Cat on the Fritz
by Tom Miller, for The Cultural Immigrant Initiative
As the Upper West Side developed in the last quarter of the 19th century, Michael Giblin rapidly erected multiple buildings, many of them going up simultaneously only blocks apart. Among the several projects he started in 1886 was a “flat and store” building at the northwest corner of 69th Street and Ninth Avenue (soon to be renamed Columbus Avenue). He commissioned the well-known architectural team of Thom & Wilson to design the structure.
The architects turned to the immensely popular Queen Anne style for the five-story building. Completed the following year, it was faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone and exhibited many of the style’s signature touches—creative brickwork in the checkerboard panels of the upper floors, terra cotta tiles of leaves and faces, and an undulating parapet above the roof line with a decorative wreath within each of its sinuous peaks. The entrance on West 69th Street sat atop a short brownstone stoop with heavy iron railings.
There were two stores on the avenue. The apartments held from four to six rooms and boasted modern steam heat, renting for $33 per month, or about $1,050 today. They filled with upper-middle class families, like the Voglers and the Johnstons.
As Christmas neared in 1888 The World initiated a series of collections “for Christmas Stockings” for selected underprivileged recipients. The drive was the equivalent of a GoFundMe push today. The newspaper wrote about one crippled boy, Harry White who needed a pair of crutches. The heart-tugging article touched E. C. Johnston, who sent in a dollar bill—or about $28 today.
One generous donor purchased the little boy a new pair of crutches, so the money collected from Johnston and others might have seemed unneeded. But on Christmas Eve The World explained, “He is, however, very poor and needs the money forwarded very much. So we will send it to him with the best wishes of the kind-hearted donors.”
Seven months later the Vogler family’s cat gave birth to two kittens. The cat, which they had had for four years “was a great favorite with every one,” said The Evening World. The newspaper explained, “The cat was called Fritz, although it was of feminine gender.” The housecat had become one of the family, the article noting “She performed many tricks and did curious things. Whenever Mrs. Vogler scolded her little son, Eddie, the cat assisted in the administration by mewing at him savagely.”
But motherhood brought out a protective side in Fritz that no one had seen before. “They were her first born, and she seemed to regard them as something extraordinary. They were better than any other kittens that ever lived,” surmised the newspaper. But that came to a tragic end on July 3.
A black cat from next door strolled in through the open door. Fritz poised to defend her kittens. Little Eddie kicked at the interloper to send it home, but in doing so accidently kicked one of the kittens. Fritz flew into a feline rage.
“The pet cat became furious in an instant. It acted like an enraged tiger. She lashed her tail and shrieked like a wildcat, and finally flew at the boy and bit him again and again on his leg.” As Eddie screamed, his mother rushed to his aid. “The cat turned upon her and bit her several times through her stocking above her slipper.” Someone cried for help and man from the street ran up the stairs and killed Fritz.
Eddie had been bitten ten times on his leg and his mother had bite wounds on her foot, her arms and her hands. The dead cat was taken to a veterinarian’s office where it was deemed to be free of rabies.
Thomas Stevenson, alias “Dutch” Gordon, was known to police as the King of the Knockout Men because he headed a gang of toughs who frequented saloons and offered to buy an unsuspecting patron a drink. Unseen, they would slip knockout drops into the liquor and when the man became groggy, staged a fight.
Disaster in the apartment of Harry S. Van Wagner was averted on December 13, 1893. The Van Wagner children were playing when they knocked over a lamp, which immediately set the room on fire. Luckily the blaze was extinguished, but not before doing around $3,000 in damages by today’s standards.
Residents were financially comfortable enough that if they could not spend the entire summer season away from the city, they could certainly take trips to resorts. And so, in June 1900 the family of C. D. Allen went to Atlantic City. In their absence their apartment was targeted by three opportunistic burglars.
Unfortunately for them, however, the were recognized on Columbus Avenue by Detectives Fogary, Kear and Pepper, who followed them. The New York Times reported on July 1, “They left Columbus Avenue and entered an apartment house at 101 West Sixty-ninth Street. After they had been in the house half an hour the detectives went through the house, and found them in the flat of C. D. Allen, on the fifth floor.” The men were arrested before they could steal anything.
The occupants of another apartment were less fortunate a few years later. On November 28, 1906 a notice appeared in The New York Times: “Reward for information leading to arrest of parties who robbed apartment, 101 West 69th St.”
At the time a six-room corner apartment rented for $60, or about $1,470 per month today.
Broker Thomas McGuire was a resident in 1907 when he survived an encounter with one of Manhattan’s most dangerous criminals. Thomas Stevenson, alias “Dutch” Gordon, was known to police as the King of the Knockout Men because he headed a gang of toughs who frequented saloons and offered to buy an unsuspecting patron a drink. Unseen, they would slip knockout drops into the liquor and when the man became groggy, staged a fight. Stevenson would then rush in, impersonating an officer, and “apprehend” the offenders. If he was lucky enough, the target would only be robbed.
Early on the morning of February 7 Thomas McGuire encountered Stevenson on a downtown street. The Brooklyn Standard Union reported “Stevenson stood McGuire up against a wall on Cortlandt street in sight of a number of thoroughly scared pedestrians, and went through him for $50 and a gold watch and chain.” The total loss would be around $2,000 today.
A few weeks later Stevenson was arrested as a suspect in the murder of “Long Island Pat” McCarty, who was killed on Eight Avenue near 28th Street. In his pockets were “a large assortment of knockout drops, including morphine tablets and chloral.” Detective Lieutenant Grady also suspected him of being McGuire’s assailant. Thomas McGuire was called to police headquarters where he “identified the thug,” according to the newspaper.
In the 1910’s two of the residents, Thomas Ryan and William Kelly, drove taxicabs. On October 6, 1912, Kelly had the uncomfortable task of notifying his employer, Thomas Callahan that his vehicle had been stolen. He had stepped away from the automobile at Seventh Avenue and 58th Street, and when he returned it was gone. As it turned out, three of his friends had driven off as a practical joke—one that did not end humorously. The New York Press reported that the friends “abandoned the machine…at Ninth Avenue and Fiftieth street, and ran away, leaving the car sputtering sparks and flames.”
William S. Cleveland, a theatrical manager and agent, and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in an apartment here in 1911. The Evening World described Elizabeth as “a woman of comparative wealth in her own right.” Despite her affluence, Elizabeth was tempted on February 15, 1911 while shopping in a Broadway department store. A vanity bag with a price tag of $1 caught her eye and, for some reason, rather than pay for it, she slipped it into her purse. But department stores had undercover detectives throughout who were constantly on the lookout for just such a move. Elizabeth was arrested.
The Evening World reported on February 16, “It was hard to determine which felt the disgrace the more keenly, the husband or the wife, when they appeared before Magistrate Steinert this morning. Mrs. Cleveland, a matronly looking woman, who gave her age as thirty-five years, wearing spectacles and expensively dressed, was on the verge of collapse.” During the proceedings, William trembled and occasionally wiped away tears.
Luckily for Elizabeth, the management of the store was compassionate. The store detective told the judge “This woman is not a thief. She yielded to a sudden impulse, such as reached thousands of women in department stores every day.” The store said that if Elizabeth would sign a confession to a lesser complaint, they would drop the shoplifting charge. Elizabeth confessed to disorderly conduct, her body shaking so badly that William had to help her sign the paper.
The Evening World reported “Magistrate Steinert suspended sentence. Mr. Cleveland half carried his wife to the door, helped her into a cab and took her to their home.” It had begun its article saying, “A lesson to otherwise uprightly moral women who feel tempted to pick up trifling articles on display on department store counters was furnished in the arraignment of Mrs. Elizabeth Cleveland.”
Other tenants around the same time were Dr. George W. Partridge, Police Sergeant John McGovern, and Walter J. Wakefield, an “information clerk for the Combustion Engineering Corporation.”
Frank Anastasio ran his grocery store from 208 Columbus Avenue in the pre-World War I years. He was caught up in an extortion plot by bread suppliers in 1915. They forced the shop owners to sell their bread for a certain price, or they would not be supplied. Like other grocers, Anastasio was intimidated by the mob-run organization. But when he was called to testify before the State Attorney General on February 17, he spilled all. According to the New York Herald, he testified that he “was told on Tuesday of last week to raise the price of bread on the following day to six cents. The following day he found a note written in pencil in his bread basket stating that the price at retail was six cents for the small loaves and ten cents for the large loaves, and he established this rate without asking questions.”
Almost all the residents were upstanding, like the Rev. Dr. Prince, who was rector of St. Stephen’s Church on West 69th Street. He lived here in the post-World War I years. But Sarah D. Arrieux was an exception. Prohibition prompted some citizens to come up with creative solutions for selling or obtaining alcohol, and resident Sarah D. Arrieux was involved in a scheme that was busted by Federal agents on December 19, 1925. The New York Times reported “Three women, three men and a youth were arrested and arraigned…following the seizure of $10,000 worth of alleged ‘bootleg candy’ in the offices of the De George Trucking Company.” The article said, “The candy is said to have been filed with whisky, wine, cordials and other alcoholic liquors.”
Sarah and the other women were arrested in the office where, “it is alleged, orders for the candy were received.” The Daily News added, however, “The women denied connection with the candy manufacturing and were permitted to go in custody of their counsel.”
It all seemed miraculous until firemen “found two blazes, one in the clothes closet of her bedroom, another beside the dumbwaiter shaft in the kitchen.”
The name of another tenant appeared for seemingly heroic reasons two years later. On October 6, 1927 the Daily News entitled an article “Girl Slides From Fire on Rope of Bedsheets” and reported “Friends of Lillian Conlon, 26, of 101 West 69th st., spent yesterday congratulating her on her escape during a fire in her apartment which started shortly after midnight yesterday.”
Because Lillian’s mother was hospitalized, she was alone in the apartment. She rescued her German Shepard dog, her cat and kittens and placed them on a fire escape landing, and then improvised a rope out of knotted bedsheets. “Her screams as she was about to let herself out of the window awakened guests in the Hotel Walton, the rear of which faces the rear of the five-story apartment house in which she lives. As they watched the woman dangling from her insecure rope they saw her snatched to safety by Joseph Kelly, 60, who occupied the apartment below.”
It all seemed miraculous until firemen “found two blazes, one in the clothes closet of her bedroom, another beside the dumbwaiter shaft in the kitchen.” On October 11 Lillian was arrested and “held as a pyromaniac,” according to the Daily News. As she faced Magistrate Maurice Gotlieb she declared, “I’m as sane as any one in this courtroom.” The judge committed her to Bellevue Hospital for observation, the article noting “Miss Conlon was charged with repeatedly setting fire to her apartment, 101 West 69th st.”
The Great Depression dealt a financial blow to the building’s owners. On September 20, 1933 Charles J. Mylod, Deputy Superintendent of Insurance, held a meeting of mortgage certificate holders “for the reorganization” of the building. Proposals submitted by the owners, including a reduction in the mortgage, were discussed.
But change seemed to be inevitable and an interior remodeling in 1941 resulted in single room occupancy rooms through the building. Among the tenants in the much-reduced spaces was poet John Henry Titus. His lengthy 1872 poem “The Face Upon the Barroom Floor” was adapted in 1914 for the short film of the same name starring Charles Chaplin. And in the 1941 film Louisiana Purchase Bob Hope’s character reads the entire poem. The Daily News reported on his marriage on October 18, 1944. The groom was 97 years old.
The ground floor shops were home to a wide variety of stores over the decades. In the early 20th century, the corner space was Burke’s Plumbing store. The northern store was home to Admiration Cleaners run by Jerome Milo at mid-century. As decades passed Columbus Avenue became trendier. Lenge Restaurant opened in 200 Columbus Avenue in 1978. The Manhattan Clothes Shopping Guide described the sushi restaurant as “where the service is leisurely, the fish fresh, and the lighting intimate.”
In 1980 a renovation was completed which resulted in four apartments per floor and a new “storage attic” on the roof. It was most likely at this point that the superb 1886 parapet was removed, the Victorian stoop and entranceway removed, then lowered, and a new, personality-free entrance installed on West 69th Street.
In 1987 the children’s clothing store Kidoko opened in 208 Columbus Avenue, replaced by El Mitote Restaurant in 2012. In the meantime, Magnolia Bakery opened in the corner location in 2008.
Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com
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