the progress of the American Wing.  The article mentioned “The steel girders for the roof are up the sides and front, and the old façade of the old Assay Office, which was purchased by Mr. De Forest at the time the building was demolished, which is to be used for the front of this new wing, makes a fine appearance.”

The replacement Assay Office.  Report of the Director of the Mint, 1920 (copyright expired)
The American Wing was completed two years later with the old Assay Office façade as its entrance.   Not only a remarkable example of early 19th century architecture, but an astounding example of early 20th century historic preservation; it remains the impressive focal point of the American Wing’s courtyard.

photo The Real Deal, November 22, 2015