Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The 1903 Hotel York -- No. 488 7th Avenue

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
At the turn of the last century the neighborhood north of 34th Street and west of Fifth Avenue was a mish-mash of old brick-faced houses and small commercial buildings four or five stories tall.  The millinery and apparel districts had already begun inching northward; but it would be several years before the neighborhood would earn the title of The Garment District.  Instead, now, it was the theaters and entertainment houses around Herald Square that drew the most attention.

But on December 12, 1901 the Pennsylvania Railroad made an announcement that would change the area forever.  The company planned to spent $150 million to join New Jersey and Manhattan with an under-river railroad tunnel terminating in a monumental station facing engulfing Seventh to Eighth Avenues from 31st Street to 33rd Streets—the Pennsylvania Station.

Developers were quick to recognize the potential in the surrounding blocks—soon to be swarming with businessmen and tourists coming and going from the station.  Within the year ground was broken for R. H. Macy’s enormous department store facing 34th Street, far above the established shopping district, and brothers James and David Todd laid plans for upscale hotels.

At the time of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s announcement the Doherty brothers, John and William, lived in the house at No. 488 Seventh Avenue.  William was an architect and John earned a living as a mason.  The Dohertys would soon be moving out.

James and David Todd engaged architect Harry B.Mulliken to design the Aberdeen Hotel at No. 17 West 32nd Street.  Ground was broken in 1902, the same year that Mulliken teamed with Edgar J. Moeller to form the partnership of Mulliken & Moeller.  Perhaps that firm’s firm commission was also for the Todds—another hotel nearby on the side of the Doherty house and its neighbors at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 36th Street—the Hotel York.

Completed in 1903 the Hotel York was a standout.  A two story base of rusticated limestone was topped by a third floor of planar stone.  Above this nine stories of red brick and limestone erupted skyward in a profusion of turn-of-the-century architectural ostentation.  A residential wedding cake, the Beaux Arts façade was frosted with carved urns, garlands, cartouches, and grotesques.  Balconies of carved stone or cast iron broke the flat planes
The facade boiled over with carved ornamentation.  photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The Hotel York opened as both a transient and residential hotel.  The lavish public spaces mimicked the exterior with gushing molded plaster festoons and scrollwork, marble columns and expensive carpeting and draperies.  Guests and residents enjoyed amenities like the in-house barber shop.  The hotel’s proximity to the theater district made it an immediate favorite with the acting profession.

The elaborate public rooms were often the scene of formal functions -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Among the first of these was well-known actor E. M. Holland.  In February 1904 the 56-year old was much annoyed with hotel security.  He lived in room 455 on the 10th floor on and February 7 went to bed with his door open.  According to The Sun the following day, “When he woke up his overcoat, a derby hat and $17 in money were gone.”

Holland dressed for his part as Eben Holden in 1901 -- copyright expired
The newspaper noted that “Holland was pretty sore over his loss.”  His professional pride was perhaps bruised since, at the time, he was playing the great detective Bedford in the play Raffles.

Also living in the hotel at the time were, according to The Sun, “Mrs. Nellie Stevens, an actress out of a job, and her friend, a Miss Goodrich, an actress in better luck.”   In November that year the two women met at the Liberty Theatre to see a play.  Nellie Stevens was running late and tossed her rings into a handkerchief, hoping to save time by putting them on in the hansom cab.

No sooner had she settled into her seat in the theater than she noticed one of her rings—a diamond valued at $400 (about $10,000 today) was missing.  She rushed back to the York Hotel and notified the house detective Andrew Hanley.  He traced the cab back to Sullivan’s Stables on West 35th Street; only to find out that in the day or two it took him to track it down the cabbie, James Lawrence, had been laid off.

When Lawrence arrived back at the stables on November 14 to pick up his pay the detective was notified.  He and Mrs. Stevens rushed the one-block distance to confront him.  Lawrence admitted to finding the ring, stuck his hand in his pocket and announced “And here it is.”

“Mrs. Stevens, with a little shriek of joy and gratitude, seized the ring.  She looked at it.  Then she shrieked again.," said The Sun.

It wasn’t her ring.  “This is a phony diamond.  The ring is a ringer, and a poor ringer at that,” she exclaimed.  She pressed charges of grand larceny against cabbie with grand larceny.  But she was out a diamond ring, nevertheless.

Another actress to cross the threshold of the Hotel York was the young and beautiful Evelyn Nesbit.  She had been married to millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw in 1904; however she carried on a dalliance with architect Stanford White.  The affair would end with the renowned architect dead on the floor of his magnificent Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, the victim of an enraged husband.

During the murder trial, White’s chauffeur testified to driving Evelyn here and there on certain occasions, including one night in September 1905 when he dropped her off at the Hotel York.

A long, permanent marquee sheltered arriving guests from the elements -- photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On October 26, 1907 the new Italian conductor of the Metropolitan Opera House arrived from Europe and moved into his apartments in the hotel.  The famed conductor would be in friendly surroundings—the Hotel York was a favorite home for many of the opera house’s singers and workers.

Not all the residents, of course, were in the theater.  Mining engineer Thomas R. Marshall lived here in 1907, and earlier that year the hotel had been forced into the awkward situation of evicting a Duke.

In 1904, a day or two following his brother James B. Duke’s wedding, tobacco millionaire Brodie Duke went on a binge of drinking and partying.  The spree lasted for several days and along for the ride much of the time was Alice Webb, whose reputation was not altogether without stain.  On December 19, 1904 the pair was married in the Madison Square Presbyterian Church—although Brodie later denied remembering any of it.

Duke won a divorce decree on March 27, 1906 and a year later Alice was living in the York Hotel.  But on May 2, 1907 the hotel was forced to evict the 38-year old for failing to pay her board.  On Saturday night, two days later, around 9:30 she showed up at the hotel drunk “and was unable to take care of herself,” according to the New-York Tribune.  “She rejected an offer of the clerk who wished to show her to a room, to protect her, and she left the hotel.”

While the Duke name was normally engraved on invitations to the balls and dinners at the highest levels of Manhattan society; that night it would be written in the ledger of the West 38th Street police station.  Alice Duke was arrested around midnight incapacitated with drink.  “The woman was well dressed.  She wore a big straw hat and big pearl earrings,” said the Tribune.  She had with her “numerous bonds and several thousand dollars of stock of the American Tobacco Company.”

The following year on December 1 the Todds sold the Hotel York to Columbia University professor William M. Sloane for $825,000—a substantial $20 million in today’s dollars.  Seven days later Sloane resold the property to the Stanworth Company of which Sloane was a director.

The English actress Maud Odell, known in the theatrical world as “The $10,000 English beauty,” was staying in the York while playing at the American Theatre in November 1909.  She was terrified when she received a letter threatening to disfigure her face with acid.

“If you do not pay Mr. Mudd $100 on Wednesday following your matinee performance do not be surprised to be shot during your next performance or to have your face marred by acid.  A man will come up to you and say, ‘Have you a package for Mr. Mudd?’  Then you are to turn over to him a package containing 100 iron men.  Do not notify the cops; they will not do you any good.  You will see this insignia in your sleep.”

The unsigned letter bore a sketch of three daggers forming a triangle above a larger dagger.

Police were notified by the theater’s agent and a few days later the actress received a second envelope.  In it was a card with the words “La Signa Monte Secunda” and the triangle of daggers—this time with a numeral 3 in the center.

Understandably, the Edwardian actress became hysterical.  Two detectives were assigned to escort her back and forth between the York Hotel and the theater in a taxi.

After the completion of Pennsylvania Station in 1910, the Hotel York was quick to market its location, a "two minute walk."  The hotel still soared above the neighboring buildings.

The Italian opera singers sometimes upset the harmony of the upscale residence hotel and it all came to a head in April 1911 when singers Didur, Gilly, Pini-Corsi, and Rossi; the chorus master Romel; and the Italian conductor Signor Podesti were told to leave.  Both Podesti and Didur lived in suites with their wives; the others were single.  Trouble came when the conductor’s wife tried to scrimp by cooking Italian dishes in their rooms.

“The Italian singers, being of a thrifty disposition, did not eat at the hotel, but preferred the restaurants run by their own countrymen, where they could get macaroni and spaghetti flavored with the grated cheese and washed down with flasks of red chianti," explained The New York Times.

That was all well and good until Signora Podesi bought a chafing dish and, according to the newspaper, “prepared with a spoonful of butter, a grating of full-flavored cheese, an onion, grated bread crumbs and a strong suspicion of garlic, suppers for herself and spouse.  The odor of this dish spread along the corridor, it is said, to the rooms occupied by a learned professor from Chicago.  He protested that the perfume of the onion disturbed him.”

Hotel management informed the conductor that cooking in the rooms was forbidden.  Repeatedly.  Each time Signor Podesti would bow and apologize and his wife would go on cooking.  It ended with everyone associated with the Metropolitan Opera Company receiving letters of eviction.

Podesti and his wife, carrying her Pekingese toy dog Winki under her arm, stormed into the office of the Met’s press agent.  The agent was already in stress because Caruso could not sing that night.  Mrs. Podesti lamented that they would sleep on the street and her husband waved the eviction notice in the air.

While “the Italians held an indignation meeting around him,” the agent phoned Jay G. Wilbraham, resident manager of the York Hotel.  The agent heard of garlic and onion odors and complaining guests; Wilbraham heard of the long-term happy relationship the Met had with the York.  In the end the troupe was allowed to stay “if Signora Podesti stopped cooking in her room.”  The tempest in the pasta pot was allayed.

Perhaps the hotel's most poignant story played out in 1922 when the former stage star Rose Coghlan checked in to the Hotel York for the last time.  One of the best known actresses in America for over 50 years, she reminisced about her glory days in the 1880s and ‘90s on April 7, 1922 “Lord! How fine I used to think myself with my little old one-horse barouche and my $25-a-month coachman here in gay New York.  I really felt quite grand as I drove through Central Park and returned the bows of the society elite.  I used to board the horse in a livery stable.  His name was Pete.  I wonder what’s become of the poor chap.”

Now, at 70 years of age, she was penniless.  Theater folk heard of her plight and sent checks—David Belsaco’s was for $100.  Telling a reporter that she was suffering “a temporary embarrassment,” she sat in the bed and laughed “The ‘financial whirl’ got me.  It gets the best of us, especially we women of the stage.”

The New-York Tribune described her rooms in the York as “sunny quarters on an upper floor.”  The newspaper said “The veteran actress, suffering from a nervous breakdown, wept as she extolled the generosity of her friends in helping her get these new and comfortable quarters.”

After recollecting her days of stardom she cautioned “Don’t imagine I’m repining, though.  I’m not.  My friends are dear, the kindest and best of friends.  My daughter is the dearest and most capable of daughters.  Without her I’d have been poor indeed.  Now I’m rich.”  She wiped a tear from her eye and continued, “I’m rich because the sort of folk I always wished to have love me still do.  That, I assert, is fortune enough.”

Rose Coghlan and her husband, Charles, perform in the 1894 play Lady Barter.  Photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Rose’s daughter was there to take the aged actress to her home on Long Island.  Her mother told the reporter “You mustn’t think I’m living in the past, though.  I’m going back to the stage.  In a few months with the sunlight and the lovely outdoors I’ll be myself again.  It isn’t in me to be an invalid…In three months from now I’ll be kicking up my heels like a schoolgirl—just like a schoolgirl—just..”  And in the middle of her sentence the elderly woman who had brought audiences to their feet for decades had fallen asleep.

In 1925 the hotel was renovated to accommodate stores at street level.  Throughout the next few decades fewer and fewer of the theatrical crowd would live here as newer hotels opened closer to Times Square—now the undisputed center of the theater area. 

With the entertainment district gone, the Garment District took over.  By the 1960s the York Hotel was occupied mostly by traveling salesmen.  Only two floors of the hotel were now rented for guests; the rest having been taken over by garment salesmen as would-be showrooms, especially during market weeks.  The salesmen and buyers who managed to get one of the rooms for sleeping would pay $15.65 for a single with bath.

In March 1968 a young designer took room 613 in order to market his first collection—a total of nine designs.  It was Calvin Klein’s foot in the door of the Seventh Avenue fashion industry. 
A modern glass marquee stretches the near-length of the first floor. photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
In 1986 Martin Swartzman & Partners purchased the 12-story building and commissioned architect Costas Kondylis to converted it to mixed commercial and residential space.  Completed in 1986 the former hotel opened with 108 rental apartments.

Although the street level has been brutalized with unsympathetic storefronts and an out-of-place green glass marquee; the grand 1903 former hotel—once home to actresses and divas—still drips with Edwardian decoration.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The 1868 First German Baptist Church -- No. 334 East 14th Street

photo by Alice Lum

When John Eschmann arrived in New York from Germany in 1845 there were already over 24,000 German immigrants in the city.  Eschmann quickly adapted to his new home and affiliated himself with the South Baptist Church.  The Home Mission Board appointed him to be a missionary among the German population and within the first year he organized the First German Baptist Church of New-York City.  It proudly boasted a full one-dozen members.

German immigrants flooded into New York over the next two decades.  By the start of the Civil War there were 118,292 Germans living in the city; most of them settling in the Lower East Side.  By 1866 the congregation that Eschmann had founded with just 12 members was ready for a new impressive church structure.  Julius Boekell was commissioned to design the building; an architect who would keep busy producing warehouses, tenements and commercial structures for decades in Manhattan, but who has been mostly forgotten.

On May 20, 1868 The New York Times ran a one-line article that seemingly aroused little interest.  “The corner stone of the First German Baptist Church, in Fourteenth-street, near First-avenue, Rev. H. A. Schaffer, Pastor, was laid yesterday afternoon.”

The lack of fanfare surrounding the cornerstone ceremony would carry on through the building’s completion and dedication.  But Boekell’s finished First German Baptist Church was flourish enough.  If many of the architect’s other, more utilitarian, projects were somewhat bland, the new church was anything but. 

Boekell produced a charming white stone fantasy that engulfed the building lots at Nos. 334 and 336 East 14th Street.  Generally Romanesque in style, it was outlined with wide corbels along the top, inset with trios of lofty arched windows that were mimicked by the entrance doors, and surmounted by two spiky spires.  The Hansel-and-Gretel-ready design was no doubt a stand-out on the street lined with brick and brownstone clad rowhouses and stores.
The spires were later removed.  photo by Alice Lum
When the congregation celebrated its 40th anniversary in July 1886 its numbers had risen to 352.  In his sermon on July 11 that year, Rev. George A. Schulte mentioned that the church had produced nearly two dozen German Baptist ministers. 

Later that same year, on the morning following Christmas Day, the reserved congregation was traumatized by a shocking disturbance.  Just as Pastor Schulte had completed the sermon and the last hymn was about to be sung, “a man who had been sitting quietly in one of the side rows of the seats jumped up and began violently hugging a lady who sat next to him,” reported The Sun.  “He was a stranger to her.  She shrieked and tried to get free.”

What had been a normal Sunday service was suddenly thrown into chaos.  The congregation jumped to their feet and about 12 men grappled with the man, dragging him out of the church.  The well-dressed crew helped policemen carry him to the 5th Street police station.

In the meantime, said the newspaper, “The services at the church were hurriedly concluded.”

The man turned out to be 30-year old Cornelius Hendrickson whom The Sun said was “handcuffed and pretty well tired out.”  Dr. McCurdy of Bellevue Hospital later diagnosed him with “acute mania.”

The First Baptist German Church became involved in a messy and highly-publicized love triangle when Rev. G. A. Guenther married William Reid and Albertina Keefer on July 9, 1898.  The problem was that the bride was already married.

Less than three years earlier, on September 65, 1895, the then-19 year old Albertina had married Otto Wuchner in Hoboken.  When Wuchner, who made his living as a bill poster, found out about the superfluous husband in 1899, Albertina explained that she had been hypnotized by Reid. 

Otto Wuchner stormed off to the Yorkville Court on August 17, 1899 complaining about the outrageous act of hypnotism which “had induced her to leave her home and marry [Reid] without the formality of a divorce.”  Wuchner added that Reid “belongs to a gang of young men in Brooklyn that amuses themselves by throwing policemen in basements.  He sent around word that I had better get off the earth, as he and his friends were going to lay for me and put me out of business.”

When Reid’s employer at the Fulton Market testified that he was a good worker and he had never seen anything wrong with him, Wuchner countered saying “You can see by his eyes that the devil is in him.”

Reid insisted that he was unaware that his wife was already married.  “I didn’t know she was Wuchner’s wife until last February,” he told the judge.  “I was in his house and when I saw his marriage certificate hanging up on the wall I said ‘Great Caesar, Otto!  I’ve married your wife.’  I left her shortly after that.”

While the men battled it out in court, Albertina stuck to her story of being hypnotized.  Wuchner said “I forgave her when she said Reid had hypnotized her.  When I told her I would take her back, she begged me to take her some place where the other man could not find her, as she was afraid of getting under his influence again.”

The magistrate dismissed the strange case after Reid promised to keep his distance from the couple.

By the turn of the century many of the German citizens were leaving the Lower East Side for the less crowded Yorkville neighborhood further north.  According to The New York Times later, the congregation of the First German Baptist Church had fallen to “three or four persons.”  In 1902 the church turned over the deed to the 14th Street property to the General Missionary Society of the German Baptist Churches of North America for $7,000.  It would later be the seed for a long and uncomfortable court battle between the congregation and the Society.

In the meantime, however, the church building was used temporarily by the Church of God.  In December 1919 the Church of God held “public sessions in former Old First German Baptist Church” relating to the organization’s State Convention.

Storm clouds gathered over the 14th Street church late in 1927 when the First German Baptist Church found a purchaser.  The Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church of St. Vladimir had agreed on a price of $80,000 for the building and a contract was signed.

But the General Missionary Society was quick to point out that it had purchased the deed.  “The society asserts that the church signed away its rights to the property when it turned over the deed,” reported The New York Times on November 20, 1927.

While the two factions took the matter to court, St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church moved in.  It obtained a $50,000 mortgage on the property and everything seemed legitimate.  Then the New York City Baptist Missionary Society promptly sued the new owners with foreclosure.  There was an existing $19,354 mortgage on the property when the First German Baptist Church turned over the deed in 1902 and now the Society wanted the money.

It would be months before the legal entanglements were worked out; but by September 25, 1932 St. Vladimir’s Church was firmly ensconced in the former Baptist building.  On that day the Right Rev. Joseph A. Zuk was installed as Presiding Bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of North America.  The New York Times described the service as “an impressive ceremony in St. Vladimir’s Church.”
In 1936 the spires were still intact -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
To reflect the Orthodox Church’s roots, Julius Boekell’s tall, thin spires were chopped off and replaced by copper-clad onion domes.  Although the exotic domes are out of proportion—a bit too small for the steeple stumps on which they sit—they are a surprisingly attractive addition.

The Ukrainian congregation would remain in the church for over three decades.  Then on June 7, 1958, it announced the purchase of the former West End Synagogue on West 82nd Street.  A spokesman told reporters that the congregation was scattered “over the city and near-by suburbs and that it was moving to acquire larger quarters.”

Interestingly enough, while the Ukrainian church moved into a former synagogue; a synagogue moved into the old church building.  The Town and Village Synagogue, Temple Tifereth Israel, had been formed in 1948.  In the spring of 1962 it purchased the old First German Baptist Church building as its permanent home.

On April 7 that year The New York Times reported that the congregation “will move into its new home at 334 East Fourteenth Street tomorrow afternoon.  A procession will march from the temporary quarters at 225 Avenue B to the opening ceremony at 2 P.M.”  Once again changes to the building had been made to accommodate the new owners.  The Christian iconographies, such as crosses, were removed and a large Star of David incorporated into the central stained glass window.

The replacement stained glass windows were appropriate to the building's new purpose -- photo by Alice Lum

Four years after the synagogue moved in the Landmarks Preservation Commission added the building to its calendar of buildings to be considered for designation.  Forty-seven years passed and the remarkable structure never rose to the top of the list for a Commission hearing.  Then, as 2013 drew to a close the Town and Village Synagogue put the structure on the market for $14 million.

The fate of the wonderful, early relic of German settlement in the Lower East Side still hangs in the balance.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Lost Proctor's Pleasure Palace -- 154 E 58th Street

photography by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On September 1, 1895 The New York Times noted that “Proctor’s Pleasure Palace, the new theatre in East fifty-eighth Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, will throw open its doors for the first time at 12 o’clock noon to-morrow, Labor Day.”  The newspaper said that “workmen are toiling day and night to hasten the completion of the big building”

Impresario Frederick Francis Proctor was already well-known in the entertainment field.  He had opened his Proctor’s Theatre in 1888 on 23rd Street, then the heart of the theater district.  As impressive as that venue was, his Pleasure Palace would outshine it. 

The New-York Tribune published a sketch of the building as it neared completion on July 28, 1895 (copyright expired)

Designed by architects J. B. McElfratrick & Son, it was a feast for the eyes.  The New-York Tribune said “The architecture combines the Romanesque and Renaissance styles.”  Brick, marble, terra cotta and limestone combined to create an exotic palace.  There was a corner tower topped by a minaret-like spire, arches and balconies, and brickwork laid in a diamond pattern that covered the façade like a tapestry.  The bulging balconies of the roof garden mimicked the boxes of the auditorium inside.

On opening day the roof garden was completed; but The Times lamented “but it is too late in the season to utilize it.”  There were, however, “the Garden of Palms and the Divan, fitted up in Oriental style.  These will be ready before the frosty nights to come.”

The interior of the $1 million structure was as impressive as the 200-foot wide front.  “The main auditorium is reached by a vestibule paved in mosaic tiles, with three oak doors, arched and illuminated with glass, opening upon the foyer, which is 60 feet in length,” announced the New-York Tribune.  “A novelty is the double proscenium.  One arch has an opening thirty-four feet square, sufficient for ordinary performances, but this may be lifted in grooves, like a piece of scenery, leaving an opening forty-two feet square should the stage be required for a more elaborate display.”  And indeed it would.

Marble staircases with bronze handrails and scrolled iron balustrades led to the upper boxes.  Victorian theater goers would be awed by the colored electric lights that lined the proscenium, the mythological figures painted on canvas, and the “elaborately moulded relief work.”  The auditorium was decorated in cream, pale blue and gold.

Behind the stage was the Garden of Palms.  “Its roof is an oval dome of glass,” reported The Sun, “which can be slid aside in pleasant weather, or closed when need be, and across it there will be a luxuriant network of growing vines, from out of whose tangle comes the radiance of many electric lights.”  The bulbs were enclosed in colorful Japanese lanterns “ranging in size from ordinary ones to two that are ten feet each in diameter.”  Some of the potted palms were 50 feet in height.

A movable sound-proof iron door separated the Garden of Palms from the main auditorium (which alone sat 2,100 patrons).  It could be slid open creating a two-sided stage.  Patrons in the auditorium and in the palm garden could enjoy the production from two distinctly different vantage points.

True to its name, the Pleasure Palace offered more than the main auditorium.  Twenty enormous caryatids upheld the roof of the Roof Garden which was among the largest in Manhattan.  Here mirrors in the form of windows reflected light and gave the impression of a much larger room.  Below the Roof Garden was the Oriental Divan, a library, a reading and writing room, stands for the sale of flowers, books, papers, Turkish coffee and other light refreshments.  There was a barbershop, a boot-black stand and a “plunge-bath,” or swimming pool. Below the theater area was the German cafe, devoted mostly to vaudeville.

The theater boasted 4,000 electric lights some of which lit the chandeliers and boxes of the auditorium -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the  Museum of the City of New York

The building was heated and cooled by blowers and the New-York Tribune promised “Every appliance for cooling the auditorium in the summer has been provided.”  There were fifty exits and two passenger elevators capable of moving 30 patrons at a time.  “A moderate admission price allows a visitor to range at will throughout the entire building and witness all the entertainments,” said William Harvey Birkmire in his 1903 The Planning and Construction of American Theatres.

New Yorkers who paid the 25 cent admission at noon on opening day could stay for hours if they desired.  The bill was seemingly endless.  That day London comedienne Bille Barlow presented new songs that she sang “in character.”  The Sisters Andersen, “equilibrists,” performed; and the Brothers Donaldson from the Folies Bergere in Paris made their American debut.  W. T. Carleton, the primo baritone of her Majesty’s Opera in London sang.  The New York Times said “No introduction is needed for the Russell Brothers, the Irish servant girls; James F. Hoey, eccentric comedian; the three Sisters Don; Watson and Hutchings, German eccentrics; Cushman and Holcomb, duetists; Ward and Curran, the two clippers; Daisy Mayer, and her playful pickaninnies; the McAvoys, singing and dancing comedians; Lillian Green, character singer; Baisley and Simons, sketch performers, and the Murzthaler Tyrolean quarter.”

But perhaps the biggest draw on opening day was Professor George Lockhart’s performing elephants.  The Times said they “have for ten years been a great sensation in Europe.  Not the least amusing of their exploits is the pantomimic sketch, in which little Boney dines too freely, and is lugged off to a police station by his huge companions.”

To manage the theater Proctor chose E. D. Price who brought with him years of experience that included managing the tours of the renowned actor Richard Mansfield.  Price did not come cheaply—his three-year contract provided him a yearly salary of $12,000, about $320,000 today.

Professor Lockhart’s trained elephants were a favorite at the new theater for months.  But the afternoon performance on December 27, 1895 almost ended in tragedy.  Waddy, the largest of the three elephants, was “dancing” in rhythm to the music when Lockhart slipped and fell almost directly beneath the four-ton animal.  The ladies and children in the audience screamed in horror and The New York Times announced “terror rang through the house, for it seemed as if nothing could save the prostrate man from being crushed to pieces.  But the sagacious brute changed step with incredible quickness and actually passed over him without so much as grazing his body.”

The audience erupted in cheers and applause.  The newspaper noted that Lockhart “is a man of undoubted courage, but he was as white as chalk when he regained his footing.”

Among the features of the 1896 season was the famous muscle man, Sandow.  On April 6 after Lottie Gilson, “in gorgeous Easter gowns and bonnets, received a welcome and sang about ‘The Modern Century Girl,’ ‘My Mother was a Lady,’ and I love My Girl,” Sandow “performed prodigious feats of physical power,” reported the New-York Tribune.  The New York Times remarked “He has increased his great strength wonderfully since he was last seen here, and will introduce many new feats.  He will give exhibitions of weight lifting and muscle play, and Sandow will hold at arm’s length in each hand, a bicycle and its rider.  He will also put above his head in the air a grand piano, with a stool attached, upon which will sit the player”  Perhaps less exciting to the audience on the same bill was Marion Eils, “the soap sculptress.”

Muscleman Sandow was a huge draw --cabinet card from the collection of the New York Public Library

Later that year female impersonator Richard Harlow took the stage.  He had become famous in the role of Queen Isabella in the play “1492,” and now the 6-foot, 200-pound actor played a wealthy society woman in “Catching a Duke.”  The Sun, on December 16, 1896 said he performance “is quite as free from any trace of burlesque or any disclosure of manliness, as was his Queen Isabella.  His attire is gorgeous.  There is a dress of figured black silk with a sweeping train, and as he first appears his shoulders are covered with a fluffy gape of heliotrope stuff, the same color showing in the dress trimmings and linings.  When the cape is removed his shoulders, breast, and arms are covered only with some cosmetic and makes them glisten like white enamel.” 

Richard Harlow in his role as Isabella in the play 1492 -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Keeping up with changing tastes in entertainment and modern technology, in 1898 the theater provided motion pictures as well.  Vitagraph provided films like The Vanishing Lady.  But Proctor continued to wow the audiences with live performances.  On November 21 that year he staged The Battle of San Juan; an epic spectacle that utilized nearly 200 soldiers, many of them on horseback.  Several of the actors had participated in the actual battle.  To accommodate the massive production, the Garden of Palms was utilized, making the stage 150 feet deep.

It was the motion pictures that ignited a near riot on November 18, 1901.  While the movie-goers enjoyed the 9:30 showing of “Grandma Threading a Needle” there was a sharp bang and a blue flame shot from the projector, igniting the heavy plush curtain that disguised the booth.

“Panic prevailed,” said the New-York Tribune, “when the technoscope, or moving picture machine, apparently exploded.”  Firemen and police were annoyed by the frightened male patrons.  “They shouted to the men ‘to be men,’ and told the women that there was no danger.  The newspaper said that at least half of the audience rushed into the street.  “Most of them were persuaded to return to the theatre by a force of policemen and some cool headed men, although several women, whose nerves were shaken by the excitement, hastened to their homes.”

Female patrons in 1905 are served tea during intermission by kimono-wearing attendants.  The electric bulb in each box is enclosed in a vaseline glass tear-drop shaped globe -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the  Museum of the City of New York

In 1928 the aging F. F. Proctor began selling off his theaters which by now numbered more than two dozen.  In the spring of 1929 he retired completely from the entertainment field which had been his life for decades.

His magnificent Pleasure Palace was demolished to make way for the RKO Proctor’s 58th Street motion picture theater, designed by Thomas Lamb.  Nearly as lavish as its predecessor, Lamb’s glorious theater that epitomized the golden age of movie palaces was demolished in the late 1960s for a 39-story building.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

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

photo by Alice Lum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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