The Chatsworth: Where to Kidnap a Detective
by Tom Miller
As the 20th century dawned over Manhattan, the ongoing project of Riverside Park was nearly completed. The Park, along with Riverside Drive, would stretch from 72nd to 125th Streets. Based on plans by Frederick Law Olmsted, the duo were essentially a wandering English garden that pretended to be a natural extension of the Hudson River Valley below.
At the same time, the concept of posh apartment living had become accepted among the upper classes. With Riverside Drive now rivaling Fifth Avenue as the city’s most fashionable thoroughfare, the undeveloped plot of land at West 72d Street and the Drive was a desirable plum. Developer George F. Johnson, one of the owners of the Johnson Kahn Company, purchased the lot.
Johnson would transfer the property to the Johnson Kahn Company on May 14, 1903; but that would be eight months after construction had begun on an apartment building. Johnson and his partner, Aleck Kahn, had commissioned architect John E. Scharsmith to design a lavish, upscale building that would lure wealthy residents. Ground was broken on September 23, 1902 and the structure was completed a year later, almost to the day, on September 30 at a staggering cost of $1.1 million.
The Chatsworth Apartments rose 12 stories above a rusticated limestone base. To ensure sunlight and ventilation, the building broke into two separate blocks above the base. Here Scharsmith melded red brick and white limestone—resulting in an explosion of Beaux Arts decoration. A curved two-story mansard capped the structure. Above the third story cornice chubby cherubs peered down at the arriving guests. An elaborate copper-and-glass porte cochère sheltered arriving tenants from inclement weather.
The self-sufficient structure had its own lighting and refrigerating plant. Residents would enjoy a conservatory in the upper floor of the mansard roof “and is furnished as a sun-parlor for the comfort and convenience of the tenants,” said The World’s New York Apartment House Album.
Prospective residents would find the interior appointments as impressive as the stately façade. The World’s New York Apartment House Album noted that the building was “designed for the highest class of tenants.” The rambling “housekeeping” apartments, three to a floor, ranged from five to fifteen rooms, the largest having four bathrooms. They included a library, sitting room, dining room, servants’ rooms, and up-to-date sanitary kitchen. The magazine Apartment Houses of the Metropolis noted that “The parlors are in white mahogany, the libraries in regular mahogany, and dining rooms in mission oak.”
The self-sufficient structure had its own lighting and refrigerating plant. Residents would enjoy a conservatory in the upper floor of the mansard roof “and is furnished as a sun-parlor for the comfort and convenience of the tenants,” said The World’s New York Apartment House Album. There was also a billiard room, café, barbershop, and tailor and hairdressing services.
There were 66 apartments in the Chatsworth and prospective tenants could expect to pay between $900 and $5000 per year—about $1,500 to $100,000 per month today. The high rents did not deter wealthy residents and the building was successful enough that in 1904 Johnson began acquiring the land to the west for an extension. The following year plans were submitted to the Department of Buildings for a shorter Annex. John E. Scharsmith was brought back to design the eight-story building with one large apartment per floor. Construction began on January 5, 1906 and was completed only 10 months later.
The Annex held hands with its big sister by a continuous limestone base. Other than that, however, the architect made few attempts to blend the structures architecturally. The new building, costing $150,000, reflected the more restrained French Classical style; yet the carved details of festoons and garlands and the proud projecting cornice created a harmonious pair. George Johnson moved into the Annex, living here until his death in 1918 at the age of 71.
The social status of the residents was evident when a two-day estate sale was held by J. Hatfield Morton in October 1906. The contents of the 14-room apartment included “paintings, a library of four hundred volumes, Oriental rugs, tapestry and silverplate.” The New-York Tribune noted that “The furniture is said to be of excellent quality and unique in design. The sale should prove an attractive one.”
While most New Yorkers were still relying on carriages or trolleys to get around the city, tenant George McNair was being driven in an automobile. On March 16, 1909 it ended in tragedy. As McNair’s car was traveling along Third Avenue, eight-year old Frederick Aufrecht stepped into the street at the corner of 90th Street. The young boy had been running an errand and was struck by the vehicle. He died in the Presbyterian Hospital early the next morning. The Tribune reported that “The police say the accident was unavoidable.”
Lady Arthur Paget purchased the Chatsworth in 1911, giving in exchange the old Hotel Victoria on 27th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Two years later, in February 1913, Sire Brothers purchased the Chatsworth for $2 million. The property would be transferred to the 59th Street Real Estate Company of which Albert E. Sire was president. Later that year the building would be the scene of thrilling scandal.
Vivian Carmichael was the son of Thomas Carmichael who headed the banking firm of Dent & Palmer in London. He met Elsie Marie Kenney in 1902 while she was attending the Academy of the Sacred Heart on Madison Avenue. The boastful Carmichael said he was a descendant of the Earl of Fife and that he would soon inherit estates in England. He wooed the woman, telling her that if she would marry him he would present her at court during the coronation of King George V. The couple was married on April 13, 1909.
The New-York Tribune noted “There were reports of fabulous wedding presents mounting up to many thousands of dollars.” Carmichael invested in a real estate venture selling the “Merrick Estates” on Long Island. Although the company failed with a $200,000 deficit, the newly-weds continued to live an upscale lifestyle in their Long Island home, “The Manse.” In the meantime, Carmichael took out $5,000 insurance coverage on the wedding gifts in May 1910 which were “stored high on a shelf in a corner cupboard,” according to a later indictment.
Two months later, on July 18, the couple traveled to New Rochelle to visit friends. On July 22, Elsie Carmichael sent word to a servant to close The Manse and remove her belongings. According to the New-York Tribune, “The following day the house burned to the ground.” Carmichael recovered $4,950 insurance on the wedding gifts alone. Unfortunately for him, the District Attorney’s office reported that “some of the most costly gifts were subsequently found in pawnshops on the West Side.”
And that, is when the Chatsworth Apartments came into the picture.
Detective Russo of the District Attorney Whitman’s office began a search for Vivian Carmichael with an indictment charging him with filing a false claim for $5,000 of lost property. In July 1913, he tracked the couple to the Chatsworth where they were visiting friends. He sent his personal card up on July 5 with a note that he wanted to see Mr. Carmichael “on personal business.” A servant responded that Mr. Carmichael could not be disturbed.
The detective walked around the block a few times, then made his way up to the apartment and rang the bell. When the door was opened he stepped inside before he could be stopped. Mrs. Carmichael offered to show Russo around and, when he stepped into a bedroom, she slammed the door shut and locked him in. “The detective, realizing that he was a prisoner, raised his voice, and informed the women that the house was surrounded by detectives and that it would be silly for Carmichael to attempt to escape,” reported The Tribune.
It was not the sort of activity one came to expect in the decorous Chatsworth flats.
“The following day the house burned to the ground.” Carmichael recovered $4,950 insurance on the wedding gifts alone. Unfortunately for him, the District Attorney’s office reported that “some of the most costly gifts were subsequently found in pawnshops on the West Side.”
Russo threatened to smash out the panels of the door and just as he was prepared to do damage, the door was opened. Through it all Carmichael remained in bed in an adjoining room. In the end the briefly-imprisoned detective escorted Carmichael, whom The New-York Tribune said “has been a wanderer since he was fifteen years old,” to the Criminal Courts Building.
Life in the Chatsworth returned to normal and the kidnapping of detectives seems to have been contained to the isolated incident. Socialites had no need to use their street address, the name of the building was sufficient. On April 11, 1915, the society pages noted that “Mrs. E. H. Noyes and Miss Noyes are informally at home on Sunday afternoons in their apartments in the Chatsworth.” The upscale reputation of the building led The New York Sun to call the Chatsworth “among the finest apartment buildings on the entire West Side.”
By 1921, many of the apartments had been divided into smaller units. An advertisement that year offered “apartments three to nine rooms renting from $2,000 to $5,000.”
A more concerning development than smaller apartments came in 1992 when Donald Trump laid plans for his Riverside South. The $3 billion project would transform the derelict freight rail yards of the New York Central Railroad into 16 apartment buildings of 5,700 total residential units. And it would effectively block the river views from about 90 of the Chatsworth’s windows above the Drive.
Despite the modern apartment building that now shoulders up to the grand dame’s westerly face, the Chatsworth and its Annex remain wonderful reminders of a time when apartment dwellers had libraries and sitting rooms and announced in the newspapers that they were “informally at home.”
Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com
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