Posts Tagged ‘Old New York’

margaretwisebrownchrispie1

Margaret Wise Brown and her Kerry blue terrier Crispin’s Crispian in the 1940s.

In this final chapter of Crispin’s Crispian, I’ll tell the fascinating story of what happened to the old New York City farmhouse on York Avenue in Lenox Hill where his famous pet mom, Margaret Wise Brown, wrote her final children’s book, Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.

In Part II of this Old New York dog tale, we left off in the 1940s, when Margaret Glass and her husband Owen Healy occupied their two-story brick building at 1335 York Avenue and ran a neighborhood dining room on the property. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, children’s picture book author Margaret Wise Brown rented the small, 18th-century cottage hidden on the back lot behind the Healy’s brick apartment house for use as her studio.

Born in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in 1910 (Margaret and her family lived in an existing two-family house at 118 Milton Street), Margaret spent much of her career in New York City. She first lived in her own flat at 21 West 10th Street, and then, during her long affair with Blanche Oelrichs (stage name, Michael Strange, a wealthy socialite and ex-wife of John Barrymore and Harrison Tweed), she shared an apartment with her partner at 10 Gracie Court near the East River.

margaretwisebrownchild

Margaret always loved animals. During her childhood, she and her sister, Roberta, had about 30 rabbits, one dog of their own, and about 6 “borrowed dogs.” 

Sometime during the 1940s, Margaret and Michael lived in adjacent apartments at 186 East End Avenue. It was during this time that Michael gave Crispin’s Crispian to Margaret. Every day, Margaret would take the Kerry blue terrier to her studio, where he reportedly had full run of the place.

The two-story cottage, called Cobble Court because of the cobblestone court that separated it from the brick apartment building, was reportedly unheated, so Margaret covered the walls of the living space with animal fur (don’t ask me how she did this). She spent her days writing in the cottage, and sometimes at night she would host dinner parties there.

misterdoghouse1967

The crooked little house in this 1967 newspaper illustration from Mister Dog looks familiar…

It was here that Margaret wrote Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself,  a charming picture story about a conservative dog who lives in a two-story doghouse and wants to find a little child to be his friend. The book was inspired by Crispin’s Crispian, the setting was no doubt based on the Cobble Court cottage, and there’s a good chance that the child is based on Albert Clarke, a little boy who lived in a tenement that Margaret passed by every day to get to her back-lot cottage.

Margaret’s Final Days

In 1952, 42-year-old Margaret met 26-year-old James Stillman “Pebble” Rockefeller, a bearded sailor who descended from Andrew Carnegie. Although the two were engaged, they never got the chance to marry. That year, she was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst while in France. Although she lived through the surgery, she died two weeks later on November 13 of an embolism.

margaretwisebrownchrispie2

Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian at the Cobble Court cottage in the late 1940s.

Although she had supposedly asked to leave Crispin’s Crispian in the care of an old friend, I came across a news article that stated her sister, Roberta Rauch of Jamaica, Vermont, was bequeathed $20,000 to take care of the famous terrier. Albert Clarke, the little boy from the tenement, was reportedly willed the royalties from most of Margaret’s books published up to the time of her death.

Cobble Court’s Not-so-Final Days

From about 1950 to 1966, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York tried to persuade Margaret Glass Healy and her brothers to sell the property, including the two houses and the land. They finally reached a deal, and the property was sold for about $75,000.

At this time, the little farmhouse was being rented by Swedish-born Mr. and Mrs. Sven Bernhard. They had made extensive renovations to the home since moving there in 1960, and did not want to move when the archdiocese ordered them out to make room for a large nursing home (the Mary Manning Walsh Home for Aged at 1339 York Avenue).

So they made a deal: the couple would leave, but only if they could take the house with them. With the help of architect William C. Shopsin, they purchased a vacant 3600-square foot lot for $30,000 on Charles Street and made arrangements for the house be moved to Greenwich Village.

1335yorkavenue1966

On March 5th, 1967, the farmhouse (including the cobblestones from the courtyard) was loaded onto a flatbed and brought to the vacant double lot off at Charles and Greenwich Street (most city lots are 25 feet wide, but since the house is 26 feet wide, the couple had to purchase two lots to accommodate it). As the truck pulled away, Mrs. Bernhard exclaimed, “It’s saved! It’s saved!”

cobblecottage1967

The 18th-century cottage, hidden for 100 years behind 1335 York Avenue and 435 East 71st Street, was revealed during demolition work in February 1966.

CobbleCottageEastSide.jpg

On March 5, 1967, the house was loaded on a flatbed truck and transported to Greenwich Village. This view is of the back of the house, which apparently had not been painted white. It cost the Bernhard’s $6,500 to move the 26-foot-wide house. 

charlesstreetfarmhouse1967weston14th

Here’s the four-room, 900-square-foot house being pulled down 14th Street on what appears to be a rainy day.

The Bernhards continued living in the home on Charles Street for twenty years. They sold the house for about $725,000 in 1986 and moved to Mystic, Connecticut.

In 1988, the house was purchased by its current owners, Eliot Brodsky and Suri Bieler. The couple worked hard to restore it, adding a 540-square-foot addition when their son was born that earned them an award from the Greenwich Village Historical Society for its canted angles that match the original house.

“It’s as if a farmhouse, in the manner of a spaceship, fell from the sky and landed smack in the middle of a dense urban setting.”–Off the Grid, 2011

 

charlesstreethouse1
Today, the six-room, wood-frame house, with its well-manicured yard and driveway, looks very much out of place at 121 Charles Street. Photo by P. Gavan

charlesstreet3

Now, should you ever find yourself walking past this house on Charles Street, you have a great story to tell. Photo by P. Gavan

 

 

 

 

 

 

marraretwisebrowncrispin3

Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian

“Crispin’s Crispian lived in a two-story doghouse in a garden…”

The charming story of Crispin’s Crispian — and the old New York farmhouse where his famous pet mom wrote her final children’s book — takes place on what was once known as the Louvre Farm. The 90-acre farm extended from the Old Boston Post Road (near today’s Third Avenue) to the East River between present-day East 66th Street and East 75th Street. Today we call the neighborhood Lenox Hill.

In Part I of Crispin’s Crispian, we left off in 1894. In Part II, we go back just a bit to the 1860s, which is when William and Margaret Glass purchased a few vacant lots on what was labeled Subdivision 4 of the old Louvre Farm. The lots were located on the west side of Avenue A (today’s York Avenue), between East 71st and East 72nd Street.

margaretwisebrownchrispie2

Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian at her writing studio in the little frame house.

It was here in the late 1940s and early 1950s that children’s picture book author Margaret Wise Brown rented what was reported to be a tiny, 18th-century frame house, where she wrote Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.

Margaret’s pet Kerry blue terrier, Crispin’s Crispian, was the inspiration for this book. The house was no doubt the inspiration for the setting of the story and the illustrations.

The Mysterious Frame House on East 71st Street

Sometime in the 1860s, Irish immigrants William and Margaret Glass moved from Greenwich Village to a little frame farmhouse — more like a cottage — on the northwest corner of East 71st Street and Avenue A. The Glasses reportedly lived in this cottage and operated a small dairy on the site (according to the 1870 census, the Glasses had two sons, John and Charles, and William’s occupation was “milk business.”)

Around 1868-1869, the Glasses constructed a two-story brick dwelling in front of the cottage, thus hiding the tiny house away from street view. They continued to live in the cottage, which was accessible via a narrow path on 71st Street, until William passed away in the early 1880s.

second72nd1879

This 1879 illustration of Second Avenue at 72nd Street — the “hill” of Lenox Hill — gives you a good idea of what the Upper East Side of New York City looked like about 140 years ago.

Here’s the mystery: Just when was the frame cottage built? In his book “New York–Oddly Enough,” published in 1938, Charles G. Shaw describes the “hidden house” as an 18th-century clapboard farmhouse with small, paned windows and an open, outside staircase connecting two floors.

News reports from the 1960s also suggest that the house was at least 200 years old, which means it was built in the 1760s, when wealthy privateer David Provost owned the Louvre Farm. But for some reason, the tiny house does not appear on any maps until 1891.

Perhaps the cottage was a small outbuilding on the Provost farm and simply not labeled on any map? Or could it have been moved from another location before the Glass family arrived in the 1860s?

subdivision41855

In this 1855 map of Subdivision No. 4 of the Louvre Farm, no construction appears to have taken place yet, and no building lots have been created along Avenue A between 71st and 72nd Street. There’s no sign of a tiny frame house or any other structure.

lot4louvrefarm

In 1868, when this map was drawn, the building lots have been created and there appear to be quite a few buildings on Subdivision No. 4, including what is probably the Glass family’s new two-story brick house. Still, I don’t see a tiny frame house. 

1891avenueamap

The little frame house finally shows up in 1891 (see the little yellow square just above the “V” in “Avenue.”)  The two-story brick building constructed around 1868 is in front, and there was a small cobble court between the two buildings. A narrow path on 71st St. provided access. 

Following William’s passing, Margaret Glass moved into the two-story brick building with her two sons.  She apparently rented part of this building along with the tiny cottage: The 1890 census records three families at the address, including Margaret and her sons.

Cobble Court: 1930s-1940s

In 1928, when Avenue A north of 59th Street was renamed York Avenue, the Glass family’s brick building was designated 1335 York Avenue. I assume the cottage in back shared the same address.

During the Great Depression, the Glass family rented a portion of 1335 York Avenue for use as a tea room called Cobble Court (named for the cobblestone court that separated the brick building from the cottage). The tea room was run by Alta E. Dines and other members of the Cobble Court committee — mostly trained nurses and doctors’ wives who volunteered their time to help nurses who were out of work and in need of assistance.

In addition to the tea room, where, according to the New York Sun, “the chicken salad was marvelous,” Cobble Court had a gift shop and library (possibly in the cottage) as well as a mending service and a theater ticket service for the out-of-work nurses.

1335yorkavenue1935

In this 1935 photo, 1335 York Avenue is the little two-story brick building to the left of the  Redemptionist Fathers of New York Church. The cottage was behind this building, hidden between the five- and six-story tenements. Museum of the City of New York 

In the 1940s, the Glass’s granddaughter — also named Margaret Glass — occupied the second floor of 1335 York Avenue with her husband, Owen Healy, and their two daughters, Margaret (Margaret “Peggy” Peters) and Charlotte (Charlotte Whalen).  On the first floor, the family operated a restaurant called Healy’s Dining Room.

It was during this time that Margaret Wise Brown rented the back cottage as a writing studio.

In Part III, I’ll tell you about Margaret’s final years in the cottage, and show you some pictures of what this little house looks like today (no, it’s not on East 71st Street anymore, but it’s still standing, and it’s still somebody’s cherished home.)

1335yorkave1935

Another view of 1335 York Avenue (behind the bus) in 1935. Museum of the City of New York 

 

margaretowen2

Margaret Owen and Lilly in 1922

When we left Part I of this curious cat tale of Old New York, young Margaret Owen was just about to dunk her two Angora cats into a basin of blue dye. The blue cats, she thought, would match her blue suit and look great parading down the boardwalk at Atlantic City. They’d also make a great gift for Otto Harbach and Arthur Hammerstein, the writer and director of “The Blue Kitten.” 

Margaret Owen was obsessed with the color blue. Everything in her apartment was blue, as were all her clothes and accessories. The petite singer had also recently auditioned for a chorus role in “The Blue Kitten,” which was appearing at the Selwyn Theatre (today, the American Airlines Theatre) on West 42nd Street.

So one day, while dying some old woolen stockings in a basin of blue dye, she got a wicked idea when her cat Lilly dipped her paw into the basin. She picked up the cat and dunked her right into the bowl of blue water. Then it was her cat Otto’s turn (I don’t know if this was his name, but several newspaper articles refer to him as Otto).

bluekitten1

“The Blue Kitten” was a musical comedy that ran from January to May 1922 at the Selwyn Theatre.

Despite the cats’ howls, Lilly held them down in the water for about five minutes until she was sure the dye had taken. (She took care not to immerse their heads – she used a piece of cotton dipped in the dye to swab their faces.) When she was all done, she wrapped the cats in an old blue towel and placed them on a blue cushion to dry.

Now, Margaret Owen was not the only person who rented an apartment from building owner Clarice Carleton Holland at 75 West 50th Street. Hearing the cats’ howls and thinking that Margaret was killing them, several neighbors called the Humane Society.

Over the next few days, things did not go well for poor Otto. Sensing something was wrong with the lackadaisical cat, Margaret took Otto to Dr. Harry K. Miller’s dog and cat hospital (aka, The New York Canine Infirmary), which was then located at 146 West 53rd Street. There, the blue Angora succumbed to an apparent poison in the dye.

Enter stage left, Harry Moran, Superintendent of New York’s Humane Society. Harry Moran told Margaret he was taking her and Lilly to the West Side Magistrates Court, where she would appear before Magistrate Peter A. Hatting on charges of animal cruelty.

Midtown Community Court New York

The old West Side Magistrates Court at 314 West 54th Street was built in 1894. Today it’s home to the Midtown Community Court. The building still bears its terra cotta visions of justice.

Margaret put the blue cat in a blue silk bag and brought her to the court, where she was met by her attorney, Benedict A. Leerburger of the firm of House, Grossman & Vorhaus.

Magistrate Hatting ordered Margaret, Superintendent Moran, Mr. Leerburburger, and the cat to go to the Humane Society headquarters to have Lilly’s fur analysed by a chemist.

Pending the test results and Lilly’s status, the judge said, he would make his decision.

“If Miss Owens and Mr. Leerburger want any lunch, the Humane Society will supply them with it,” the judge reportedly said as he sent them on their way to have Lilly examined.

“What kind of lunch?” Mr. Leerburger asked the magistrate. “I can’t get along on a cat’s diet,” the attorney said. “I need more than milk for sustenance.”

margaretowen3

Margaret at court with Lilly, who was then still dyed blue (you can just barely make out the cat on her shoulders).

 

Two veterinarians and a specialist on poison were called to assist with Lilly at the Humane Society. They washed the cat and had the water analyzed. It turned out that the blue dye contained 5% arsenic.

Because Lilly had licked a lot of the dye off and become very sick, the magistrate said it was almost a case of fatal poisoning. (Margaret denied knowing anything about Otto, claiming that he was a friend’s cat that she had taken to the animal hospital as a favor for her.)

Mrs. Anna Doyle, Margaret Owen’s probation officer, was convinced that Margaret had not intended to harm the cats. Lilly had survived the ordeal, so Mrs. Doyle asked the judge to go easy on Miss Owen.

“You’re a spoiled child,” the magistrate admonished Margaret during her sentencing. “What you need is a guardian. Are you married? No? Then I’ll send you back to your father until you get another guardian.”

In addition to remanding Margaret to her parents in Florida, Judge Hatting told her that the Humane Society would have custody of Lilly until her blue color had vanished.

Margaret’s Story Goes Viral

Within days after Margaret appeared in court with Lilly, the story of the blue-dyed cat that had died from dyeing (referring to Otto) made all the major newspapers across the United States. Her story was also cabled to the Paris newspapers, where the idea of dying your pets to match your wardrobe was much appreciated by the high-society Parisian women.

margaretowen1

The Paris women were a little more intelligent, though. First, they thought it would be better to dye their dogs, since cats aren’t fond of parading about with their mistresses. They also found that coffee, caramel, or tea, mixed with cream (and a little bit of quinine to discourage licking), made a great safe dye.

Superintendent Moran was completely against this fad, and had a reputation for prosecuting those who tried it in New York City. Even if coffee, tea, and caramel was used, he said, these were poisonous for animals, and thus, punishable under the law as a misdemeanor crime against animals.

10 Years Later…

I do not know what happened to Margaret Owen and Lilly. Hopefully they lived happily ever after in Florida, but for some reason I don’t think Margaret kept herself out of trouble for the rest of her life.

What I do know is that in 1930, Clarice Carleton Holland, the widow of Dr. Bukk G. Carleton, sold the building at 75 West 50th Street to William F. Beach, who in turn sold it the Underel Holding Corporation on behalf of John D. Rockefeller. By 1931 the holding corporation had acquired all the lots on the street, giving them the entire 50th Street frontage on which to construct Radio City Music Hall.

rcmh2_hatchingcatnyc
Once upon a time, a young woman dyed her cats blue in an old brownstone and brick apartment on this very site at the northeast corner of W. 50th Street and Sixth Ave. Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Photo by P. Gavan

Incidentally, the animal hospital where Margaret Owen brought Otto and Lilly is still in operation as the Miller-Clark Animal Hospital in Mamaroneck, New York. Established in 1902 at 118 West 188th Street (according to old newspaper ads), it is one of the longest running veterinary practices in New York.