Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Lost Herman O. Armour House - 856 Fifth Avenue



The brilliant stained glass transoms of almost every window in the house can be clearly seen in this photo..  Photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Herman Ossian Armour was born on March 2, 1837 in Stockbridge, New York; one of six sons of farmer Danforth Armour.  At the age of 18 he left home "having been attracted by the opportunities offered in the West to young and progressive men," as explained in the New-York Tribune decades later.   While most adventurous teens heading West in 1855 would have been seeking California gold, Armour went only as far as Milwaukee where he went opened a butcher shop.  It eventually became Armour, Plakington & Co.

Ambitious and seemingly tireless, he left the business in charge of his partner, John Plankington, in 1862 and headed to Chicago, where he established a grain commission business.  Three years later he moved again, opening a branch office of Armour, Plankington & Co. (now a major pork packing business) in New York City.  In 1868 founded the commission house, H. O. Armour & Company, in New York City.

By now Herman's brother Philip, oversaw the Midwestern packing business, renamed Armour & Co. in 1870.  In 1875 that operation was moved to Chicago.

Herman and his wife, the former Mary A. Jacks, had two daughters, Mary and Juliana.   The family lived in a fashionable section of Brooklyn, where Armour's wife died in 1870, leaving Herman to raise the little girls alone.  (Albeit with a significant domestic staff.)

The American Monthly Review of Reviews, January 1901  (copyright expired)
In January 1881 Heber R. Bishop sold the four building plots at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street for a total of $300,000.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on January 22 "On the ground thus secured, three houses will be built on the avenue and one 30 foot house on the street."  Bishop had sold three of the plots to Hugh Lamb, a partner in the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich.   The corner plot went to Herman Armour.  The transaction included another $200,000 for the mansion that would be built on the site, also designed by Lamb & Rich.

The firm designed four similar, but distinct, homes in the Queen Anne style which were completed before the year's end.  The Record & Guide called them "the highest grade houses offered for sale on 5th av."  The Armour house was four stories of red brick above a rough-cut stone basement.  The relatively sedate design relied on scalloped gables and dormers, and projecting bays at different levels to provide interest.  The three balconies, two at the fourth floor and one at the third, were protected by ornate iron railings.

Collins' Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)

It may have been his daughters' domestic futures that prompted Armour to move to Manhattan.  But it was his own clandestine romance that shocked New York in the winter of 1887.  The New York Times remarked on February 5 that his marriage at Syracuse, New York a few days earlier to Jane P. Livingston "came as a complete surprise."  The article went on, "Surprise was not lessened by the fact that both of the contracting parties belong here...Naturally Mr. Armour's acquaintances wondered why he and a New-York lady should go to Syracuse to be married."  The newspaper finally surmised, "A 'homestead' honeymoon was the most likely conjecture, as Mr. Armour came from that part of the State."  The groom was 50 years old and his bride was 43.

The family summered most often in Long Branch, New Jersey.  There they rubbed shoulders with millionaires like Pierre Lorillard, Jr., John Sloane, Moses Taylor and Julia Grant, widow of the former President.

Back in Manhattan, the Armours rarely entertained on a large scale.  While their names appeared in society columns as guests at balls and receptions; Jennie, as she was familiarly known, was seldom listed as a hostess.

It is possible that Herman, like Joseph Pulitzer for instance, simply did not like the domestic disruption entertainments caused.  He seems to have been more interested in politics; the Armour name most often appearing in print connected with political meetings and dinners.

Nevertheless, the house was not without music and entertainment.  On February 13, 1888, for instance, the New York Amusement Gazette reported "Mrs. H. O. Ormond [sic] 856 Fifth Avenue, will give a pink dinner and dance for her daughters, on Tuesday evening."

When this photo was taken, No. 2 East 67th Street (behind) had been demolished and replaced.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
Juliana was married to Dr. Farquhar Ferguson in 1890.  The wealthy couple would become well known as patrons of the arts and establish a sprawling country estate, the Monastery, on Huntington Harbor, Long Island.

On April 2, 1893 The New York Times printed a one-line article entitled "An Interesting Engagement."   It read "Last week brought forth the announcement of the engagement of Miss Mary Armour, youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. W. [sic] Armour of 856 Fifth Avenue, to W. A. Nichols."  (The fact that newspapers seemed unable to get the family's names correct must have been a constant irritation.)

By the time of Mary's engagement the family's summer residence was outside of Tarrytown, New York.  Her wedding took place on the lawn of the estate, Waldheim, on June 20.  The New York Times reported "As the Russian Court Orchestra played the wedding march the bride, leaning on the arm of her father, came out of the mansion and walked down a carpeted lane and was received by the guests under the tall oak trees."

Following the ceremony, "a wedding breakfast was served by Berger on the lawn in a large marquee, in which there were eight tables," said the article.

With both his daughters now married, Herman was annoyed when envelopes began arriving at the Fifth Avenue house addressed to "Miss Armour."  Inside each was the same printed circular from a matrimonial agent promising to find her a husband.

Having reached the end of his patience, Herman marched into the Jefferson Market Court on June 27, 1894, complaining that the agent was "annoying his daughter by sending her letters."  He told Justice Ryan "The impertinence of the agent is rendered doubly odious by the circumstance that my daughter is married and has children."

When the judge suggested that he swear out a warrant for the man's arrest, Armour declined.  "Mr. Armour did not think this punishment would fit the crime," said The Evening World.  He told a reporter he did not think the letters were sent with malicious intent; but he did feel that "As a citizen I deemed it my duty to show the circular to the police...That's the whole matter in a nutshell."

The avenue in front of the Armour house (behind the awning) was lined with sleek carriages arriving for the wedding of Anna Gould at No. 857 on March 2, 1895 Photograph by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In June 1901 Herman and Jennie leased the General Wilson B. French cottage in Saratoga, New York for the summer.   Mary there was with her parents in September.  On September 7 Herman drove to New York City to handle business, but was back the same day.   The following morning, according to the Minnesota newspaper The Bemidji Pioneer, "he enjoyed his usual drive and appeared much refreshed by his outing."

The newspaper reported "He was conversing with friends on the piazza of his cottage when suddenly his head dropped to one side and he expired almost immediately."  Jennie and Mary were both on the porch at the time.  In reporting on his shocking death, the New-York Tribune added, "His wife was Miss Jennie P. Livingston, a woman of strong character, who, he was accustomed to say, was invaluable to him as a counselor in his business."

The funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue home three days later, on September 11.  The Times reported that the service "was of the simplest character, and was attended by only the immediate relatives of Mr. Armour, close friends, and a few business associates."  Among them were former Mayor Franklin Edson, Senator Thomas C. Platt, and high ranking business and banking figures.

Following her period of mourning, Jennie spent less and less time in New York.   In August 1902 she was in France; and when the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II arrived in New York from Cherbourg on August 30, 1904, The Times noted that among the passengers disembarking were W. D. Rockefeller, Baroness de Reinelt, Baroness Alice de Rose, Baron P. de Morogues, and Jennie Armour.

On June 6, 1908 the San Francisco Call reported that Jennie had arrived on the Nippon Maru.  "Mrs. Armour, in company with Miss A. L. Barrett, has been touring the world and is now on the way home," it said.  "The ladies were accompanied by E. T. Atkinson, who travels with them in the double capacity of guide and courier.  They will remain here for a few days as guests of the St. Francis [Hotel]."

In February 1910 Jennie sold the now-outdated mansion to Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of the United States Steel Corporation.  The Record & Guide pointed out the changes in the immediate neighborhood.  "No. 854, the former residence of Mr. Andrews, has been torn down and rebuilt by Mr. Beekman...No. 855, residence of the late Simon Berg, was rebuilt by him; No. 2 East 67th st (one of the four [of the original Lamb & Rich row]), owned by Henri P. Wertheim, was torn down and rebuilt by him."

The article advised "No. 856 will be demolished by the new owner, who will construct on this site one of the handsomest dwellings on the av."  In June 1910 mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert filed plans for a new $300,000 mansion for Garry.

Less than two decades after it was constructed, the Gary mansion was being demolished in 1927.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was, indeed, "one of the handsomest dwellings" on the avenue; but it did not last.  In 1927 it was razed to be replaced by the apartment building designed by Shreve & Lamb, which survives.

In 1929 Wurts Bros. photographed the newly-completed building from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Delightfully Eccentric - 18 West 23rd Street


The eclecic mix and match of alterations leaves no hint of the original 1857 house.
R. C. Voorhees began construction on two houses at Nos. 16 and 18 West 23rd Street in 1856.  The upscale, brownstone-fronted residences would take two years to complete.  The block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would be home to some of Manhattan's wealthiest and most respected families.

Voorhees sold No. 18 Dr. Egbert Guernsey and his wife, the former Sarah Lefferts Schneck.   Guernsey was born on July 8, 1823 in Litchfield, Connecticut.  The Egbert family traced its roots in New England to the 17th century.  He was educated at Phillip's Andover, Yale University, and received his medical degree from University of the City of New York in 1846.  By now Guernsey was a trustee in the newly-established New York Homoeopathic Medical College and a professor of obstetrics and diseases of women.

When the Guernseys moved into No. 18 they had an 8-year old son, William.  Two years later, in 1859, daughter Florence was born in the house.  William eventually went into medicine and in 1874 both he and his father listed their practices here.

Wealthy families like the Guernseys housed their several vehicles and horses in private carriage houses.   By 1871 the old Miner family mansion on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Street was occupied by the exclusive Dobson & Co. glassware store.  (A dozen claret glasses that year were advertised for $600--nearly $12,500 in today's dollars.)   Egbert Guernsey leased the conveniently-located stable behind the mansion for his use.

The staff consisted of grooms, stable boys, coachmen and others.  In 1875 John H. Jones headed the stable operation and occasionally used 18-year old William A. Jones to do odd jobs.  The younger Jones took a nap on the afternoon of December 19 that year; one he would soon regret.

Jones woke up to discover the stable on fire.  Instead of calling for help or attempting to douse the flames, he panicked and ran.  It was not a good choice for a black teen in 1875.

The New York Herald reported "A fire broke out yesterday afternoon in the two-story brick stable in the rear of No. 166 Fifth avenue, which is occupied by Dr. Guernsey, of No. 18 West Twenty-third street.  It was ten minutes past two o'clock when a negro named William A. Jones, aged eighteen years, was seen by some citizens, who were passing at the time, to rush through the stable door into the street without giving any notice of a fire."

Jones had no sooner run by when flames shot out of the windows and doors of the carriage house.  It appeared obvious to the witnesses that the teen had set the fire.  "Two or three of the citizens at once seized Jones, guessing from his apparent want of desire to extinguish the flames that he had been the cause of the fire."

The newspaper did not hide its disdain for beat cops in reporting that "As usual in cases of emergency, no policeman was at hand and two blocks had to be gone over before one could be found."  Private citizens helped rescue "all the horses, four or five carriages and part of the harness;" but Guernsey suffered $2,000 worth of damage to other carriages and harnesses.  Damage to the building was $500.

In the meantime, "Jones, the suspected incendiary, was taken to the Twenty-ninth precinct station house."  There he told his story and insisted he "barely escaped to the street in time to save his life."  Police were not totally convinced and he was held pending an investigation to find the origin of the fire.

Dr. Guernsey was well-known for his attempts to improve the condition of the poor and public sanitation in general.  He personally visited tenement houses as delivered reports to the New York Sanitation Association.  In reporting on Nos. 88-90 Sheriff Street in 1865 he flatly said "This nuisance should be destroyed."  He said in part "The carbonic-acid gas, in conjunction with the other emanations from bones, rags and human filth, defies description...The inhabitants lead a miserable existence and their children wilt and die in their infancy."

Sarah was no less involved in her own charitable causes.  She was highly involved in events benefiting the West Side Homoeopathic Dispensary, like the Children's Carnival on February 26, 1878.  Newspapers reported that tickets to the events could be purchased from Sarah at the West 23rd Street house.

In 1881 Sarah was among five women appointed by Governor Alonzo B. Cornell to select a site for the proposed House of Refuge for Women.  A New-York Tribune reporter visited her on August 3 for an update.  She was frank about her feelings of greed versus compassion.  "The trouble is the people ask too much for their land...Now if some charitable person would give twenty-five or fifty acres of land in a healthy situation, near a good stream of water, it would amply repay him in a few yeas by the good it would do."  The Tribune titled the article "Reforming Bad Women."

By the time Sarah Guernsey was doing her part to reform bad women, her 23rd Street neighborhood was becoming intolerably commercial.   The breaking point for the family finally came early in March 1883 when the New-York Tribune remarked "Another of the few private houses left in Twenty-third-st. between Fifth and Sixth aves. will be given up for business on May 1, when Dr. Egbert Guernsey will remove his family up-town."

The house was in Sarah's name.  So when plans were filed by architects D. & J. Jardine to install "two artist's skylights in roof" in September 1884, the owner was listed as "Mrs. Egbert Guernsey."  The minor alterations cost the equivalent of about $9,000 today.

New York's entertainment district had moved onto West 23rd Street by now.   Among the theaters along the thoroughfare was Koster & Bial's Music Hall, on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue; Booth's Theatre on the opposite corner; and the Grand Opera House on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue.   So it is not surprising that early tenants of the converted Guernsey mansion were involved in the theater.  Among them were producer and manager Daniel Frohman, managers Gale & Spader, and the Lyceum School.  When the new Lyceum School Building was erected in 1885, many of the theatrical tenants moved there from No. 18.

In 1891 the building was shared by the Aeolian Company and George H. Polley & Co.   Aeolian sold its parlor organs and pianos while upstairs the Boston-based Polley & Co. was a publishing house.

Thomas W. Polley, a partner with his brother George, represented the firm in New York.   For several years the bachelor had boarded with the the family of the windowed Mrs. Homer Baldwin at No. 71 East 85th Street.  He was treated essentially as one of the family, so when the Baldwins celebrated Christmas at Niagara Falls they urged the 34-year old Polley to come along.

On Christmas Day The Evening World reported "Last evening the Baldwin household held their Christmas celebration, exchanging gifts and having a jolly time."  For some reason that night they changed their plans.  They were supposed to return to New York City on Christmas night; instead they boarded the New York Central Railroad train after opening their presents.

Along with Polley and his 60-year old landlady were her children, 30-year old Homer, who worked at the Hazard Manufacturing Company, and 23-year old Lillian.  She had graduated from Normal College in 1888 and was engaged to "an estimable young business man," according to The Evening World.  Homer's wife, Lilian, was also along.

As the train sped to New York, another high-speed passenger train was heading north.  Through some horrifying human error both trains were on the same track.  Just outside of Hastings-on-the-Hudson the two trains met, telescoping into one another with a deadly impact.

Nine people died immediately.  Others were scalded, burned, and crushed.  The Evening World wrote "Saddest of all is the tragedy which has befallen the family of Mrs. Homer Baldwin...The mother is dead, the sons and his wife and the beautiful young sister are mangled and burned, the latter not being expected to live the day out, and the father of the young lady's betrothed lies in the Morgue at Tarrytown."  Also in the morgue was Thomas W. Polley.

The following day the New-York Tribune updated the condition of the passengers.  Of the Baldwin party, only Homer had survived.  His wife, sister, and her fiance had all succumbed overnight.

The Aeolian Company proudly touted its automatic organ and pianos.  On April 3, 1892 The Sun noted "The advantages offered by the Aeolian are evident at a glance to any one who takes the trouble to listen to it in the warerooms at 18 West twenty-third street, where it may be heard at any time."  Not only could customers purchase a self-playing instrument, there were approximately 5,000 pieces of music to choose from.

"And yet the Aeolian is not the soulless work of a music box," explained the article, "the player can really guide the music of the Aeolian as a leader conducts an orchestra, and can give infinite expression by changing the time, the power, and the use of different combinations of steps."

In March 1895 Sarah Guernsey made additional updates to her former house, hiring architect R. H. Anderson to install an elevator shaft, change the stairs and make other alterations.  The $3,000 in changes did not apparently extend to the facade.

Aeolian Company continued to lease space and by 1899 was additionally publishing The Aeolian Quarterly here.

The instruments were not cheap.  The price of the illustrated parlor organ would be in the neighborhood of $15,000 today.  The Cosmopolitan, October 1895 (copyright expired)
On September 10, 1902 The New York Times announced that the building "now occupied by the Aeolian Company" had been leased.  The new tenant was the Butterick Publishing Company, and before moving in it commissioned architects Horgan & Slattery to make significant changes.

The firm filed plans on November 8.  They called for new walls, new vents and a new skylight; but most significantly a "new store front."  The cast iron front featured Renaissance Revival-style panels within the piers and pretty filigree arches.

Snippets of the Horgan & Slattery storefront survive on the first and second floors.
Surprisingly after investing $10,000 in the remodeling, Butterick Publishing subleased the building in the summer of 1907 to high-end milliner and furrier Simon Lindau.  The Real Estate Record & Guide announced he "will open a store as a branch of his present establishment at 933 Broadway."

Lindau, too, would not stay on especially long, leaving in the summer of 1911.  The first floor became home to Maxwell's jewelry store and Odell's fur and millinery shop (which extended onto the second floor).  The top three floors were vacant.

The following year, on December 26, an explosion in the basement occured around 9:50 at night.  By the time fire fighters arrived the fire had spread up the elevator shaft "and the blaze began to leap twenty feet above the roof," as reported by The Times.  A crowd of several thousand crammed West 23rd Street to watch the firemen fight the blaze.  It was extinguished without major damage to the building.  The newspaper reported "The major part of the damage was the ruin of furs by water."

Both Sarah Guernsey and William N. Guernsey had died in 1901, followed by Dr. Egbert Guernsey in 1903.  The title to No. 18 had passed to Florence Guernsey.  Among her tenants was the pottery store of M. Warren, the sole agent for Zanesville Pottery; and furniture dealer Charles S. Nathan who leased the store in January 1917.

Florence Guernsey never married.  She was highly active in women clubs and, according to the New-York Tribune, "early in life she showed a keen interest in all movements looking to the advancement of women."  She died on January 17, 1919.

No. 18 was sold at auction in March 1920, then quickly resold a month later to Charles H. Hall "who will use it for his New York warerooms," according to The Real Estate Record & Guide on April 17.

Charles Hall Inc, was founded in 1873 in Springfield, Massachusetts as a retail store selling china, glassware and general household goods.  Now No. 18 became "Hall House" where the firm's wholesale operations were based.  The building quickly proved to be too small and in 1924 the firm moved to No. 3 East 40th Street.

No. 18 was sold to Joseph M. Crucet and once again the building received a make-over.  Crucet commissiond Edward L. Middleton to do a startling update which resulted in a Mediterranean flavored splattering of Arts & Crafts-style tiles, two Spanish-tiled overhanging roofs at the second and fifth floors, and a stucco-faced parapet.  Rather surprisingly, almost nothing was done to the two-story 1902 Renaissance-Revival storefront.

Crucet's firm, the Crucet Manufacturing Company, was well-known for its handsome table and floor lamps.  In March, even while the renovations were taking place, Crucet leased the second floor to the Roseville Pottery Company for its showroom.

A 1920's advertisement suggested the wide range of lamps the firm offered.  Good Furniture Magazine, (copyright expired)

In June 1950 Bengor Products Company moved into the store and mezzanine.  Formed by Ben and Lou Gordon in 1925, the firm was emblematic of the change in businesses along the block.  In reporting on the move, Billboard magazine said the new store was "in the heart of the novelty import-export business."

Among the novelties Bengor hawked was the book Passions of Paris which gave the unsuspecting "reader" an electric shock. Billboard magazine, March 1, 1952

Bengor Products remained in the building for years, selling products the good taste of which were sometimes questionable.  In 1966 the firm marketed "Mr. John," described in the American Import & Export Bulletin as a "novelty gag-joke item shaped to resemble a urinal with a flush valve."

As the 20th century drew to a close Bengor Products and its gag items were gone.  In 1997 New York Magazine commented on "beauty pearls filled with moisturizer, cleanser or face scrub" that could be purchased at MCM Salon here.


In 2010 the top floors were converted to apartments.  A Mexican restaurant operates from the ground floor today and a spa from the second floor.  The eccentric mish-mash of upgrades to the old structure makes for a delightfully unique presence on the block--with no hint of the 1858 house hidden somewhere within.

photographs by the author

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Sullivan, Randolph & Budd Bldg - 80-82 White Street



Carpet dealer Elias S. Higgins plunged full force into the flurry of new construction that swept New York City after the Civil War.   In 1867 he began work on the Grand Hotel on Broadway at 31st Street, designed by Henry Engelbert.   The architect would design the even larger, more impressive Broadway Central Hotel for Higgins in 1871.

It was not a hotel that the two men worked together on in 1867 at Nos. 80-82 White Street, but an elegant loft and store building.   Faced in white marble above a cast iron storefront, the six-story building was completed in 1868.   The Italianate-style facade would have been typical of the scores of buildings going up in the district were it not for Englebert's neo-Grec detailing.  The architectural style had only just begun appearing in America and the elements--like the stylized capitals of the pilasters--took the design to the cutting edge.


By March 1868 the new building had became home to Sullivan, Randolph & Budd, importers of "woolens and goods for men's wear."  At the time it claimed to be the oldest textile house in the United States.  Founded around 1834 as Wilson G. Hunt & Co., the name was changed in 1864 when long-time employees Naham Sullivan, Peter F. Randolph and William A. Budd took over.

The firm had barely moved in when the 1868 guide History of New York City; From the Discovery to the Present Day described the "handsome marble structure."  "The building...is six stories high, with a splendid lofty basement, fitted up in the most complete and admirable manner.  A powerful steam-dummy performs the work of hoisting and lowering from basement to roof."

The firm's offices were on the first floor ("very tastefully arranged") as well as the sales room.  "The other principal floors are devoted to a complete stock of foreign and domestic fabrics, together with a full assortment of trimmings, etc., while in the top floor is stowed a large surplus."

Not mentioned in the article was Meinhard Bros. & Co., wholesale clothing merchants.  Based in Georgia, the company sub-leased an office in the White Street building.

from the Historical Record of the City of Savannah, 1869 (copyright expired)
Sullivan, Randolph & Budd was well-known for its durable uniform fabrics.  The firm supplied goods to West Point and other military schools, as well as the city's Municipal Police Department and other police organizations throughout the country.

But behind the scenes, there seems to have been discord among the management.  Shortly after taking over No. 80-82 White Street, the firm was changed to Sullivan, Budd & Co., then in 1871 to N. Sullivan & Co.  One by one Naham Sullivan's partners had dropped out.

After Sullivan & Co. moved to No. 329 Broadway around 1873 the White Street building became home to several smaller firms.  One of them, possibly Meinhard Bros., did not identify itself in an advertisement that appeared in The New York Herald on October 26 that year.  The wholesaler was offering excess stock to individual, private customers off the street:

Clothing at Your Own Use at wholesale prices, at 80 and 82 White street, up stairs, first building east of Broadway.  You can buy for the next 60 days, from our large and beautiful stock of Clothing, single Garments for your own use, and save you from 25 to 50 per cent.  Fashionable styles, equal to custom work.

An interesting tenant by 1875 was the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The White Street office was in charge of filling the annual supply list necessary for the Indian missions and reservations throughout the West.  On April 28, 1875 The New York Herald reported "Commissioner Edward P. Smith, of the Indian Department, held his annual reception yesterday, at No. 82 White street.  It was largely attended, and the visitors walked up and down and stood in groups discussing the prospects of the coming season, while the Commissioner read out the bids on which they proposed to supply the wants of 'Poor Lo.'" (Poor Lo! was the term commonly used for the group of missions.)

There were approximately 300 bidders whom the article identified as mostly from the West and "were nearly entirely composed of Indian contractors."  The men placed bids for contracts on everything from shoes and blankets to beef.

Also in the building at the time was dry goods merchant Charles M. Aikman & Co.  The firm was the target of inveterate thieves George Callahan, alias "the Countryman," and Charles Murphy, alias "Cheek," on the night of April 24, 1876.  The men were members of a gang of burglars wanted for a string break ins.  This time, however, they were spotted when they rushed down Courtlandt Alley with $500 worth of lace curtains and piano covers from Charles M. Aikman & Co.

The eyewitness account helped lead to the arrest of the pair along with their cohorts, John David, John Roche, alias "Casino," and James Stapleton, alias "Buck."  For the White Street burglary, Callahan and Murphy were held on $2,000 bail each--more than $47,000 today.

On February 19, 1880 a massive fire consumed the building at Nos. 384 and 386 Broadway, at the corner of White Street.  As the inferno spread to No. 388 firemen broke into No. 80-82 White Street and directed hoses "from the roof and windows," according to The New York Times.  Two fire fighters died fighting the blaze and the Broadway buildings were destroyed.

Even the gap provided by Courtlandt Alley could not prevent damage to the White Street structure.  The following month The Record & Guide reported that Higgins had hired architect William H. Holmes to repair the fire damage.

In the mid-1880's Wm. Topping & Co. operated its auction house from the address.  The firm sold off over-stocked goods or the residue from bankrupt firms, as well as real estate parcels.

A notable tenant in the 1890's was the carpet retailer Morris & McKay.   Its extensive line included not only carpeting, but "oil cloths, rags, mats, etc."  Mostly forgotten today, decorative oil cloth mats mimicked rugs and were placed beneath tables for easy clean-up and to protect expensive carpeting.

The Evening World, October 13, 1894 (copyright expired)

In July 1900 Eugene Higgins hired architect William H. Birkmire to update the aging structure.  New plumbing was installed, and "general alterations" done.  The upgrades cost the equivalent of more than $450,000 today.

They were enough to lure an important tenant by 1903, the Rhode Island-based Clark O. N. Thread company.  The quality maker constantly battled counterfeiters, as was reported on April 30, 1904 in The Sun.  The article noted "Last winter persons in the trade brought to the Clark offices at 82 White street reports that the Clark thread was being sold in the West in large quantities at prices very much below the market quotations.  An investigation showed that the Clark trade mark stamp had been counterfeited."

The following year Spool Cotton moved in, taking over the New York City operation for Clark O. N. T. Thread.  The company would remain here for several years representing Clark.

In 1911 it participated in a educational project in high schools nationwide.  The Annual Report of the Minnesota State High School Board that year explained "Not a few schools are acquiring illustrative material for their industrial department" and provided a list "of educational exhibits, which may be obtained free of charge by making courteous application to the addresses given below."  Included was Spool Cotton, which offered examples of "spool cotton and needles."

A major change came in 1913 when Jenkins Bros. leased the entire building.   Makers of plumbing valves, the firm was nationally recognized.  Their main plant was located in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The House Beautiful, October 1920 (copyright expired)

The dependability and quality of the Jenkins projects was best evidenced when the firm was contracted to produce the valves for United States naval ships during World War II.  Following a worker walk-out in 1944, an Executive Order from the White House directed "that all employees were instructed to report for work immediately."

Wartime ads differed greatly from the domestic setting of 20 years earlier.  This one may have had a message to the plant's employees as well.
The Government went a step further.   On April 13 that year an order from the War Department read "Sec. of the Navy authorized to take possession of and operate the plants and facilities of Jenkins Bros, Inc."

Following the war Jenkins Bros. returned to business as usual.  In the spring of 1949, after more than three decades at No. 80-82 White Street, it signed a lease in the new building at No. 100 Park Avenue.  On May 18 The New York Times announced that the White Street building "was sold by the heirs of Eugene Higgins."  The buyer, it said, "plans to occupy the building when it is vacated by Jenkins Bros."

For decades the General Hardware Manufacturing Company occupied the building.  By 1992 the Tribeca renaissance had reached White Street and Art In General, a non-profit exhibition space, leased space in the building.

A substantial renovation and restoration began in 2016 to transform No. 80-82 White Street to retail space, offices, and an apartment.   Still owned by General Hardware, now General Tools, the firm announced it was vacating the premises.  It had commissioned the firm FSI Architecture to do the work.


In May 2017 Artists Space, a non-profit gallery, announced it would be moving to the renovated building.

photographs by the author

Thursday, May 17, 2018

From Squalor to Charm--Grove Court in Greenwich Village




Routinely the rowhouses erected in Greenwich Village in the first decades of the 19th century included auxiliary structures in the rear yards--either small houses, shops (like carpenter or blacksmith shops), or in some cases stables.  A notable exception would take place behind the houses built by James N. Wells at Nos. 6 through 10 Grove Street between 1825 and 1834.

At the corner of Grove and Bedford Streets in 1848 was the grocery store of Cocks & Bowron.  Samuel Cocks possessed the strip of land, known as a horsewalk, next to No. 10 Grove Street which lead to the rear yards.  That year he purchased the leaseholds of those yards from Samuel Stryker (Trinity Church had owned the land since 1714 when it was granted by Queen Anne).

Cocks's grocery store was steps away from what would become Grove Court, at Bedford and Grove Streets.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Cocks had six brick houses erected on the site.  Completed in 1854 they were intended for working-class families.  Considered a single lot for tax purposes, all six shared the same address of 10½ Grove Street.

Visible from the street only through the narrow passageway, the enclave quickly gained a lowly reputation.  Decades later historian W. P. Dudley wrote in the New-York Tribune that behind the houses that fronted Grove Street, "another row appeared, minus the decorative entablatures and lead-lighted doorways, and fronted by a little alley of its own in the narrow strip in the rear of the garden walls."

Dudley explained that pigs "like the cats of the present, used to roam at large...The sight of these animals careering up and down the narrow way or looking out at the gate brought the place its first name, Pig's Alley."

As the riverfront developed, according to Dudley, "the little alley [became] a settlement of oldtime longshoremen.  These were a rough and boisterous lot, and again conditions gave the place a name, this time Mixed Ale Alley."  One explanation for the term is that the tenants, without money enough to buy a mug of beer, would pour the dregs of several glasses left on the bar or on tables into one container.  It is a colorful, if questionable, story.

One of those "rough and boisterous" longshoremen living here in 1880 was John O'Hare.   He worked on the Cunard dock at Pier 40.  According to The Sun on September 19 that year, he and his coworkers had "formed a clique among themselves to control the business of the pier and keep away outsiders."  And so they were not pleased when two weeks earlier longshoreman Patrick Barrett left the White Star pier and managed to get hired on the Cunard dock.

The Sun reported "The Cunard men were very angry, and tried to frighten Barrett away by threats of violence.  They subjected him to all kinds of annoyances, and sought to pick a quarrel with him."  Things worsened on Thursday, September 16 when John O'Hare attacked him.  It initially appeared that O'Hare had picked the wrong man as Barrett was "getting the best of O'Hare," according to the newspaper.  Then one of O'Hare's cohorts, Patrick Dalton, came to his aid.  After severely beating Barrett, the pair were later arrested and fined.  

The incident only inflamed sentiments against Barrett.  Fearful for his safety he went to the Charles Street police station and asked for protection.   He was told that no warrants were issued on Saturday, so he reluctantly returned to work on the pier.  On his way home that evening he was ambushed by Dalton and three other men (O'Hare was not among them this time).  Beaten badly and suffering a deep gash on his forehead, Barrett got to his feet and ran back toward the pier.

Just as the men were about to overtake him, he pulled out his revolver and fired three times, fatally hitting Dalton just over the heart and wounding two of the other men in the groin.  Barrett was arrested.  The "great crowd" of angry longshoremen who marched to the police station "was disposed to be ugly," according to The Sun.

One boy living in the row in 1909 narrowly escaped a horrifying accident on August 22.  Perhaps to escape the heat of the night, James Leddy and three other neighborhood boys, Daniel Carver, Harold Dorie and Eugene O'Keefe took a rowboat from the foot of Barrow Street out into the Hudson River.  They were all 14 years old except for Harold, who was 15.

In the darkness the little boat was struck and smashed by a ferryboat.  Hearing the commotion, Francis Carey and Thomas Cavanaugh, who were also out in a small boat, paddled to the scene.  They were able to find James and Eugene in the dark water and pull them on board .  Tragically, the other two boys were drowned.


"Charming" is not the term that comes to mind in this photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.

After owning the property for more than two centuries, Trinity Church sold the Grove Street houses and those in the courtyard behind them in June 1920 to the Alentaur Realty Company.  The New York Times reported "The sale was closed through Pepe & Brother."  The developers were well known in the Greenwich Village area for remodeling run-down, antiquated houses--like those on Minetta Lane--into modern structures, often incorporating artists studios.  The first step in rehabilitation was rechristening the enclave Grove Court.

On December 5, 1920 the New-York Tribune admitted "Grove Court is on first inspection of doubtful adaptability as a beauty spot."  The article called the houses "ramshackle."   It explained "the first step in the plan, after eliminating back-yard fences and out-houses, was to cut off the cement-paved entrance court by a lattice fence, to piece out the side of the main court.  The old brick and stone pavement in front of the rear houses was readjusted to form a broad and shaded promenade running the length of the row.  

A month before the article all six of the Grove Court houses had been sold.  Each sold, according to The New York Times, for about $4,500--about $61,600 today.  The newspaper called them "quaint" on December 12 and said "work will soon start in beautifying the little court into a pleasant garden with trees and flowers."  


Pig's Alley in 1913, and Grove Court in 1922.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the first occupants was the Sidney Robbins family, who bought No. 5.  At the time of the purchase an old pump still sat in the center of the courtyard, its water presumably drawn from the old Minetta spring.   Years later the Robbins proudly displayed a relic exhumed in the basement when workmen were digging space for a heater.  A shovel clanged onto a metal object which turned out to be a pewter tankard, clearly dated 1784.

Grove Court was still squalid when O. Henry wrote his short story "The Last Leaf" in 1907.  Nevertheless literary lore placed its setting here shortly after Grove Court was rehabilitated.  On June 2, 1935 L. B. Robbins, writing in The New York Times, said:

At least one O. Henry spot remains just about as he knew it: Grove Court, off little Grove Street, deep down in Greenwich Village, where his tale, "The Last Leaf," had its origin.  Front a bend of the street you look through an iron gate into a quaint nook of old-time houses in the rear of the block, with green growing things making a Springtime landscape at their doorsteps.  You can enter the gate and see the ivy vine where seemed to hang the left which the old artist painted on the brick wall by lanternlight to give a dying girl the courage to get well."

Mrs. Robbins and her two sons, Alan and Robert (both sculptors), were still living in No. 5 when the City Planning Commission proposed to eradicate Grove Court.  Meyer Berger wrote in The New York Times on December 8, 1954 that the Commission "is toying with the notion of wiping Grove Court off the map, and some twenty other buildings with it.  The report is that the city wants the space for a playground."



Using his trademark prose style, Berger painted a romantic picture of the hidden mews. "When you're past the gate, at the very spot where Grove Street bends, between Hudson and Bedford Streets, it's as if you had just stepped in from London's Berkeley Square--winter-stripped trees, lovely doorways, sleeping gardens, bits of statuary.  The illusion is perfect at twilight and after dark."

"Lying in their beds under the ancient rooftops and chimney pots, the tenants get only the heartbreak wail of groping river traffic on foggy nights--that and, now the almost audible tread of Progress and the playground," he wrote.

Berger's eloquent intercession may have been partly responsible for the City Planning Commission to scrap its plan the following day.




The iron gate is no longer unlocked, and a small sign warns "No Trespassing."  Within the courtyard the tranquility is as overwhelming as the charm.  And the casual passerby who peers between the iron bars could hardly imagine its squalid beginnings.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

From Violins to Chevy Chase to Zen - 124 East 95th Street



By the late 1880's development on the Upper East Side had reached as far as Goat Hill--presumably named because its steep slope made it unworkable for planting, but quite satisfactory for grazing goats.   In 1887 developer brothers William J. and John P. C. Walsh set out on an ambitious project of a row of 12 residences on the south side of the 95th Street block between Lexington and Park Avenues--numbers 116 to 138.

The architectural firm of C. Abbott French & Co. turned to the popular Queen Anne style for the individual, yet harmonious homes.  Seen more frequently on the west side of Central Park, the often-whimsical style played with historic elements, materials, shapes and colors.

Nearly in the center of the row was No. 124.  Completed in 1888, its parlor level was crowned with an exuberant terra cotta swan neck pediment filled with flowing ribbons and a garland of roses in full bloom.   Its upper curves touched the hooded metal bay of the second floor.  The three-bay arcade of the third floor had a continuous terra cotta eyebrow and was flanked by interesting panels of waffle-like brickwork.  Within the triangular pediment above was a swirling mass of terra cotta vines and flowers that disguised a growling "green man."

Most often lost to the passerby, a snarling "green man"--so called because he is composed of foliage--hides within the terra cotta decoration.
The 19-foot wide house contained 10 rooms and one bath.  An extension into the rear yard accommodated the butler's pantry.  After leasing it for a few years, real estate operator James D. Putnam sold it to Christoper D. Sullivan in May 1901.  He resold it on January 3, 1902 to Henry and Emma Skalmer for $14,525--in the neighborhood of $427,000 today.

Now retired, Skalmer had been well-known on the concert stage.  A violinist, he had been a member of the New York String Quartet with Sam Franko, Sebastian Laender and Arthur Severn.  The group routinely appeared in concert venues like Steinway Hall.

Henry and Emma had six children: Morris, Mark, Joseph, Lilian, Gussie, and Blanche.  By the time the family took possession of No. 124 it appears only Morris, Mark and Blanche were still living with their parents.

Morris was an established dentist, and it was now Mark who was known to concert goers.  On March 23, 1902 The New York Times announced "Mark Skalmer, the 'cellist, announces a concert for next Wednesday evening at Mendelssohn Hall, in which he will be assisted by Miss Hildegard Hoffmann, soprano, and Leopold Winkler, pianist."

On July 26, 1919 the Skalmers announced Blanche's engagement to contractor Joseph Harry Goldblatt.   Following her marriage, Morris stayed on in the house with his aging parents.

Henry Skalmer died in the 95th Street house on November 28, 1924.   The Depression seems to have been financially stressful for Emma and she remortgaged the house several times before losing possession in the 1930's.  Morris came to the rescue, taking the title back from Margaret D. Geyelin in March 1939 with a new mortgage equal to about $335,000 today.

Emma Skalmer died in January 1944.  The 94th Street house became home to the family of stockbroker Otto Culman.  Culman had married Muriel MacGuire in a quiet ceremony in the home of the bride's parents, Dr. and Mrs. Constantine J. MacGuire, at No. 120 East 60th Street on April 9, 1921.

Otto's father, William Culman, was vice president of the Atlantic Macaroni Company and former president of the California Wine Association.  His funeral service on Monday September 22, 1941 was held in the 95th Street house.

Although their names appeared in the Social Register, Muriel preferred to work rather than while her afternoons away with teas and lunches.  She was the manager of Kathleen, Inc., a dress shop owned by her sister.



The Culmans had two children, Kathleen and Peter.  Both would go on to notable careers.  

Educated at the St. Lawrence Academy and the Brearley School, Kathleen attended Smith College and graduated from the Minnesota State Teachers College.  She had left the 95th Street house in June 1943 following her marriage to Robert Blair Ridder.  Greatly influenced by her mother, she became an activist for women in sports, politics and education.  The author of three books, an autobiography entitled My Feminist Life; one about her mother, A Woman Ahead of her Time; and Kathleen Inc, the story of the dress shop Muriel ran with her two sisters.


Kathleen was a major financial contributor to Ridder Arena, the first women's ice hockey facility in the country,   She served on the American Bar Association's accreditation committee tasked with reviewing American law school academics.

Peter showed a proclivity for the stage when he was young.  Decades later The Baltimore Sun noted "His interest in the theater began early.  When he was a child, he spent summers with his older sister in St. Paul, Minn., where he entertained family members and friends with heartfelt renditions of 'Danny Boy' and staged shows in his sister's barn."

His first public appearance was impromptu at best.  In 1948 when he was 10 years old, he went to his first Broadway show, Where's Charley?, with this grandmother.  Their seats were close to the stage, in the fourth row.  Peter knew all the words to the song "Once In Love with Amy" and when Ray Bolger began singing it, the boy rose from his seat and joined along.  Bolger reportedly never missed a beat and continued on--soon accompanied by the entire audience.  In the 1980's Bolger laughingly recounted the story to a journalist.

Peter went on to be the managing director of Baltimore's Center Stage.  He held the position for more than three decades and was credited for making it one of the most prominent regional theaters in the country.

The Culmans sold No. 124 in May 1946.   It became home to the Everitt family.  Charles Raymond was educated at the University of Oxford.  His ancestors had settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts in the early 18th century.  The family still maintained a country home, Miles River Farm, there.  It was there that Everitt died on May 23, 1947.




Everitt and his widow, the former Helen Goetzmann, had four children, Rae Alexander, Jeanne, Charles Bell, and Samuel Agar. Jeanne's wedding to Stewart Richardson on December 8, 1951 was held in the house. Her brother, Charles, gave her away and Rae was her only attendant. A reception was held at the Cosmopolitan Club.

By the time of Samuel's wedding on October 27, 1962, Helen had moved permanently to Hopewell, New Jersey. The 95th Street house had become home to psychiatrist John W. Cederquist and his wife, the former Cathalene Parker Crane and her children from her first marriage to Edward T. Chase, Ned and Cornelius Crane. The Cederquists would have three other children, Pamela, Catherine, and John.

Cathalene, a concert pianist and librettist, had grown up in an academic and privileged environment. She had been adopted by her step-father, Cornelius Vanderbilt Crane, who, in addition to being an explorer and archaeologist, was the head of the Connecticut-based Crane Company.

Young Cornelius Chase was an apparent handful. After being kicked out of the exclusive Riverdale School on the Upper West Side, he was sent to a boarding school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Cornelius rarely used his given name, being known instead by the nickname his grandmother gave him, "Chevy."  Beginning around 1967 he embarked on an acting and comedy career and Chevy Chase would become a household name after the debut of Saturday Night Live in October 1975.



The charming rowhouse never underwent a conversion to apartments. Just before the turn of the century it became home to Rev. Diane Ryoko Shainberg.  Rev. Shainberg established the Carnegie Hill Zen Center in the house, primarily meeting once a week. The 2000 book The Buddhist Guide to New York explained "the participants sit for two periods of meditation, listen to a sermon from Diane, and hold discussions with each other. Once a month there are full-day sittings, as well as another entire day a month devoted to ZPO [Zen Peacemaker Order] sitting, coordinating, and Bearing Witness activities."

photographs by the author

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Purdy and Guilfoy Houses - 640-642 West 158th Street



No. 640 (center left) and 642, both now rather dismal looking, were originally exact matches.

In the 18th century the land far north of the city--areas which would later earn the names Washington Heights, Harlem and Harlem Heights, for instance--was dotted with farms and the country estates of the wealthy, like the elegant Georgian mansion of Roger Morris (known today as the Morris-Jumel Mansion).

The area's refreshing breezes and hilly geography continued to lure wealthy residents for decades following the Revolution.  In 1841 renowned naturalist and illustrator James John Audubon purchased 20 acres of the former estate of British Colonel John Maunsell, which had been enlarged by his nephew John Watkins.  Audubon erected a home here where he lived with his family until his death in January 1851.

Audubon's widow, Lucy, left the estate in 1854 and leased the house.  When she died in 1874 at the age of 86 the area was still sparsely developed.  But that began to change as improvements in public transportation inched northward.  By the mid 1880s rowhouses appeared around what was now known as Audubon Park and within a decade development was in full swing.

In 1896 architect John P. Leo got in on the trend.  He and investor John G. R. Lillienthal bought eight plots along West 158th Street from another architect, August W. Cordes.   Leo designed the houses in a nearly-balanced A-B-B-A-A-B-B-C plan.  Why No. 648 stood starkly apart from the otherwise symmetrical row is puzzling.


Among the first of the homes to be sold was No. 640.  The 18-foot wide house was purchased by the 34-year old E. Lawson Purdy in June 1897.  The son of an Episcopal minister, he was educated at St. Paul's School in Concord, Massachusetts, and at Trinity College.

By the time Purdy moved his family into the new home, his career had taken a drastic turn.  He had started out with the New York Bank Note Company; but around 1890 he read Henry George's Progress and Poverty.  More than half a century later a close friend, V. G. Peterson commented on the impact the book had on Purdy.  "Soon afterwards he deserted business to enter the field of tax reform."  In 1896 he was appointed secretary of the Tax Reform Association, the goal of which was to improve unfair tax laws

Three months after Purdy bought No. 640, J. G. Creamer purchased the house next door.   But he never had a chance to move in.  The wealthy attorney was a member of the Harvard Club and was generally well respected.  But he had developed some eccentricities that caused several of his formerly-close friends to avoid him.

Just a month after he purchased the 158th Street house, The Sun explained "Two years or more ago, it is said, Mr. Creamer was set upon by a gang of toughs late at night in this city, and was pummeled with brass knuckles.  He was ill for some time.  After his apparent recovery, it was observed that he had queer notions on one or two subjects, although perfectly rational in every other way."

Among his "queer notions" was the belief that he was a connoisseur of fine wines.  It was a affectation that had caused wealthy people summering at Saratoga that year to be "alternately amused and annoyed."   The newspaper noted "He would approach persons with whom he had only the slightest acquaintance, insist upon their drinking with him and listening while he discoursed on the quality of the wine.  His manner at such times was abrupt and excitable."

Creamer had not yet moved into No. 642 on September 26 when he landed in Jefferson Market Police dressed for an evening out.  The Sun reported "he was dressed in evening clothes, and carried a silk hat, overcoat, and a walking stick."   He had been arrested, along with two women, Nellie Daly and Rena Anderson by Policeman Pierson--Creamer for intoxication and the women for stealing $70 from the attorney.

Creamer create a scene of sorts.  He "vigorously protested that he was not intoxicated at the time, and called Pierson a liar."  The judge's reprimand caused him to apologize.  The two women insisted that they had not stolen the $70, but that Creamer had given it to them "in a burst of generosity."  It was a generous burst, indeed, equaling more than $2,000 today.  Creamer confirmed their story and they were released.

It was one of final episodes of the wealthy attorney's embarrassing public displays.  On October 2, 1897 The Sun ran a headline "J. G. Creamer's Insanity" and reported "His friends were convinced that the only way to avoid more and more frequent outbursts, with their disagreeable consequences, was to have him confined where his head could be treated."

Instead of Creamer, the Purdys' new neighbors became the Dr. William H. Guilfoy family.  The physician and his wife, the former Mary Powers, had four daughters, Alice, Mary, Florence and Kathryn, and a son, William Jr.

Born in lower Manhattan to Irish immigrant parents in 1860, Dr. Guilfoy had the distinction of being the first person to take a competitive civil service examination in New York State.  It resulted in his being appointed a medical clerk in the Health Department in March 1885.  In 1901 he was appointed Registrar of the Department.  In this post he changed the course of medicine by establishing vital statistics records.

His detailed statistics recorded death and birth rates, causes of deaths and illnesses, and enabled medical authorities to recognize patterns and developing epidemics.  On April 6, 1909, for instance, he released figures showing that deaths among children under one year old that week totaled 324, up from 294 that same period the previous year.  He attributed the increase "largely to the great prevalence of grip" (or influenza).

At the time that Guilfoy was made Registrar, Purdy was the Secretary of the New-York Tax Reform Association.   On November 9, 1906 he was appointed president of the Tax Department by Mayor George B. McClellan .  In reporting on the appointment, The Sun noted "He has been a prime mover in the presentation of bills to the State Legislature for the purpose of establishing changes for the benefit of the taxpayer....He has written several books on the subject of tax problems."

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 19, 1915 (copyright expired)

The mayor had dismissed Purdy's affiliation with Tammany Hall.  The Sun explained "Mayor McClellan intimated yesterday that in appointing Mr. Purdy he had not given so much regard to Mr. Purdy's political leanings as to the fact that he was one of the foremost experts on questions of taxation."

The two highly-visible neighbors would remain in the twin houses for decades, both regularly appearing in the newspapers for their commendable actions and sometimes controversial comments.

Railing at the city government for its less-than-aggressive crackdown on the cocaine epidemic in 1912, Guilfoy did not hold back.  "The punishment of the trafficker in cocaine should be as drastic as that meted out to the man who menaces society with a revolver or a stiletto," he told reporters on December 3.

Calling incurable addicts "fiends," he made what would be deemed a sexist distinction between an addict and a user.  "I have heard of cases where men got over the habit after becoming slaves to it, but I have never heard of a woman fiend being able to stop its use once she became addicted to the drug."

Early 20th century scientific and medical research scrambled to keep up with a changing world; a fact reflected in a judgment Guilfoy made during a coroner's inquest in 1916.   William H. Noll and his wife, Miranda, had been married only five days on January 22, when he decided to "tinker" with his automobile.  Because of the frigid winter temperature, the garage was tightly closed.  Miranda sat inside the car and her husband worked.  The following morning they were both found dead.

Their deaths were said to be "petromortis," or death by gasoline.  The coroner said that "he had never heard of a fatal result from inhaling gasolene fumes," said the New-York Tribune; and Guilfoy concurred, saying he had never come across a case of gasoline poisoning.  "The fumes of all coal tar products are dangerous," he said, "if breathed to any extent, but I never heard of this newly invented disease."  We recognize their deaths today, of course, to carbon monixide poisoning.

Later that year Dr. Guilfoy would be dealing with a more far-reaching problem.  Infantile paralysis, or polio, had broken out within the city in alarming numbers.  In the month of June there were nearly 400 cases reported.  The analysis produced by Guilfoy's department analysis was terrifying.  On July 4, 1916 The New York Times said "Dr. William H. Guilfoy...estimated yesterday that, in the last few days, there had been one death from infantile paralysis every two and a half hours.  He added that this rate showed no signs of diminishing."

The Health Department took drastic action after 72 new cases were reported on July 3 and 23 deaths had occurred in the past 24 hours.  The Health Commissioner announced that "children under 16 years of age will be forbidden [to enter] the motion-picture theatres in this city all Summer."  Any movie theater found admitting youngsters would lose its license.

In 1921 Lawson Purdy (he had stopped using his first initial by now) was also known for his helping create the city's zoning laws.  As a matter of fact, The New York Herald deemed him the "Father of Zoning Law."   At a meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers on December 21 that year, he attacked what he considered a serious problem--the upsurge in neon advertising signs.

Purdy was most disturbed by the flashing lights of 42nd Street and proposed to get rid of them.  "I am inclined to believe that outdoor signs, with the exception of the small sign advertising what may be sold or made on the premises, ought not to have any place on the public streets," he said.

When asked specifically about Times Square, he called the neon lights there "hideous and disgraceful."  Obviously, it was one issue where Purdy did not get his way; and resulted in the brilliant neon displays that helped make Times Square internationally recognizable.

Next door Mary Guilfoy had received her teaching license that year.  And by now the Guifoy household included John F. Redmond, who had married Alice in 1917.  He was the managing editor of Editor & Publisher magazine.   Like his father-in-law, who was a member of the American Irish Historical Society, Redford was proud of his roots and a member of The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.

Independence day 1923 was not one of celebration in the Guilfoy house.  Instead it was the scene of Redford's funeral.  The young man had died two days earlier.

After 45 years working for the city, Guilfoy retired on July 1, 1929.  The Times said "It was one of Dr. Guilfoy's favorite pastimes to point out that he had seen the death rate of the city decrease from 28 per 1,000 to 11.75 per 1,000, and had observed the attitude of the city administration change toward such matters as sanitation and hygiene with old dangerous methods supplanted by modern safeguards to the public health."

On Friday, May 17, 1935 the 75-year old became ill.  His condition worsened to pneumonia and he died in the 158th Street house on May 23.  His funeral was held in the nearby Church of Our Lady of Esperanza two days later.   Mary Powers Guilfoy died on August 27, 1942.

Two years before Mary's death, Lawson Purdy had sold No. 640 to Goulbourne Clarke "for investment."   The Guifoy house became home to Martin Lowenthall and his bride, the former Margot Kaztenstein.  The couple announced the arrive of their son, Eric Harold, on December 22, 1946.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the block had significantly declined.  The once-proud houses suffered neglect and abuse.  In 1991 renovations were done on No. 642, still a one-family home, which might have made Mary Guifoy shudder.

The staircase is original, the wedged-in columns with the non-matching gilded capitals are not.
A bathroom in the renovated No. 640 has a decidedly Las Vegas flair. above photos via beatingupwind.com
In 1994 the Purdy house was converted to apartments, one each on the lower floors and two on the top.



For reasons known only to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, when the Audubon Park Historic District was designated in 2009 it stopped abruptly at the John P. Leo designed row.  The twin houses, once home to two of New York City's movers and shakers, are at the mercy of current and future homeowners.

photographs by the author

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Lost Home For the Friendless - 32 East 30th St


print by Michelin & Shattuck, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The American Female Guardian Society was formed in New York in the spring of 1834.  One of its members, Mrs. M. A. Hawkins, soon turned her attention to the plight of single mothers and prostitutes.  Women who became pregnant while not married suffered serious censure, branded as "fallen women."   Hawkins's deep concerns led to the formation of the New York Moral Reform Society that same year.

As the American Female Guardian Society's Our Golden Jubilee explained in 1884, "The care of homeless, friendless women involved the care of children.  If we can save the children, we shall not have so many suffering and sinning adults to provide for, was the thought that grew and strengthened."  Mrs. Hawkins lobbied for a "Home for both these destitute classes."  After a long, tireless struggle, Mrs. Hawkins got her way.

In July 1847 a house was rented to be used as The Home of the Friendless.  For two years unwed mothers and their children were taken care of there.  In the meantime, land was purchased on East 30th Street, between Fourth (now Park) and Madison Avenues, and on May 5, 1849 the cornerstone was laid.

Our Golden Jubilee remarked "The site selected was then quite up-town, in the centre of an almost vacant block, well shaded with trees and green with shrubbery.  The neighboring streets were laid out, but unpaved, and there were few buildings in the immediate vicinity."

The building was dedicated on December 13, 1849.  The architect, whose name has been lost, created a stately three story Greek Revival edifice.  Full-height pilasters divided the three bays of the front facade and visually supported the classic triangular pediment.   The New York Herald reported the construction cost at $18,577.57--in the neighborhood of $615,000 today.  Of that amount only $2,800 was still unpaid.

Annual Report of the American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless, 1852 (copyright expired)
A religious tract published in 1879 described the original residents as being mostly "widows, mothers with dependent children, and adolescent girls seeking employment."

The Home was operated solely on donations and pleas for contributions routinely appeared in newspapers.  Following Thanksgiving in 1850 a notice in the New-York Daily Tribune said in part "It must take considerable, in the provision line, to feed an average family of one hundred adults and children, and we were glad to learn that our citizens remembered them so liberally the last season."

One donor that fall was not a citizen, but a foreign celebrity--singer Jenny Lind.  On September 14, 1850 attorneys Jay & Field sent a letter to the Home that read:

We are instructed by Miss Lind to request your acceptance of the enclosed donation of five hundred dollars to the funds of your Association as a mark of the warm interest which she feels in so excellent a Charity belonging to a City where she has been received so kindly.  We beg leave to add our own best wishes, to those of Miss Lind, for the continued prosperity and usefulness of your Institution.

The Home for the Friendless (or the Home of the Friendless as it was also called) was never intended to be a permanent home.  Women and their children were welcome only until they could procure employment and a respectable place to stay.  The New York Times explained "Those friendless females...are surrounded by strong temptations, and such as are the mark for the designing, are afforded a home till employment can be found in the country, where they may be safe."

A journalist from that newspaper visited on Thanksgiving Day, 1853.  The description he painted may have been a bit rosy.  "Entering from the front it does not seem so much like a public as a private house," said the article.  "Wonderfully pretty ladies, with petted children accompanying them, are moving through the halls, into and out of the various parlors."  The writer was shown "the pleasant places, the snug store-room, the clean and tidy kitchen, and school-room hung round with slates and maps, where the urchins under the charge of another lass scarcely older than themselves, are singing some pleasant childish thing to the tune of 'Lilly Dale'; the well-ventilated dormitories all fitted with iron bedsteads; the nursery where the several little ones are frolicking on the floor; the sick-room which seldom--it is a matter of heartfelt thanksgiving with them to-day--has an occupant, and the dining-room."

In 1856 the property directly behind the Home, on 29th Street, was secured and another building erected for school rooms, a chapel, and a publishing office.

The 29th Street building.  Our Golden Jubilee, 1881 (copyright expired)
The following year the Home's charter was amended to accept orphans.  The children were trained in the facility's Industrial School where boys learned a trade and girls were taught domestic skills.  In what today is often seen as cruel, the Home For the Friendless partnered with the Children's Aid Society to send young boys to "the country" to live and work.

Farmers and small businessmen, like hardware store owners, petitioned for a boy who would be sent on what became known as an "Orphan Train."  The plan was to get the boys out of the corrupt city and give them a new life.  In fact, the orphans were indentured servants--in other words, slaves.  While some were treated well, others suffered.

In 1861 there were 208 women and 372 children in the Home.  The Home School gave instruction to 610 pupils.  But the bloody Civil War was about to swell those numbers.  In May 1865 the Female Guardian Society reported "A large number of the friendless ones received into the home were the children of soldiers."

The report was pleased with the well-behaved orphans, noting "Accounts of a specially favorable nature had been received of five hundred of the Home boys, and only thirty-nine the reverse."

Another institution which sheltered war orphans was the Union Home School.  The two groups faced off in court on February 8, 1865.  The Union Home School demanded that the Home for the Friendless return "certain children alleged to have been spirited away from the Union establishment," according to The New York Herald.  The newspaper said "the court room was crowded by a large number of ladies and gentlemen, who were eager to learn the result, and came in their carriages for miles around to be present at the tilt between the opposing counsel."

The Union Home School asserted that the Home for the Friendless had, essentially, kidnapped orphans "simply to defeat the appropriation donated by the Legislature and turn if over to the Home of the Friendless."  The Home of the Friendless countered, saying the Union Home School had no right to act as guardians and attempted to produce affidavits "to show how badly things were conducted in that establishment."  The judge was not interested, saying he "desired to hear the legal argument of the case."

Little was changed to the building in 1868.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Institutions like the Home for the Friendless were pet projects of wealthy socialites.  On August 28, 1867 the New-York Tribune reported "The children of the Home of the Friendless spent yesterday quite pleasantly at the mansion of Mrs. D. C. Hays, at Inwood."

From its inception the Home for the Friendless was a Christian organization.  And the charity of the women who ran it did not extend to Jews.   The religious bigotry was exemplified in 1880 when a young boy, James Smith, was taken in by an actress, Mrs. David Fuller.

The Home apparently did not mind that she "used him in child's parts on the stage," as reported by the New-York Tribune on October 31 that year.  But when she found herself unable to support him and asked pawnbroker Robert J. Rosenthal to take him.

Rosenthal and the boy grew close.  The Tribune reported "He conceived a fancy for the child, although he was a Hebrew and the child was born of Christian parents."   When the actress changed her mind and demanded the boy back, Rosenthal refused.  So she went back to the Home for the Friendless for help.

On October 30 the boy was turned over to the Home.  "This was done on representations that Mr. Rosenthal was not a proper person to bring up the child, and that in his home the child would not be surrounded by proper influences," said the Tribune.  "The Surrogate yesterday decided that the society had the right to the custody of the child, and he sharply criticised the method by which Mr. Rosenthal obtained the letters of guardianship."

On May 8, 1889 the Home celebrated its 55th anniversary.  Visitors were invited to stroll through the buildings and witness evidence of the organization's good work.   They "came by the score and found awaiting them companies of little girls with white aprons and spick and span from crown to toe, and boys done up in neat clothing, with faces scrubbed, hair brushed, and boots blacked," reported The New York Times.  The visitors saw an exhibition of the children's work, including sewing, knitting, writing, drawing and cookery by the girls, and carpentry and printing by the boys.

The previous year the Home had sheltered 118 women and 361 children.  Of those 59 children had been adopted.

As the turn of the century neared, the Murray Hill neighborhood was fully developed.  On February 23, 1901 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Home had purchased land in The Bronx and had "recently sold the 29th street property to the Women's Hotel Company.

Months later the Home for the Friendless and the Home Chapel building were demolished, to be replaced by the Martha Washington Hotel, designed by Robert W. Gibson.  It survives.

photo by Beyond My Ken