Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lost C. A. Postley Mansion - 817 Fifth Avenue

Postley's addition is seen just beyond the stoop at the side.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the mid 1880s wealthy New Yorkers were abandoning "Millionaires' Row" below 59th Street and erecting fine residences on Fifth Avenue along Central Park.   Speculative developers, too, joined the trend and in 1885 Charles T. Barney completed a mansion on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street.

Barney had commissioned Robert H. Robertson, with whom he already had a working relationship, to design the residence.  The Philadelphia-born architect was known for his personal take on the popular Romanesque Revival style.  For the Barney project he married that style with the emerging Queen Anne.

Clad in red brick and stone, the completed house was a visual feast of angles and shapes.  While the entrance above a dog-legged stoop was on 63rd Street, the residence took the more impressive Fifth Avenue address, No. 817.  Robertson's signature Romanesque Revival style--appearing only at the second floor--took back stage to Queen Anne.   By simply chamfering the corner above the second floor, Robertson gave the impression of a two-story setback.  A profusion of stained glass transoms, a riot of angles and shapes, and a delightful mountainscape of dormers and peaks at the attic level were all typical Queen Anne elements.

In May 1885 Barney sold the newly-completed residence to Clarence Ashley Postley for $100,000.  But the new owner had even grander ideas in mind for the house.  He immediately brought Robertson back to enlarge it by creating a seamless extension on the plot at No. 2 West 63rd Street.  The $10,500 project brought the total cost of the mansion to what would today amount to about $2.8 million.

Three years after the Postley mansion (right) was completed, the Progress Club opened on the opposite corner.   photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Postley came from a long line of military men.  His great-grandfather was an officer in the Revolutionary War; his grandfather, Charles Postley, was an officer in the War of 1812; and his father was General Brooke Postley, "commander during the Rebellion of the famous Hussar Brigade," as described by historian William Van Rensselaer Miller in his 1894 Select Organizations in the United States.  Miller added that the Postley family traced its New York roots "to its earliest history."

Clarence, too, started out in the military.  He graduated from West Point in 1870 and served in the Third U. S. Artillery, and was an instructor of mathematics at West Point for five years.

In 1874 he married Margaret Vincent Sterling.  The couple would have two children, Elise (known popularly as Elsie) and Sterling.  In 1883, two years before buying the Fifth Avenue mansion, Clarence retired.  He turned his attention to what he most enjoyed, club life, horses and yachting.  His club memberships included (but were not limited to) the University, Union League, Players', New York Athletic, Hamilton Park, New York Jockey, Coney Island Jockey, New York Yacht, American Yacht, Corinthian Yacht, Larchmont Yacht, and Seawanhaka Yacht Clubs.

The family (including Postley's parents) had barely moved into its new home before Clarence addressed a neighborhood problem: the Menagerie in Central Park at 64th Street.  He signed a protest to the Board of Estimate in November 1885 which complained, in part, "The noise and confusion that naturally attends upon public exhibitions of this kind, tends materially to disturb the peace and comfort of those who reside in its immediate vicinity."  (Interestingly, enough, within a few years Clarence would be a supporting member of the New York Zoological Society.)  Other signatures on the petition gave a hint of the Postleys' exclusive neighborhood, among them William Rockefeller, Ogden Mills, James Sinclair, John J. Sloane, Henry Marquand, and Richard M. Hoe. 

Later Harry Brown, in his The History of American Yachts and Yachtsmen, noted "Commodore Postley occupies one of the most palatial residences on Fifth avenue, where his system, order, taste and geniality have established one of Greater New York's ideal houses of the rich, from when flow commerce and prosperity, while his popularity is universal."

Margaret and Clarence appeared regularly in the society columns.  On February 5, 1892, for instance, The Epoch reported "A very handsome luncheon given by a very handsome hostess in an equally handsome house was that last Tuesday of Mrs. Clarence Postley of 817 Fifth avenue...The floral decorations were very beautiful and the favors for each lady consisted of dainty baskets filled with lilies of the valley while to the basket's handle was attached an exquisite spoon with a bowl of rare enamel."

The couple threw themselves into a newly-popular activity in 1895--indoor bicycling.  They joined the "number of prominent society people riding at the Bidwell-Tindham Academy" on 59th Street.  The New York Times reported "Both are delighted with it, and Mr. Postley has become so enthusiastic that he proposes to form a small private club and engage a hall for riding purposes at once."

Clarence Postley in 1900 -- The History of American Yachts and Yachtsmen (copyright expired)

In the meantime Sterling was eyeing prospective brides.  On January 5, 1896 The Times reported that "Stirling [sic] Postley...gave a theatre party last night at Daly's Theatre for Miss Elsie Norton of Albany."  Following the performance, "a supper and informal dance followed at Mr. Postley's house, 817 Fifth Avenue."

Two years later Sterling had made his selection.  On November 13, 1898 the San Francisco Call announced the engagement of Miss Ethel Cook, daughter of Mrs. Horace Nelson Cook, to Sterling.  The New York Times called her a "reigning belle of San Francisco."  Ethel had earlier made headlines when Grand Duke Boris of Russia drank champagne from one of her slippers at a banquet, declaring her "the most beautiful American woman" he had ever seen."

Like his father, Sterling was more interested in clubs and yachting than business.  But his sporting life was almost cut short by a serious attack of typhoid fever in 1900.  He and Ethel lived in his parents' Fifth Avenue mansion, where he convalesced.  On August 24 The Times reported on his slow recovery, saying his condition "has kept Capt. and Mrs. Postley and the patient's sister and wife in town all Summer."  But the newspaper was optimistic.  "When his recovery is complete Mr. Postley, with his wife and mother, will probably go abroad for a few months."

Sterling, of course, did recover.  His father, in the meantime, focused on his yachts.  Earlier that year he had the Colonia refurbished for the second time.  In 1897 he had had it altered to a schooner rig, receiving a bill for $20,000.   Now, on July 8, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported he "has received his new steam yacht Colonia from the hands of those who altered her interior."   And then in August that same year he purchased the steam yacht AlbertaOuting, a monthly sports and travel magazine, commented "Mr. Postley has won so many cups and other trophies that he now stores them in a burglar-proof safe."

On the morning of January 4, 1901 General Brook Postley left the mansion around 10:30 headed for the Eighth Avenue streetcar.   The conductor noticed the 86-year old man in the crowded car and found him a seat.  He later noted "he appeared to have a chill, as he trembled and pulled his coat collar close about his throat."

Postley suffered a heart attack on the car and died before an ambulance could arrive.  Clarence identified his father's body at the police station, and also explained the two guns in his coat.  "The presence of two revolvers, found in the dead man's pockets, was explained by his son, who said that his father was very fond of going to the theatre, and for that reason had obtained a permit to carry a revolver, as he was often out late.  He supposed that his father had put the second revolver in his pocket, forgetting that he already had one."

The general's funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue house on January 7.  Despite his distinguished military history, there was no fanfare.  The services were private with only a few intimate friends invited.

The expected mourning period was slightly abbreviated for Elsie's debutante entertainments, which began with a reception in the house on December 7.   They continued through the winter season, terminating on March 31, 1902 when Margaret gave a dance.  The New-York Tribune noted "it took place in the small ballroom."

Rather than going to their summer estate in Belle Haven, Connecticut that year, Margaret and Clarence went on an automobile tour abroad.  On October 11 Automobile Topics reported they "recently left Paris for England, taking with them a brand new 16-hp. Panhard-Levassor.  Having exhausted the automobile resources of the environments of Paris, they will try the suburbs of London."

On October 16, 1904 the Postleys announced Elsie's engagement to Ross Ambler Curran.  The wedding took place in the Church of the Heavenly Rest on November 1, followed by a reception in the Fifth Avenue mansion.

The extended family spent the winter season of 1905-06 in Paris.   During Christmas week Margaret and Clarence gained two grandchildren.  Elise had a son, followed a few days later by Sterling's and Ethel's baby boy.

No. 817 Fifth Avenue remained closed for another two years.  Finally, on May 2, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "Mr. and Mrs. Clarence A. Postley, who have been abroad for nearly three years, are booked to sail from Paris for New York to-day."  The couple had only just returned to the house when tragedy struck.

On May 28 Clarence suffered a fatal heart attack in mansion.  Margaret retained ownership of the house, which was valued at $370,000 (in the neighborhood of $9.3 million today).  But she would no longer live there.  Only a week later the New-York Tribune reported that she, along with Elsie and Ross, had taken rooms in the Plaza "where they will remain until they sail for Europe next month."

Three years later both Sterling and Elsie would make headlines for bizarre marital entanglements.  In January 1911 Elsie divorced Ross Ambler Curran in Paris.  Two months later, on March 12, The San Francisco Call reported that Ethel had divorced Sterling, also in Paris.  The article noted "The reason Ethel Cook got a divorce was because Sterling Postley 'was always hanging about the house.'"

That was not quite the case.  Shortly afterward, Ethel married Ross Curran, her former brother-in-law.  And then things got even more complicated.  In May 1911 Ross Curran's brother, Guernsey, married Elise.  Now Elise and Ethel were once again sisters-in-law.  Newspapers world-wide reveled in the gossipy story.  One headline read "Love Gone Amuck Among Millions" and another proclaimed "The Romances of the Idle Rich Currans."

In the meantime, Margaret leased No. 817 Fifth Avenue to Raymond Hoagland and his family.  The Hoaglands had lived at No. 23 West 52nd Street until selling it in 1909.  The Times called that residence "the largest house on the block with the exception of the Vanderbilt mansions."

Hoagland's father, Joseph C. Hoagland, had founded the Royal Baking Powder Company and garnered an immense fortune.  Joseph Hoagland's massive Newport summer estate, Auldwood, encompassed 175 acres.   In the late 1890s Raymond erected his own cottage, Kristofelt, on Bellevue Avenue just north of Auldwood.  The family also maintained a summer home in Seabright, New Jersey.

While Clarence Postley had been known for his yachts, Hoagland was known for his horses and he was a regular exhibitor in the society horse shows.   He was married to the former Rosa Porter.  Their son, Joseph, graduated from Cornell in 1911 and the following year his engagement to Eleanor Sheldon Prentice was announced.

At the time, the end for No. 817 Fifth Avenue was drawing near.  After several years living abroad, Margaret Postley returned to New York in October 1914, taking apartments at the Ritz-Carlton.  She died there on November 7, 1915, leaving an estate of more than $3.7 million (nearly $74 million in today's dollars) which was divided between Sterling and Elise.

Within months No. 817 and the mansion next door, the former Robert L. Gerry residence at 816, were demolished; replaced by George B. Post & Sons' Italian Renaissance apartment building known simply as 817 Fifth Avenue.

photo via

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Abijah Pell House - 311 East 58th Street

Abijah Pell, Jr. was born in New York City on November 8, 1811.   His was an important family, tracing its roots in America to the 17th century.  John Pell inherited the Pelham estate from his uncle, Thomas Pell, in 1670, and became the first lord of Pelham Manor.

Abijah's parents, Abijah and Mary Baldwin Pell, owned considerable land in Greenwich Village and when the elder Abijah died in 1826 his seven children--five sons and a daughter--shared equally in the sizable estate.

In the decade before the outbreak of Civil War spotty development was taking place along East 58th Street near the East River; until only recently green farmland.  Tax records indicate a house appeared by 1857 at what could be numbered 311 East 58th Street, when title to the property was in name of Charles Shute Pell.

It does not appear that Charles ever lived in the quaint brick-faced house.  He and his wife, both educators, were appointed superintendents of the New-York Orphan Asylum by 1857 and as such would have living quarters there.

Instead his brother, Abijah, listed his address as "East 58th near 2nd" in the early 1860s.   As a matter of fact, it may have been Abijah who constructed the house.  He was described as "a leading builder of his day" by The Memorial Cyclopedia decades later.  Pell was married to Eliza Brown Ward.  She was the first cousin of New Jersey Governor Marcus Ward.  The couple had three sons, Abijah, William and Charles.

Despite their lofty pedigree, the extended Pell family was apparently well in tune with the condition of the less fortunate.  Both Charles and Abijah were long-term members of The New York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, for instance.  Nevertheless, they moved socially among their peers.  All the Pell brothers were members of the venerable St. Nicholas Society which included only men descended from New York's earliest families.

When Abijah's 48-year old brother, Aaron, died on November 8, 1861 of consumption, his funeral was held in the 58th Street house two days later.

Abijah had joined the Union Army only a month earlier.  When a comrade, John R. Hobby, died "of disease contracted in the army," on October 20, 1865, once again a funeral was held in the Pells' parlor.  The notice instructed mourners it was "second house east of 2d-av."

In the spring of 1870 the Park Commissioners directed the North and East River Company and the Central Park Railroad Company to lay "double tracks in Fifty-eighth-street."  The intention was to provide a crosstown connection between the First Avenue and Eleventh Avenue streetcars.  Local protest was quick and forceful, with Abijah Pell leading the charge.

On May 7 "a large number of property-owners" met at the Terrace Garden, on 58th Street near Third Avenue.  The New York Times reported they gathered "for the purpose of protesting against the laying of a track for a horse-car railroad in that street." 

Abijah Pell presided that evening.  Among the results of the meeting was the formation of a committee to raise funds for an expected legal battle.

Three years later Abijah Pell died in a bizarre and tragic accident in Newark, New Jersey.  On Saturday morning, April 19, 1873, was run over by the "pusher," or engine used to move train cars.  He died the following day.

The 58th Street house was sold to John B. Huse and his wife, Emma.  Huse was a printer with a shop on Hudson Street.  He also apparently dabbled in real estate.  In September 1873 he advertised "A store to let on Seventh Avenue--inquire at 311 East Fifty-eighth street, or in confectionery, No. 9 Seventh avenue."   Huse was adamant that his property would not be used as a saloon.  His ad stressed "will not be rented for liquor store."

On September 1, 1877 Huse sold the "two-story brick dwelling" to Henry S. Cohn for $8,000--just under $190,000 today.   Cohn flipped the house for a tidy profit, selling it four weeks later, on October 5, to Mathias Down for $10,000.

Although the Prussian-born Down was listed as a merchant, his main income most likely came from the several tenements he owned throughout the city.   In February 1890 he commissioned architect Charles Stagmeyer to add a two-story extension to the rear at a cost of $1,500.  The enlargement may have had to do with Down's grandson, Mathias Herman J. Weiden's moving in.  Both Down and Weiden were listed in the house in the 1890s.

Weiden (who went by the name Herman) and his wife, Margaret, had one child, Josephine, who was born in 1906.  He was active in New York's German community and served on the Executive Committee of the National Federation of German-American Catholics during the World War I years.  Despite anti-German sentiments during the war, it often went by the name of the Catholic Central Verein of America.  Weiden would remain an active member through the 1950s.

It appears that Margaret had died by 1920 when only Weiden and Josephine were listed as living in the 58th Street house.   His marriage on Wednesday, February 15, 1928 was marred by tragedy when Catherine McMurray, his new mother-in-law, died two days later in her Brooklyn home.

In 1928, the year Weiden remarried, the house looked little different than it does today.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

On December 30, 1950 The New York Times reported "After seventy-three years in the family of Mathias Weiden, the two story brick 311 East Fifty-eighth Street has been purchased by Charles Jones, music composer, for occupancy."

The musician moved in with his wife, Sally.  Born in Canada in 1910, he had come to the United States at the age of 18 to study violin at the Juilliard School (his father, incidentally, was an American citizen).   He became a pupil of, and then assistant to Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California.  The two worked together at the Aspen Music School where Jones became Director in 1970.

Throughout his career he also taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, the Juilliard School and the Mannes College of Music.  His compositions included an oratorio on Piers Plowman, four symphonies, and nine string quartets.

Jones was still teaching composition at Mannes and Juilliard when he died from complications of heart surgery in June 1997.  The remarkably-surviving little house was sold the following year to The Philip Colleck Gallery for $1.1 million.  The gallery, established in the 1930s, deals in 18th century English antiques.

According to the firm's president, Mark Jacoby, several months after the purchase "Part of the charm of the building is that it has its original doors, mahogany banisters and wide pine floors, all of which we're keeping.  We're keeping the room configurations as well.  There are seven different fireplaces on the three floors, and a large rear garden that we're going to beautify."

The new owners hired architect Peter M. Bernholz to design the gallery.  At the same time the coat of what Jacoby described as "old blueberry-yogurt paint" was removed from the brickwork.

As if the history of the house were not amazing enough, local lore insists that Tennessee Williams rented a room here in the 1930s.  In fact, he lived across the street at No. 316.  And that is perfectly fine.  The remarkable survivor does not need a celebrity to stand out; its excruciating charm is enough.

photographs by the author

Friday, June 23, 2017

The 1868 "Commercial Building" - 137-139 West Broadway

The building replaced two 1810 houses like the one to the right.

During the Civil War construction in New York City came to a near halt.  But with the return of the work force, new projects soon got underway.  One of these was Jacob Pecare's store and loft building which replaced two 1810 houses at Nos. 39-41 West Broadway, between Duane and Thomas Streets, in 1867.

Pecare was educated as an attorney, ran an importing business, and invested widely in real estate.   Pecare hired Alfred A. Dunham to design his  five-story structure, to be called the Commercial Building.   The architect turned to a commercial take on the Italianate style.  The cast iron storefront featuring fluted Corinthian columns upheld four stories of "Ohio Freestone."

Early in 1868 John W. Kennion, writing in The Architects' and Builders' Guide, reported the nearly-completed building.  He described the upper floors as being "of an original elaborate design, having large openings for windows, very essential in a building of this description."  The Corinthian-style cast iron columns of the store front were carried on throughout the cavernous interiors to support the floors above.  Kennion remarked that the Commercial Building was "considered as a first-class building, and a good investment."

Dunham's handsome upper facade was framed by neat quoins that ran the height of the building.  A busy cast cornice completed the design.  But it was his treatment of the openings which no doubt prompted Kennion's "original elaborate design" comment.  The molded window surrounds of floors two through four were uniquely decorated--incised floral designs at the second, blind rondels at the third, and and interesting pedestal-like cornices on the fourth.  Even the more traditional, fully-arched Italianate openings of the top floor boasted unusual carved enframements that sat on attractive brackets.

The structure cost Pecare $32,000.  And so when he sold it to Richard Mayer in September 1868 for $60,000 (just over $1 million today), he indeed proved the prediction of a "good investment" correctly.  Mayer seems to have been included his brother, Bernhard, in the purchase; but like Pecare their interest was purely an investment.

Among Mayer's first tenants was Farnham & Co., dealers in men's underwear--a product that would not seem a tempting target for burglars.  Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve, 1869, Thomas B. Baker (who coincidentally was a baker) was arrested as he was about to enter his home at No. 46 Thomas Street about a block away.  The New York Herald reported "He had at the time in his possession nine dozen of men's drawers, valued at fifty-four dollars, the property of Farnham & Co., Nos. 39 and 41 West Broadway, which he had stolen."

The haul would be worth about $970 in today's dollars.  The underwear thief was held at $1,000 bail to answer the charge of burglary and theft.

The considerable commercial development of the area required improved infrastructure.  In 1870 the city installed a 12-inch cast iron water main down the center of West Broadway to handle the demands of the many new loft buildings.

By the time J. E. Levy & Co. moved into the second floor around 1873, the name "Commercial Building" had fallen away and only the address was being used.   Garment manufacturers, J. E. Levy & Co. was looking for "a second-hand friction glaze calendar; also a set of Drying Cans and Copper Roller" on April 6 that year.   The equipment was used in adding luster and smoothness to the surface of fabrics.  Two weeks later the firm placed another advertisement, seeking "A lady cutter on aprons."

Winn & Weaver, wool merchants, moved from No. 61 Barclay Street about this time.  Charles G. Weaver was not only wealthy, but busy.  He was also the president of the National Bank of America of New Jersey.  Winn & Weaver would call the building home for decades.

Also operating from No. 39-41 West Broadway was Charles C. Carpenter.  His company, C. C. Carpenter, manufactured bustles, a must-have accessory worn under female fashions.  Most 19th century garment factories required workers to supply their own thread and needles.  Carpenter went a step beyond.  His advertisement in The New York Herald on February 27, 1876 noted "Operators on Muslin Bustles Wanted--With their own machines."

The C. C. Carpenter "Parisian" bustle was advertised on the back of sheet music.  (copyright expired)
Carpenter's workshop was busy.  In 1889 he employed 30 men, 8 boys under 18, 4 boys under 16, 80 women, 30 girls under 21 and 15 girls under 16.  The staff worked an average of 54 hours a week, not including weekend shifts.

In 1881 the Clasp Envelope Co. moved in to the building.  The firm did apparently well, for it was repeatedly looking for workers.  In 1883 it wanted a "Boy, living in Ninth ward, as errand boy and to make himself generally useful."  The following year in March it advertised for "Experienced envelop folders wanted; also claspers; work given out."  The mention of "work given out" referred to the practice of what was also called "home work," so women with children, for instance, could do the piece work off site.

A want ad placed on September 11, 1887 by Clasp Envelope would no doubt raise eyebrows today.  "Wanted--Six smart girls about 15; light work."

The extend of Winn & Weaver's business was evident in November 1880 when Edward Haigh, proprietor of the Valley Woollen Mills in Newburg, New York, filed for bankruptcy.  The Carpet Trade Review noted "Mr. Haigh was known to have considerable business relations with Winn & Weaver, of West Broadway."  In fact, the article reported "it is rumored" that he owed the firm $10,000, or about a quarter of a million today.

Joining the eclectic mix of tenants in 1890 was the Gum Elastic Roofing Co.  Dealers in roofing felt, the company advertised nation-wide for years.  

A typical ad appeared in Brownsville, Texas's The Daily Herald on February 9, 1894.  Dual-purpose, it offered customer samples while seeking local salesmen. (copyright expired)
West Broadway had been a source of confusion to New Yorkers for decades.  Originally Chapel Street, in the 1840s it was unofficially being referred to as West Broadway (there was an East Broadway, too).  Finally in the 1850s the city relented and renamed it--except for College Place.  The three block stretch between Barclay and Warren Streets was named College Place in 1830 and was not affected by the West Broadway change.

But in the spring of 1895 the city proposed a project of widening College Place, while connecting West Broadway to South Fifth Avenue.  The improvement would create one continuous thoroughfare from Dey Street to Washington Square.  And businessmen, including those in No. 39-41 West Broadway saw a problem.

A petition was sent to the mayor on March 18 suggesting "the entire street should be given the name of West Broadway for its entire length."  The city fathers agreed and in 1897, with the project completed, Nos. 39-41 received its new address of 137-139.

Charles G. Weaver died at the age of 74 on December 19, 1896.  While Winn & Weaver continued for a few years; his death was almost a symbol of the changing complexion of West Broadway.  By 1903 the old firms like Clasp Envelope were gone, replaced by an Adams Express branch on the first floor and mostly shoe firms above.

The Tribeca neighborhood in general had been the center of the shoe industry for decades; but by the end of World War I it engulfed Nos. 137-139 West Broadway.   The Wallace Rubber & Shoe Co., wholesale jobbers, were here as was shoe wholesaler P. A. Sawyer & Co.

John J. McGrath had been a major shoe manufacturer, based in Salem, Massachusetts, since the first years of the century.  In April 1922 he and C. S. McGrath partnered with Rudolph M. Klein to form the McGrath Shoe Company.  The new corporation was headquartered in the West Broadway building.   McGrath Shoe Company produced high-quality footwear.  Their "British type" mens' shoe called the Charing Cross sold for $12.75 in 1938, over $200 today.

Rudolph Klein left work as usual on Wednesday evening, April 14, 1937.  While driving through the business section of the village of Smithtown, Long Island, the 53-year old suffered a heart attack.  His out-of-control automobile smashed into a parked car.  Klein apparently died before the impact.

The second half of the 20th century saw Tribeca factories replaced with residential lofts, restaurants and galleries.   The dance studio of Batya Zamir was in No. 137-139 West Broadway by the mid-1970s.  Zamir had appeared with the Alwin Nikolais and the Murray Louis Companies in the 1960s.  Her avant-garde approach was epitomized in her "Rebound" solo presentation here in March 1976.

New York Times critic Anna Kissellgoff called it "a work replete with virtuosity and athleticism and one that suggested that Miss Zamir is on the path to opening up a new genre of movement possibilities."  That "new genre" had to do with Zamir's "dancing" in the air.

Richard Van Buren had designed "rubberized tightropes" which were attached to pillars and one wall.  Dressed in a leotard and silver pants, Zamir also utilized trapeze-type rubber loops.  Kissellgoff described "Throwing herself against the rubber ropes, she was propelled in various directions with a speed that would have been impossible on her own."

"Rebound," of course, was just one of the ongoing presentations Zamir staged here before all tenants lost their leases around 2008 for renovation to residential space.  What may have been upheaval for the displaced occupants turned serendipitous in the early hours of Friday, August 7, 2009.

After 139 years, the cast iron water main laid in 1870 finally erupted.  By 5 a.m. the water had risen to four feet deep in some buildings.  West Broadway collapsed and buckled in two places and several buildings had to be evacuated.  Among the flooded structures was No. 137-139 West Broadway.

Renovation, of course, went on, falling short of cleaning the facade or improving the internal design to make removal of the distracting fire escape possible.   Nevertheless, Dunham's handsome post-Civil War structure is remarkably intact.  Even the cast iron storefront is nearly perfect, down to the Victorian double doors.

photographs by the author

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Victorian Survivors - 222 and 224 East 83rd Street

In 1839 the grid of streets and avenues, laid out in the Commissioners' Plan in 1811, began slicing up the farmland in the district known as Yorkville.   The New York and Harlem Railroad had been extended along Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue) two years earlier, with a station at 86th Street.   The neighborhood became even more accessible in 1852 when the Third Avenue Railway System opened streetcar service.

The residents of Yorkville were mostly blue collar immigrants from Germany and Ireland.   But some were more affluent--shopkeepers and factory owners, for instance.  Two mirror-image houses were built on East 83rd Street in the years just before the outbreak of the Civil War that targeted the latter.

Mirror images, Nos. 222 and 224 East 83rd Street, between Second and Third Avenues, were three stories tall above a shallow English basement.  Faced in brick, they sat back from the property line, creating garden space between the stoops.  Each two bays wide, they were crowned by wooden Italianate cornices supported by ornate leafy brackets with paneled friezes.

By the early 1870s No. 224 appears to have been operated as a boarding house.  Sisters Emma and Carrie Adams lived here from 1874 at least until 1884.  Emma taught at Grammar School No. 36 on Ninth Avenue, making $760 in 1881.  Carrie was a teacher in the Girls Department of Grammar School No. 42 far downtown on Allen Street.  She made slightly less than her sister, making $684 in 1881--or about $16,400 today.

If the house next door was still a private residence in 1880, that was about to come to an end.  Real estate operator Eliza Gardner purchased it at foreclosure auction in December that year, paying $5,500--five dollars more than the amount due on the mortgage.  Although Gardner lived in Paramus, New Jersey, she regularly invested in Manhattan properties.

James E. Morrissey, who had been a clerk in the Tombs Prison for more than three years, was married in November 1894.  He and his bride boarded at No. 222.    Two months later, on the evening of January 14, 1895, he left work "apparently in perfect health," according to The New York Times.  But the following morning his wife found him dead in their bed.  The newspaper reported "It is supposed that his death was caused by heart disease."

A little over a decade later the houses would be struck by a string of deaths.  In 1910 the Bureau of Census reported increases in fatalities from typhoid fever, measles, and influenza.   It may have been these rampant diseases that caused the succession of funerals that were held in Nos. 222 and 224 beginning in 1909.

On August 6 that year, Herman Witt died in No. 224.  Five months later Charles B. Berger died on January 23, 1910; and Abraham Otto died on June 22.  Three weeks later William H. Gardiner died next door.  And on October 31, 1911 Joseph Oppenheimer died in No. 224.

The Great Depression brought change to the two boarding houses.  Architect Lloyd E. Mellor converted No. 224 "for business" that year.  No. 222 was already home to the Flatiron Window Cleaning Company.  One of its employees, 55-year old Walter Tholin, was killed on September 21 that year when he lost his balance and fell from a window ledge on the fourth floor of C. H. Gallagher's brownstone house at No. 141 East 47th Street.

The conversions of the lower floors of both houses resulted in broad shop windows and a modest cornice at the parlor level.  The stoops and the upper floors were left intact.

In 1960 No. 224 was converted to two apartments; while its next door neighbor continued to be home to small businesses--the Veteran's Caning shop in the 1960s, followed by Such Outlandish Stitches, which described itself as "a miraculous boutique."

Then in 1974 it, too, was converted to a parlor floor apartment below a duplex, with a florist shop in the basement.  The greatest change came in 2005, however, when the interior walls were broken through and the joined houses became a single family residence.

It was most likely at this time that the architecturally-incongruous, neo-Classical inspired surrounds were tacked to the upper story openings.  Oddly, their fluted pilasters abruptly end with no bases; making them appear almost like skinny shutters.

Despite the alterations, the quaint garden-fronted pair, nestled back between apartment buildings, create a charming Victorian scene.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shameful Neglect: Halpin's Hotel - 201 West 22nd Street

The sidewalk bridge has been in place for more than a decade, creating what can generously be described as an eyesore.  A smashed window in the repellent penthouse addition allows rain and weather inside, and the copper cornice has been seriously damaged.
 Built in the 1840s, the row of six speculative houses on the north side of West 22nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, was up-to-the-minute, architecturally.  The Anglo-Italianate style, which featured low stoops, was just emerging.

Designed as three sets of mirror-image homes, their brownstone-fronted facades included rusticated bases.  The double-doored entrances were framed in particularly pleasing elliptically-arched molded surrounds with foliate carved keystones.  Rows of quoins ran along the three upper stories, clearly distinguishing one house from the other.  Although the residences offered appealing elements; at just over 16 feet wide, they were intended for middle to upper-middle class owners.

The most desirable of the row was No. 201 at the eastern end.  Its location on the corner of Seventh Avenue provided additional light and ventilation.    It also allowed the service entrance to be placed conveniently to the rear, at what would become No. 201 Seventh Avenue.   The first owner apparently ran a private school in the basement level.

The family did not stay long, however.   On April 29, 1852 everything in the house was sold at auction.  The family had furnished their home with high-end appointments.  Included in the auction list were expensive Wilton and Brussels carpets, "mahogany sofas, chairs and divans, in hair cloth," a six-octave mahogany piano manufactured by Pierson, "marble ornaments," along with center tables, mirrors and such.  The notice also mentioned "School Furniture, Desks, Benches, Chairs, Black Boards and Mirrors."

The next owner seems to have been John K. Martin.  He and his wife, Sarah, had one son, Charles.  It was common for private families to rent out one or two rooms, and on February 11, 1853 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "Furnished or unfurnished rooms, with full or partial board."  (The option of taking one's meals elsewhere would have reduced the rent.)  "The rooms are large and airy; the house furnished with every modern convenience."  The advertisement pointed out that the house was "within a few doors of a railroad route and three omnibus routes."

Even families of moderate means had one or two servants.  One of the Martins' employees was looking for another position in May 1858.  It is possible that the family was leaving for the summer, for the split was apparently amiable.  The woman could be interviewed at the house ("in the rear").  She was looking for "a situation as seamstress, to do chamberwork or to take care of children."

Charles Martin fell ill in December 1858, and died in the house on January 18, 1859.  The cause of his death was pronounced "dropsy on the brain."  His funeral was held in the parlor a few days later.

No. 201 next became home to William H. Bassett, a member of Holmes & Bassett.  The firm manufactured "carriage trimmings and rosettes" at No. 92 Pearl Street.   Basset had married M. Elizabeth Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut on December 6, 1853.  She was the daughter of Sherwood Stratton; however newspapers were more interested in the fact that her brother was General Tom Thumb.

Bassett was just 38 years old when he suddenly died in the house on Monday evening, January 18, 1864.  His funeral, too, was held here.  His body was buried in Bridgeport; and it appears that Elizabeth returned to Connecticut soon after.

Within the year No. 201 was occupied by a new family.  As had been the case with the Martins, at least one servant was needed to help out.  On August 23, 1865 an advertisement sought "A girl as chambermaid and to take care of children, in a small family; must be able to sew."

Also like the Martins, the owners rented a room.  An advertisement in December 1869 offered "A strictly private family have a very nice room they will rent, with good board, to one or two respectable gentlemen; house brown stone front; terms reasonable."

It was apparently the boarder who placed the very mysterious personal ad in The New York Herald three months later.  "Will the lady from Washington call again.  Sorry I was out.  V. Clark."

The owners were looking for additional help in March 1873.  They advertised for "Two young women, to do the work of a small family; one as first class cook, washer and ironer; the other as chambermaid and waitress; both must thoroughly understand their business."

By the fall of 1874 Dr. Justice J. Spreng was operating his medical practice from the basement area where the schoolroom had been.  He had graduated from the New-York Medical College in March 1864; and now was as busy writing and selling medical pamphlets as he was treating patients.

Rockland County Messenger, September 24, 1874 (copyright expired)

Spreng advertised in newspapers throughout the country.  By sending a dime in the mail, readers could receive a copy of A Lucid Description of Liver and Stomach Diseases, their Causes, Symptoms and Treatment; or Observations on Diseases of Women.  Regarding the latter, the Medical Review opined "This pamphlet should be read by every lady."

In the meantime, the owners were transitioning from renting a room (in February 1875 it advertised "A private family will let a nicely furnished room, gas, hot and cold water, use of bath in brown stone house") to a full-fledged boarding house.   By September the single room had become "upper part of nicely furnished brown stone house, consisting of four rooms, together or separately, private bath, southern exposure."

By the time Anna E. Smith purchased the house around 1880 Dr. Spreng had moved to No 143 West 22nd Street, half a block away.  His letter to the S. B. Medicine Co. of South Bend, Indiana on September 5, 1889, however, is amusing to modern readers:

Inclosed please find $5.00 for which send me a dozen boxes Cocaine Compound Suppositories.  Don't like to be without them.

Anna E. Smith owned investment properties around the city and she is most likely responsible for the updates to the building, including the first actual storefront on Seventh Avenue.  New and attractive copper bays were added to the second floor on the Seventh Avenue side, and an updated cornice with neo-Classical decorations was installed.

In 1880 she leased the store to Georgeanna P. Marcelin, who dealt in "dentist fixtures, furniture, etc."  Tenants upstairs included Dr. Albert W. Warden, who had been appointed Attending Physician at the New York Dispensary in 1880, only to resign the following year; and Captain Albert Maxfield, who had distinguished himself with the 11th Maine Infantry during the Civil War.

At the turn of the century the house once furnished with costly carpeting and marble statues was described as "a tenement."  The former service entrance had been converted to the main entrance in order to accommodate a second store space on the corner.    Roomers no longer included doctors and businessmen, but the down-and-out.

Early on the morning of July 28, 1903 the body of a woman was found in the hallway here.  Police estimated her age at about 38.   The Evening World reported that the police felt "there was nothing suspicious in the finding of the body and said that the woman had probably died of acute alcoholism."

The metal letters on the facade announced Halpin's Hotel.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

By the early 1920s No. 201 West 22nd Street had become a fleabag hotel, named Halpin's.  Tony Arditto called Halpin's Hotel home in 1921.  He and two cohorts stalked banker William Weissman as he headed to his home in Brooklyn on the evening of December 22.  Weissman carried a briefcase containing $700 in gold and $300 in bills--a considerable $13,200 today.

They hit the banker with a blackjack from behind and, as he fell, Arditto grabbed the briefcase.   Weissman shouted that he was being robbed and a passerby, Jack Cohen, ran after Arditto.  He was soon joined by a policeman named Porter, and then by an angry crowd of civilians.

Officer Porter overtook Arditto and, according to The New York Herald, "subdued him after a fight."  The 22-year old thug soon realized his captor had become his protector.  "Meanwhile the crowd gathered around and with cries of 'Lynch him!' tried to take the man from the policeman."

In 1925 35-year old Irish seaman Dennis O'Donnell abandoned his ship, the Transylvania, to start a new life in the United States.  But he failed to apply for residency.  Once he found a job, he sent for his wife, who arrived legally a short time later.  She was working in Halpin's Hotel in 1929 when immigration officials caught up with her husband.  She stood on the pier as he was loaded with other deportees on the White Star liner Baltic, headed back to Donegal, Ireland.

In 1931 the houses on the southern corner (left) had been demolished for a new apartment building.  The Halpin's Hotel lettering can still be seen.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

The property was sold in 1950 to George Shaffer.   In reporting the sale, The New York Times diplomatically referred to it as a "three-story rooming house."

In 1992 Israeli businessman Ike Bova operated three "sex video stores" in Manhattan.  But in the fall he opened three more, all in Chelsea.  When he hung his "Welcome" sign at No. 210 Seventh Avenue neighbors had had enough.  According to the newly-formed Chelsea Action Coalition, "seven new pornographic video stores have appeared in Chelsea" within the past few months.  Area residents feared the neighborhood would become the new 42nd Street.

After locals picketed the store, Bova relented.  Sort of.  He told a reporter on December 12 that he would reopen the store the following week as a regular video store "with a very small porno section in the back."

Neighbors may have preferred the presence of the adult video store to its absence when a year later an never-ending nightmare began.  In 1993 a permit was issued for the addition of two stories atop the brick and brownstone house.   Construction began on the gruesome penthouse addition of glass and metal with nothing in common with the historic architecture.  The 1840s brownstone front was veneered in brick, perhaps in an attempt to modernize its appearance.

But one violation after another--91 issued by the Department of Buildings, 70 of which remain open--were apparently too much for owner Erroll Rainess to deal with.  He walked away from the vacant structure, allowing it to deteriorate.  He carefully pays the property taxes so the city cannot take the building.

Despite the inexcusable and possibly irreversible neglect and damage, the former charm of the 1840s house is evident.

Nearly 15 years later the sidewalk bridge remains--shelter for homeless and a convenient spot for urinating.  Repeated complaints to the city have resulted in no action.  The tragically abused property, once a picturesque house, has become an eyesore and potential danger.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Park & Tilford Bldg - 100 West 72nd Street

In 1835 John M. Tilford, then 20 years old, left the family farm and came to New York City where he obtained a job as a grocery store clerk.  After saving his wages, he joined another clerk, Joseph Park, in 1840 to form "in a small way," as described by Men of the Century in 1896, to form Park & Tilford.   The little store on Carmine Street was the seed of what would be New York City's finest grocery retailer.

The Carmine Street store was in a converted Federal-style house.  King's Views of New York (copyright expired)

By 1886 Park & Tilford had four New York stores as well as a branch in Paris (used mainly for merchandising and exporting).  The term "grocery" had little to do with the word we commonly use today.  Park & Tilford catered to the carriage trade and stocked a dizzying array of goods--wines, confectioneries, gourmet foods and delicacies, cigars, and personal items.  The New York Times deemed Park & Tilford "The very beau ideal of what a first class grocery store should be."

Following John Tilford's death in January 1891, his son, Frank, was elected to succeed him.  A year later he recognized the developing Upper West Side as a prime location for yet another store.    In March 1892 the firm purchased the one-story business building at the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "Park & Tilford will shortly commence the erection of the fire-proof be used entirely for their business."

McKim, Mead & White received the commission to design the new structure.  The firm filed plans on April 22 for a "six-story brick, stone and terra cotta building" to cost $85.000 (more than $2.25 million today).

The Renaissance Revival style building was completed in September 1893.  Vast show windows at street level sat between heavy granite piers that supported an entablature announcing the store's name.  The entrance was flanked by fluted Scamozzi columns and embellished with a large circular window embraced by elaborate carving.

The rusticated, brick-faced upper floors were divided into three sections by wide terra cotta bands.  Early photographs show the terra cotta picked out in vividly contrasting colors.  A neo-Classical frieze ran below the pointy, crown-like pressed metal cornice.

King's Photographic Views of New York 1911 (copyright expired)

The New York Times remarked "The building was erected for west side partronage, and it is the firm's intention to make it an establishment of which the people of the west side may well be proud.  Their reputation for dealing only in reliable and first-class groceries has already won for them a warm welcome and a generous number of customers."

The building opened on September 23 and, according to The Times, "was attended by hundreds, who admired the building and the artistic display of goods."  The article added "There is no business building more handsome on the west side" and the New-York Tribune called it "a decided architectural ornament to the neighborhood."

The Tribune noted that the "best class of trade" on the Upper West Side had "suffered much inconvenience by being obliged to order their groceries and household provisions from down-town houses."   They could now rest easy.  "This inconvenience will be no longer felt, for the new store of Park & as complete and perfect in every detail as the most exacting buyers can demand."

Park & Tilford's vast array of merchandise was hinted at in the Tribune's reporting that the new store "is completely stocked with the best quality of standard articles, including a most desirable and extensive assortment of superior perfumery and toilet requisites."  The newspaper said "The ground floor of the building has been decorated and stocked in such a manner that it is no exaggeration to say that it is a work of art."

Frank Tilford was apparently pleased with the location, for he almost immediately began construction of his mansion across the street from the store.  The Real Estate Record called it "palatial" in December 1895.  And The Heroes of the American Revolution and Their Descendants, described it as "one of the handsomest edifices in that particularly handsome part of the city."

At No. 119 W. 72nd St, Tilford's home was almost directly across 72nd Street from the store. Real Estate Record & Guide, Dec 1895 (copyright expired) 
Below the Park & Tilford store were a basement and sub-basement.  Here behind-the-scenes work went on, like the candy-making shop.  In July 1909 the Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal reported that the firm had improved its "candy factory" with a "10-ton Vesterdahl direct expansion refrigeration machine."  The up-to-the-minute addition would have nearly-deadly consequences later.

On the afternoon of December 17, 1916 six men working in the sub-cellar discovered a fire and pulled the alarm; but before they could reach the exits an ammonia tank to the refrigeration system exploded.

The New-York Tribune reported "All managed to crawl to the stairs or elevators before collapsing.  They were found by volunteers among their fellow employes and dragged to the street."

As fire fighters responded, more ammonia tanks exploded.  The first group of seven reached the sub-cellar with a line of hose, and then tried to retreat.  "All dropped before reaching the elevator," said the article.  A second wave, from Hook & Ladder 40, headed towards the fire and came across them.  But, "by the time they were hauled to the street most of their rescuers were overcome."

Fire fighters worked in shifts, covering their faces with wet towels--half fighting the fire and the other half pulling stricken firemen to the street.  Deputy Chief Burns finally refused to allow any more men to enter the building.  It was new fire-fighting technology that saved the building.  "Captain McElligott and his oxygen helmeted men worked their way into the smoke and fumes filled cellar with a line of hose, but it was a half hour before they had cleared the air sufficiently to permit the other firemen to enter."

In the meantime, the Tribune praised Park & Tilford's emergency preparation and the discipline of the employees.  "Almost 300 employes of Park & Tilford, scattered over six floors, gave an excellent demonstration of the fire drill system.  Summoned by a series of signals, the employes, most of them women, formed in line and marched through the smoke and fumes without disorder to the street."

Park & Tilford sold the building in 1920.  In 1925 architect Bernard Hersbrun was hired to renovated it to what became known as the Papae Building.  There was now a bowling alley in the basement, stores on the first floor, and offices and meeting rooms above.

The meeting rooms were routinely leased by clubs and union groups.  In December 1932, for instance, the election of officers of the Boston Terrier Club of New York was held here; and the following July the New York State Association or Retail Meat Dealers met to discuss a 48-hour work week and minimum wages.

On February 13, 1934, two months after Prohibition was repealed, The New York Times reported that the Retail Druggists Association of New York and the Pharmacy Owners Association had met in the Papae Building.  Surprisingly today, the reason for the meeting was to compose a letter to Governor Herbert Lehman "with a plea that he permit the sale of liquor in the drug stores."  The group, representing 5,000 pharmacies, said they were in "imminent peril" unless "drug stores were permitted to sell alcoholic beverages under the same license system that now governs the liquor dealers."

Considering all the union meetings being held in the building, it was not surprising that Cafeteria Local Union 460 of the I. W. W. leased an office in 1933.  What was surprising was that the "union" had only one member, 22-year old Arthur Fried.

The artful con artist studied up on labor unions in the library, printed letterheads and rented the office.  Then, according to police in January 1934, "he called on cafeteria owners, commanded them to pay their help 'union' rates and when they refused, hired sandwich men at $1 a day to picket their places."  For a $25 payment Fried would call off the business-deflating picketers.

Fried's scheme actually worked.  Until Nathan Brandwine called the police.  It was the end of the one-man Cafeteria Local Union 460.  Fried was arrested and charged with attempted extortion.

The Socialists of the Seventh and Ninth Assembly Districts held its meetings in the Papae Building in the early 1930s.   But a far different type of assemblage drew police attention in the spring of 1935.

To gain entrance to a large, private space on the sixth floor, a visitor needed an admission card.  One was obtained by a plainclothes patrolman in March, and he was shocked by what he uncovered.  At 10:45 on the night of March 12 the place was raided.   The audience, the management and the performers--150 people in total--were arrested for "participating in or attending an indecent performance."

The New York Times explained "the performance consisted of indecent motion pictures, after which performers started an improper presentation."   It required several back-and-forth trips by patrol wagons to transport the arrested throng.   All but one of the girls performing were in their teens, the oldest being 20.   Three of them, who were waiting to take part in the performance, escaped.

By the last quarter of the 20th century the neighborhood of Columbus Avenue and West 72nd Street had severely declined.   But on October 28, 1973 Robert E. Tomasson, writing for The New York Times, called West 72nd Street "a major commercial thoroughfare that has undergone a marked rejuvenation in the last few years."  Part of that rejuvenation was the 1972 renovation of the Park & Tilford building to apartments.

The chamfered corner provided additional light to the selling floors.

McKim, Mead & White's ground floor had been obliterated by now.  Most passersby likely assume that the architecturally sympathetic fluted pilasters that today grace the storefront are original.  The terra cotta now longer wears a colorful palette, and the exuberant cornice cresting was long ago lost.  But the Park & Tilford building, where well-to-do shoppers browsed among champagne and imported French delicacies, still commands a dignified presence.

photographs by the author

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Lost Brennan House - 84th Street and Broadway

The farmhouse as it appeared in 1879.  The rutty, dirt road is 84th Street.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society
In the second half of the 18th century working farms shared the upper portions of Manhattan with elegant country estates.    One farmhouse, situated on a rocky knoll halfway between the Hudson River and the Bloomingdale Road (later the Boulevard and then Broadway) at what would become 84th Street, had begun as a modest frame dwelling, two stories tall, with a peaked roof.  Most likely because of a growing family, a slightly smaller addition added living space sometime later.

Local lore passed down the story that during the Revolution, Washington and his generals used the house as headquarters.  The legend is questionable, since almost every other structure in the area boasted the same claim.  But there was one tenant who would bring draw attention to it later.

Around 1830 the 216-acre farm was acquired by Patrick Brennan and his wife, Mary Elizabeth. Although the Brennans had six children (one historian bumps that number to 10), in June 1843 they agreed to take three boarders--the writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe, his wife, Virginia, and her, Maria Clemm as boarders.  As a matter of fact, according to Poe biographer Christopher P. Semtner, "Mrs. Brennan later admitted she would have turned him away if he had not pleaded so pathetically on Virginia's behalf."

Virginia had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842.  Poe, himself, was suffering from what was then diagnosed as consumption.  According to Dr. Appleton Morgan in his 1920 article "Edgar Allen Poe In New York" written for the Manual, "Poe was advised to seek summer quarters among the ancient farmhouses along the Hudson River as no more expensive than the stuffy precincts of Amity Street and Waverley Place, and he found his way to Harsenville and Bloomingdale."

The three spent that summer and the next with the Brennan family.  Martha Brennan was about 10 years old at the time, and she later recalled that the Poes had a double room on the second floor of the main house, with "two windows toward the river and two toward the East" looking toward the Bloomingdale Road.  Mrs. Clemm spent most of her time there, retiring to a smaller room on the first floor at night.

According to Martha decades later "He was the greatest of husbands and devoted to his invalid wife.  Frequently when she was weaker than usual, he carried her tenderly from her room to the dinner table and satisfied her every whim."

from the collection of the Library of Congress
Poe and Virginia Clemm were first cousins.  He was 26 and she just 13 when they married.  (original source of the 1847 watercolor of Virginia is unclear)

There was only one time when Mary Brennan became "vexed" at her boarder.  That was when she discovered he had scratched his name into her mantelpiece in his room.   General James Rowan O'Beirne, who married Martha, recalled "It was a very quaint and old-fashioned affair with carved fruit and vines and leaves, and Mrs. Brennan always kept it carefully painted.  On the day in question Poe was leaning against the mantelpiece apparently in meditation.  Without thinking, he traced his name in the black mantel, and when Mrs. Brennan called his attention to what he was doing, he smiled and asked her pardon."

According to Martha, Poe was "a shy, solitary, taciturn sort of man, fond of rambling down in the woods, between the house and the river, and sitting for hours upon a certain stump on the edge of the bank of the river."  Her account was backed up by Dr. William Hand Brown who wrote, "It was Poe's custom to wander away from the (Brennan) house in pleasant weather to 'Mount Tom' an immense rock which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit silently for hours gazing out upon the Hudson."  And General O'Beirne added in 1900 "Other days he would roam through the surrounding woods and, returning in the afternoon, sit in the 'big room,' as it used to be called, by a window and work unceasingly with pen and paper, until the evening shadows.

Poe would spend hours sitting the rocky outcrop known as Mount Tom, seen here in 1923.  Valentine's Manual of Old New York (copyright expired)

Poe was very fond of the children and Martha would lie on the floor at his feet while he wrote.  "She didn't understand why he turned the written side toward the floor," wrote O'Beirne, "and she would reverse it and arrange the pages according to the number upon them."

Among those writings was "The Raven."  It cannot be overlooked that above the door to his and Virginia's room was a small shelf, nailed to the door frame, which held a small plaster cast of Minerva.  Behind the bust, according to O'Beirne, was a transom, "a number of little panes of smoky glass."   The little piece is almost assuredly the "bust of Pallas" which made such a dramatic appearance in "The Raven."

When he finished the poem, he read it to Mary Brennan and other family members.  Then, in January 1845 it was published in the New York Mirror.

A charming, if romanticized, depiction of the Brennan House served as the frontispiece of the 1895 The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman and George Edward Woodberry (copyright expired)

Patrick Brennan, in the meantime, was no illiterate farmer.  He ran a successful coal business in Bloomingdale and was active in politics, although never ran for office.  He was an ardent Roman Catholic and according to The New York Herald, was noted for "aiding in the construction of churches and in the support of charitable and religious institutions."

The wooden house was nearly lost during a violent thunderstorm in the spring of 1854.  The New York Herald reported on April 27, "The residence of Mr. Patrick Brennan, situated at the corner of Eighty-fourth street and Bloomingdale road, was struck by lightning, and, miraculous to relate, the fluid but merely stunned Mr. Brennan and family, leaving them stupefied for a short time.  Every glass in the building was shattered.  It then passed from the house, splitting two large trees; running therefrom to a well, breaking up the platform, and evidently passed down the well into the earth."

Born in 1842, Thomas Brennan was just a toddler when the Poe family rented rooms in the house.  Nevertheless he later recalled "watching Poe draw designs in the dust with his cane."   The boy first attended Public School No. 9 for seven years, then was sent to St. Theresa College in Montreal.  Having graduated at the age of 16, he returned to New York and took a job as night watchman at Bellevue Hospital in 1858.

The wedding of Martha to General O'Beirne took place in the house on October 26, 1862.  He had distinguished himself in the Civil War and was a journalist and author as well. 

It appears that Patrick Brennan was incensed at the amount of taxes levied against his property in 1864.  A meeting of the Board of Aldermen on November 6 noted he had complained of "illegal assessment" of "his property on the corner of Eighty-fourth-street and Broadway."  The minutes of the Board's meeting two months later revealed the Comptroller had been directed to issue a refund to Brennan for $67.91 "being the amount illegally assessed."    The refund would amount to just over $1,000 today.

As the population in the slowly-developing area grew, there was need for police protection.  In 1865 through 1867 Brennan leased an outbuilding as the temporary police station house.  The Board of Aldermen's 1865 report showed $100 rent paid to Brennan every three months; about $6,000 a year in today's dollars.

Patrick Brennan died in in the house on December 1870.  The New York Herald noted "He was advanced in years and was one of the early settlers of the metropolis" and added "It is worthy of notice that the house in which he resided for forty years is one famous as the headquarters of Washington and in which Edgar A. Poe wrote 'The Raven.'"

The funeral was held in the house on Tuesday, December 6 at 10 a.m.  It was followed by a solemn requiem high mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus at the corner of Broadway and 97th Street.  Two years later another funeral was held in the house--that of three-year old Mary Eliza O'Beirne, the only daughter of Martha and James.

In the meantime the career of Thomas S. Brennan, who commanded an imposing figure at 6' 4" in height, had soared.  In January 1875 he was appointed Commissioner of Charities and Correction, having been responsible for significant reforms in that department, including establishing the Park and Reception Hospitals and the Small-pox Reception Hospital.

Thomas S. Brennan -- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 10, 1875 (copyright expired)
Still living in the 84th Street homestead in 1882 was Thomas's sister, Henrietta and her family.  The change in the formerly bucolic neighborhood was apparent when she was set upon and robbed in August that year.  On September 9 The New York Times reported on an update in the case.  "Henry Smith, the colored man who snatched a leather bag containing $30 from Mrs. Henrietta Burg, of Eighty-fourth-street and the Boulevard, a sister of Thomas S. Brennan, Commissioner of Charities and Correction, pleaded guilty, in the Special Sessions Court, yesterday."  Smith was sentenced to two years in State Prison.

A 1909 steel engraving by S. Hollyer prettied up the landscape.  He got his time-line slightly wrong when he titled it "House Where Poe Wrote The Raven, 1840."  from the collection of the Library of Congress

The Brennan family was soon gone from the old wooden house, however, as development closed in.  The rocky landscape that had so enchanted Edgar Allan Poe was being flattened and buildings were appearing on the newly-laid streets.

On July 18, 1888 The New York Times commented "Once an hour, at least, the foundations of the cottage are shaken by the explosion of a charge of dynamite.  From the west the miners are almost upon it, and those who are working from the other side will probably reach the centre of the block in a week...The property has recently changed hands, and is now being prepared for building purposes."

With only days left before the Brennan house was demolished, the journalist floridly wrote  "But shorn of its fair proportions, a dismantled, shriveled shadow of the cottage in which Poe lived and wrote nearly 50 years ago, the battered and riven walls are still objects of interest to many, and for weeks they have been entered almost daily by companies of relic hunters who are permitted to ply their vocation to their hearts' content by the practical who are at present engaged in blowing up and carrying away the crag upon which the cottage stood."

The extension was currently being used by a blacksmith and contained a forge and "a huge bellows."  The article noted that "Much of the lath and plaster has been torn away by relic hunters, but enough remains to satisfy a small army, if wood, plaster, and bricks will satisfy the demand."

Shortly before its demolition a sign hangs from the southern wall (left).  It reads "John Negel, Mason Building, Ovens Built & Burners Set, Kalsomining [white washing]."  On the large rock, next to the rickety stairs, a hand-painted sign directs customers to "H. Hamilton, Upholsterer, 11th Avenue."  from the collection of the New York Public Library

One of those relic hunters was William Hemstreet who was interested in the mantel in the former Poe bedroom.  Unlike the worthless bits of plaster and lath, contractor Patrick Fogarty charged Hemstreet $5 for the mantel.  He supplied a bill of sale dated May 22, 1888 for a "wood mantel of the second story south room of the cottage in 84th street, formerly the resident of Edgar A. Poe; said mantel appearing by its age and construction to be the original one built."

Amusingly, the caption on this late 19th century postcard is unsure if the house was still standing or not.

A few days later the demolition crew had reached 84th Street and Broadway.  The Brennan house, seen only as a curiosity, was reduced to scrap wood and carted off.  That it had stood there at all was mostly forgotten within a decade or two.

The site today.  photo via

And as for the mantel that Poe scratched his name into, upsetting his landlady;  William Hemstreet initially installed it in the library his Brooklyn home.  Then, in December 1906, he offered it to Columbia University.   Despite having (albeit arguable) historic and literary significance, it was placed "temporarily in the Librarian's office, and can be seen on application," according to a 1909 University document.

Columbus University Quarterly, March 1908 (copyright expired)
By the 1970s it stood humiliated in a storage area on the sixth floor of the Butler Library, "surrounded by files and boxes and exposed pipes," as described by Times journalists Benjamin Waldman and Andy Newman.  Finally, in 2012 it was removed to a more visible location in the rare book library, flanked by armchairs, with an oil portrait above it.