131-133 West 61st Street
B&W NYC Tax Photo of 131-133 West 61st Street

View of 131-133 West 61st Street from south, Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

131-133 West 61st Street

by Tom Miller

In April 1886, the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson filed plans for a five-story stone-faced apartment building on 131-133 West 61st Street for developer Michael McDermott.  Unlike the dozens of tenements in the San Juan Hill district, McDermott intended this building–which cost him the equivalent of $1.24 million in 2024 to construct—to be for financially comfortable tenants.  The residents could choose between suites of seven or six rooms with a bath.

Thom & Wilson’s neo-Grec design included two full-height, three-sided bays that captured the slightest breezes in the warm months.  In between, the entrance atop a six-step stoop sat with a handsome portico upheld by free-standing columns.

Among the initial tenants was Harry S. Collette, an 1890 college graduate and commission merchant with Joseph T. Low & Co.  Dr. James E. Newcomb lived and worked here, and retired U.S. Army Colonel A. L. Hough was also an original resident.  The stark contrast between the San Juan Hill tenement dwellers and the residents of 131 West 61st Street was reflected in the Newcombs’ advertisement in The Sun on February 24, 1892: “Girl for general housework; German preferred; must speak and write English; two in family; flat; apply Saturday morning.”

The family of Alexander Pollock, described by The Evening World as “the millionaire merchant,” were residents by the late 1880s.  The Pollock’s son, Edward, took a romantic shine to a servant, Ellen Pollock, who was “an upstairs girl” in their summer home in Nyack, New York.  The two sneaked off and were married on September 27, 1887, after Ellen learned she was pregnant.  When Alexander Pollock learned of the marriage, he “was furious,” according to The New York World.  Under pressure from his father, some months after the birth of the child, and although his wife was pregnant again, Edward left Ellen and returned to 131 West 61st Street.  Not only did he leave his wife, but he also took their daughter Annie Amelia with him—an act Ellen insisted was kidnapping.

Under pressure from his father, some months after the birth of the child, and although his wife was pregnant again, Edward left Ellen… 

On December 31, 1891, according to court testimony later, Edward Pollock called the hallboy, 13-year-old Daniel McGrath, and said “Danny, there’s a crazy woman coming to see me today.  Now don’t let her in.”  But when Ellen arrived, noticeably pregnant, Daniel admitted her.  She begged to be allowed to take Amelia back, but Alexander Pollock called a policeman who took her away.  The hallboy said as Ellen was taken out of the building, the elder Pollock yelled from a window, “Take her where she won’t come back!”

John Quincy Adams Hoyt and his wife were tenants by the turn of the century.  Born in 1827 in New Hampshire, he first went into the grocery business in Boston, then relocated to Chicago in 1856.  He was described by The New York Times as “one of the most prominent businessmen in this city and Chicago, and one of the original promoters of the present elevated railroad system of this city.”  He had arrived in New York in 1868 and immediately became associated with George Gilbert in the construction of the elevated railroad system.  After that, he branched out into the “oil springs” business in Pennsylvania until a stroke forced him to retire in 1880.

Among the Hoyts’ neighbors at 131 West 61st Street were William E. McFadden and his wife.  Born in 1857, McFadden was in charge of the Bureau for the Collection of Assessments and Arrears in the City Controller’s office.  McFadden’s wife died in 1902, leaving him to rear their six-year-old daughter on his own. 

The following year, on June 1, 1903, McFadden was talking to one of his clerks when, according to the New-York Tribune, “he clutched a desk, and appeared to be ill.”  The clerk, James A. Delehey, asked what the trouble was, and McFadden said it was a recurrence of a terrible pain he had suffered a few days earlier.  “He asked Delehey to fan him,” said the article, “and almost before any one could do anything for him fell to the floor unconscious.”

Dr. Edward J. Hall happened to be in the office doing business, and rushed in.  “The doctor told those present that there was nothing to be done, as Mr. McFadden was dying,” reported the New-York Tribune.  A priest was called from St. Andrew’s Catholic church to administer last rites.  The coroner later ordered the body to be taken to 131 West 61st Street.  Who took in the now seven-year-old daughter is unknown.

A celebrated resident at the time was actress Anne Hartley, known to theatergoers as Mrs. G. H. Gilbert.  Born in England in 1822, she made her first appearance on the stage as a child.  She married actor Geroge H. Gilbert in 1845, and four years later, the couple moved to America.  After years of playing young, romantic roles, the widowed actress was now known for what today would be called character roles—those of old women and spinsters.  On October 24, 1904, she opened at the New Lyceum Theatre at the age of 82 in the title role of the new play Granny.

Less than two months later, on December 2, she died.  According to William Winter in his 1913 book The Wallet of Time, “The immediate cause of her death was hemorrhage of the brain, resulting from the shock of a cold water bath—which, throughout her life, she was accustomed to use every morning.”  Her funeral was held in the Bloomingdale Reformed Church on Broadway and 68th Street.

Another elderly resident of 131 West 61st Street was Addison Mullington Burt.  A retired lawyer, he was born into an affluent family near Fayetteville, New York, on June 1, 1817.  His father, Aaron Burt, was, according to The New York Times, “prominently identified with the social life and development of Syracuse.”  A year after passing the bar in 1840, Burt moved to New York, where he practiced law for decades.  The widower died in his apartment at the age of 92 on January 15, 1909.

An advertisement in June 1916 offered “Large, light rooms with all modern conveniences” and noted the building was “convenient to 59th St. elevated and subway stations; also surface cars.”  Rents were $600 and $540 per year for 7-room and 6-room apartments, respectively.  (The rent for the larger apartment would translate to about $1,375 per month today.)

‘For God’s sake please care for this baby, as I have no way of providing for it.  Please raise it as a Catholic.  Lord Help me!’

Among the residents in 1922 were Mrs. A. Westergard, a singer known to audiences at Ruth La France, and Dr. John P. Viscardi.  The close proximity of their comfortable apartments to the wretched conditions of the tenements became especially evident to them both that year. 

On the night of January 12, Ruth came home to find a six-week-old baby girl lying in front of Viscardi’s door.  The New York Herald reported, “Pinned to her coat was a slip of paper on one side of which this was written: ‘For God’s sake please care for this baby, as I have no way of providing for it.  Please raise it as a Catholic.  Lord Help me!’  On the other side was, ‘Please baptize Christen.’”

Dr. Viscardi examined the infant and deemed her “in good health and had been well nourished and cared for.”  Police were notified and the baby was taken to Bellevue Hospital.

Although tenants like City Magistrate Thomas F. McAndrews lived here in 1929, the demographics of the building were changing.  The following year, four of the apartments were home to immigrants—from Germany, Hungary, Ireland and Italy.  Within the following decade, Hispanic families were changing the face of San Juan Hill.  The family of Eladio Ortega, a native of Puerto Rico, lived here in 1940.  Living with him and his wife Mary were their daughters, 17-year-old Irene and 21-year-old Carmen, and Carmen’s husband Andeli Fernandez.  They also had two lodgers, Abraham Bobe and Josephine Pinero.

The Ortega family would soon see overwhelming change come to the San Juan Hill district.  In 1947, the City of New York targeted the area for redevelopment.  Starting in 1947, blocks of buildings were demolished in a massive urban renewal project that would go on for decades.  In 1961, the Fordham Law School opened as the first building completed in the Fordham College at Lincoln Center project, a two-block campus completed in 1985. 

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

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