A Dinner Dance with Flare
by Tom Miller
In 1901 the Brady Estate began construction on a two-story taxpayer (a low-rise, often temporary building that garnered enough rent to pay the property taxes) at the northwest corner of Columbus Avenue and 79th Street. The Columbus Avenue side had stores at street level and offices above. The 79th Street elevation was noticeably different, both in the absence of architectural ornamentation and in its use. It held meeting rooms and an auditorium, or ballroom, on the ground floor; bowling alleys in the basement; and a vast studio space on the second floor. In June 1901, before construction was completed, the Brady Estate leased that portion of the structure to Oscar Duryea, a dance instructor who currently operated from the Hotel San Remo.
Construction was completed in the fall of 1901 and Duryea moved his Duryea-Delsarte Dancing and Deportment academy into the second floor of 109-115 West 79th Street. He leased the basement and first floor (called The Lotus), to a variety of groups. An advertisement on October 18, 1901, read, “A large ball room and music room, with parlors, also bowling alleys, can be secured for club and private entertainments.”
The Columbus Avenue stores and offices were rented mostly to tenants associated with the building trade. Among the initial occupants were real estate developer Samuel Bloch, whose office was on the second floor of 402 Columbus Avenue (he would remain at least through 1923); and Albert Eberlein’s painting and decorating shop, which was directly downstairs. Deigon’s plumbing offices were next door at 400 Columbus Avenue and upstairs was Alfred E. Toussaint’s real estate office.
Mrs. Caroline P. Crawford lived nearby at 134 West 79th Street. Around Thanksgiving 1901, she got the idea “that the poor children of the west side should be provided for and given a Christmas tree,” said the New York Herald on December 26. Mrs. Crawford enlisted volunteers to help, rented “Duyrea’s parlors,” and solicited goods from local businesses. On Christmas day, 375 needy children of the Upper West Side gathered in the ballroom where a Christmas tree had been set up. Among the gifts were 150 pairs of trousers, 150 pairs of shoes, and “pounds and pounds of candy” given out by Santa Claus. Afterward, the children enjoyed a vaudeville performance.
The party was not without a glitch, however. The New York Press, while exaggerating the number of attendees a bit, reported, “Of the 1,000 children who were the guests of the ‘Little Sock Tree Society of the West Side’ at a Christmas festival in a hall at No. 113 West Seventy-ninth street yesterday, there was one bad boy. And soon he came to grief, for he was arrested.” The article recounted the gifts of candies, fruit, toys, and clothing, and the entertainment. It added, “all was merry until Lawrence Reding, a 15-year-old lad…nearly broke up the festivities.”
“Of the 1,000 children who were the guests of the ‘Little Sock Tree Society of the West Side’ at a Christmas festival in a hall at No. 113 West Seventy-ninth street yesterday, there was one bad boy. And soon he came to grief, for he was arrested.”
President William McKinley had been assassinated three months earlier, and on the wall was a metal box for donations toward a memorial fund. The New York Press explained that Reding “had received a suit of clothes and a pair of shoes and candies and oranges, but he wanted money, and while the festivities were at their height, he broke the chain on the bank and wrenched it from the wall.” He bolted with the box, but Caroline Crawford was close on his trail. She grabbed the youngster and held him until a policeman could be summoned. “Reding struggled to get away, and his cries aroused all the children in the hall,” said the article. “There was a stampede among them, and many started to run for the door, not knowing what had happened.”
The hall returned to normal after Christmas, and on December 30, The New York Press announced a meeting would be held in the hall that day “to consider the federation of women’s clubs in New York City.” Within two months, The Lotus had become the regular meeting place of the New York Equal Suffrage League.
One of the large meeting rooms in The Lotus was leased in March 1903 to the newly formed Amateur Billiard Club of New York. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote, “the idea of the organization is to insure good and comfortable billiard quarters to the lovers of the game.” Although there were no annual dues, a member had to be elected, and there was a $50 membership fee—about $1,500 by 2023 conversion. The newspaper noted, “Several billiardists, well known in the circle of cue welders, are on the board of governors.” The clubroom was officially opened on March 12, and The Morning Telegraph reported, “The affair was entirely successful, and from all indications, the club will continue to be so.”
The article described the room as being “one of the most attractive in the city,” saying it was equipped with nine billiard and three pool tables.” It added, “there is a smaller room where competitions may be held.” The use of electric fixtures with green glass shades over each table made the room “splendidly lighted.”
Later that year, on November 28, The Police Gazette reported, “August G. Heithaus, who is employed at the American Billiard Club, 113 West Seventy-ninth street, New York, claims to be the champion cue-tipper of the world. He can put a tip on in 1-1/2 minutes.”
On February 25, 1904, New York Equal Suffrage League held a reception for Carrie Chapman Catt, who had recently retired from the presidency of the National Suffrage Association. There was no formal meeting, and so F. A. Schlascha, a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera House, was “asked to play several selections,” as reported by the New York Herald. The musician was both high-strung and apparently ill-informed of the nature of the engagement.
He began to play his first piece, a Hungarian dance. The newspaper reported, “After a few strains he struck a harsh, impromptu chord.” Offended by the buzz of female chatter, he declared, “I will not play if they talk.”
The group quieted, and Schlascha resumed his playing. But within a few minutes, the talking began again. Schlascha put down his bow, spat, “Bah, they come not here to listen to music; it is to talk. I will go.” The New York Herald wrote, “And he did, greatly to the surprise of the suffragists.”
At the time, Otto Guth’s dry goods and millinery store was in the double store at 398-400 Columbus Avenue. It was taken over by Mrs. Lenore, also a millinery shop, in 1910. That year the Bon Ton Tailoring Co. took the store next door at 402 Columbus Avenue. Two of the upstairs offices were occupied by architect and builder J. I. Calahan; general contractor John J. White.
By 1912 The Lotus had been renamed the Academy Ballroom, and the Duyrea space was now Miss Chaires School of Outdoor Activities. The school catered to children between three and nine years old. An advertisement in September 1913, promised:
Your little ones will delight in going to this school, where all the ideas that have made kindergartens so successful are charmingly combined with unique out-of-door instruction. It is delightfully situated on a quiet residential street, very near the parks, and the kindergarten room (30×60) offers unusual freedom for exercise and games.
Meeting weekly in one of the downstairs spaces in 1912 was the New Thought Church. On April 13, 1912, The Evening Post reported, “’The Secret of Healing’ will be discussed by F. W. Sears to-morrow morning in the New Thought Church, which meets in the Academy, No. 113 West Seventy-ninth Street.” The congregation would use the space at least through 1916.
The post-World War I years saw the Queen City Rental occupying 398-400 Columbus Avenue. A fore-runner of today’s automobile rental agencies, in 1920, it advertised, “De Dion-bouton, beautiful limousine, for hire weekly or monthly; reasonable rate.” The firm was either replaced or renamed in 1921, when the Community Motor Car Supply Co. was at the address advertising, “We have on hand 6 brand new 5-passenger, 1920 model touring cars.” Occupying the office upstairs that year was the Elite Employment Agency.
Schlascha put down his bow, spat, “Bah, they come not here to listen to music; it is to talk. I will go.”
A near tragedy occurred on November 14, 1926. That night the West Side Brotherly Love Congregation and Benevolent Association was holding a dinner and dance in the Academy Ballroom. The dinner had just concluded upstairs, and guests were coming down to the ballroom. Simultaneously a fire, fueled by chemicals, broke out in the Emerson Drug Company at 398-400 Columbus Avenue.
The article said the orchestra was just tuning up, “when the north wall suddenly was punctured by forks of flames.” Chaos ensued. “Women screamed and ran wildly about,” reported The New York Sun. Because people were still coming down the staircase, a bottleneck developed near the cloakroom. “The jamming was so great that the doors were blocked and the stairs and hallways were packed.” Many ran back upstairs. The article said, “Seventy-five women clad in evening gowns, their gayety turned to fright when flames burst through the walls, were carried down ladders from the second floor of a dance hall at Columbus avenue and Seventy-ninth street late last night, and 225 other men and women, stampeding until they blocked the first floor stairway, were rescued when firemen broke in an exit door with axes.” Almost unbelievably, there were no serious injuries and after a two-hour battle the fire was extinguished. The building was heavily damaged.
The former Academy Ballroom was repaired and became home to the Columbia Club. The group occupied the building until February 1931, when the 79th Street side of the building was leased to the Consolidated Companies of New York. The lease signaled a major change for that portion. A renovation completed in 1934 made 109-115 West 79th Street an annex to the Park West Memorial Chapel next door. There was now an embalming room in the basement, where the bowling alleys had been; chapel rooms on the first floor, and a chapel and “reposing room” on the second floor.
The avenue side continued to house offices and stores. A Railway Express office occupied 398-400 Columbus Avenue throughout the 1930s, for instance.
The funeral home became the Boulevard-Park West Chapel by the 1970s. By now trendy shops like Sherman & Mixon, where shoppers could buy a seven-inch high penguin night light for $25 in 1979, filled the Columbus Avenue commercial spaces. Eight decades after it was erected, the two-story taxpayer was demolished in 1981 to make way for a 30-story structure designed by David M. Lewis.
Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/
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