117 West 72nd Street

View of 117 West 72nd Street (Cooke Funeral Home) from south.  Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

The Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home

by Tom Miller

In 1887, Charles Buek began construction on a row of six high-stooped houses on the north side of West 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.  Known for creating homes for wealthy families, he acted as both architect and developer.  Among the group of houses, completed in 1888, was 117 West 72nd Street, which was home to the family of mining broker Alfred Burrows at the turn of the century.

Although West 72nd Street was exclusively residential when the Burrows house was built, by 1912 commerce had invaded and the well-toned homeowners moved elsewhere.  On November 2, 1912 the New-York Tribune reported that “No. 117 West 72d street…is to be altered into stores and apartments.”  Whatever renovations were made, they paled compared to those initiated by Cephise C. Bates when she hired architect Irving Margon in 1918.  He removed the stoop, added a storefront on the ground level, and converted the upper floors to “bachelor apartments.”

In fact, the residents were not solely unmarried males.  Olga Schaefer lived here in 1919 when she inherited the equivalent of $4.28 million in today’s money from her father’s estate.  At the time the storefront was home to the Vedanta Society, a group founded in New York in 1894 by Swami Vivekananda.  But the former private residence would undergo another, even more substantial change, just over a decade later.

In 1934 alone the funerals of actors Susan Parker Chisnell, Charles Gibney, Allen Mathes, Ann Egglestone, James C. Klein and comedian Charles P. Morrison were held here. 

In 1915, Walter B. Cooke had opened a funeral home in the Bronx.  Within two years he added three more and he kept expanding.  When 117 West 72nd Street was offered at auction on September 29, 1930, Cooke acquired it.  He hired architect Paul C. Hunter to completely redesign the vintage structure.  Hunter removed the façade, pulled the front to the property line, and gave the building a new personality, completed in 1931. 

The two-story limestone clad base supported three floors of red-brown brick.  Two entrances beneath blind arches—one to the funeral home and the other to the upper floors—flanked a large window at ground level.  The three upper floors were rather spartan, although recessed panels which harkened to the Arts and Crafts movement of a generation earlier provided added interest.  A stoic brick parapet sat atop the stone terminal cornice.

The Upper West Side had traditionally been home to people in the theatrical field—mostly because other neighborhoods had been unwilling to accept them.  From its opening the West 72nd Street Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home was a favorite among entertainers.

In 1934 alone the funerals of actors Susan Parker Chisnell, Charles Gibney, Allen Mathes, Ann Egglestone, James C. Klein and comedian Charles P. Morrison were held here. 

Susan Parker Chisnell had started her theatrical career “as a baby when she was carried on the stage at the Academy of Music,” according to The New York Sun.  Her last performance was in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Forty-five Minutes from Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theater.

Exterior of Cooke Funeral Home

Image Courtesy “Dr. Mo” via Flickr, ca. undated

James C. Kline was a veteran actor, as well.  He first appeared on the stage in 1870 and had played opposite some of the greatest names in American theater, including Edwin Booth, Edwin Forest, E. A. Sothern and Lucille Western.

Among the entertainers whose funerals were held here in 1938, was Madame Violent Besson, who came to New York in 1908 after a successful career in London and Paris.  Her last appearance was with Ruth Gordon in the 1936-37 run of The Country Wife.

A bizarre incident occurred during the funeral of actor C. Edwin Brandt on January 11, 1939.  Henry Chesterfield, a former vaudeville player, gave the eulogy for his old friend.  Just after finishing, he complained of a severe pain in his head and was taken to an adjoining room.  With his wife at his side, he sank into a coma, then died before a physician could respond.  Four days later his funeral was held in the very spot where he had spoken over his friend’s casket.

Of course, not all the Walter B. Cooke funerals were for theatrical figures.  In March 1952 the funeral of American artist and illustrator Howard Chandler Christy was held here, and two years later services for Professor Walter Edwin Peck were conducted.  Peck was a distinguished scholar of English literature and the author of “a definitive two-volume biography of Shelley and other works on the English romantic poets,” as noted by The New York Times on January 17, 1954. 

(Peck, sadly, had plummeted from world-wide academic respect to ruin after his wife accused him publicly in 1929 of “frequent misconduct with students, secretaries, and colleagues’ wives.”  The New York Times said that at the time of his death “he was washing dishes in cheap restaurants and peddling The Bowery News.”)

March 1952 the funeral of American artist and illustrator Howard Chandler Christy was held here

The funeral home was packed with 200 “vaudeville associates and friends from show business and private life” for the service for vaudeville soft-shoe dancer Pat Rooney on September 12, 1962.  The New York Times wrote that “Outside, several hundred others stood in silent tribute.”  The 82-year old was remembered as “the diminutive master of the waltz-clog” who “once rained in the golden age of vaudeville.”

A decade later, on August 21, 1972, the funeral of Alexandra Fedorova, former Russian ballerina, choreographer and teacher was held here.  She had graduated from the St. Petersburg Imperial School in 1902 and immigrated to New York in 1937, becoming an American citizen.  After working with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo here, she opened her own dance studio in midtown until her retirement in 1965.

Five months before Alexandra Fedorova’s death, Walter B. Cooke had died in Palm Beach, Florida.  His funeral home continued on in the building through the turn of the century.  Then a renovation completed in 2004 resulted in a dance studio on the two lower floors and offices above.

Today a juice bar operates from the former funeral home.  Other than replacement doors, little has changed to the building since Paul C. Hunter transformed the 1888 brownstone in 1931.

Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com


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