540-546 Columbus Avenue

View of 540-546 Columbus Avenue taken from south along West 86th Street; Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

Secrets of the Ormonde

by Tom Miller, for They Were Here, Landmark West’s Cultural Immigrant Initiative

Architect and real estate operator John G. Prague was prolific in developing the Upper West Side in the 1880’s.  By 1890, he was responsible for more than 230 residences, prompting The Real Estate Record and Guide to say he had “created a neighborhood.”  Four years earlier, on April 24, 1886, the journal had reported that he had purchased the entire western block front on Ninth Avenue (later Columbus Avenue) from 86th to 87th Streets “for immediate improvement.”  He spent $88,000 on the vacant land—about $2.47 million today.

Prague designed two back-to-back, mirror image apartment buildings.  Each was five stories tall and cost another $981,000 by today’s standards to construct.  Completed with a year, the structures were a blend of the Renaissance Revival and Queen Anne styles.

The residential entrance of the southern building was at 101 West 86th Street, around the corner from the storefronts that lined the Columbus Avenue side.  Prague’s red brick façade was trimmed in brownstone and terra cotta.  Decorative panels depict bowls of fruit, grim bearded faces, fearsome snarling beasts and at least one cherub battling a mythological creature.

Each floor contained just two seven-room apartments (or “flats” as they were called at the time).  Their occupants represented a broad variety of professions.  Among the early tenants were Dr. Thurman, a physician; attorney James W. McLaughlin; and the recently widowed Lydia Dean and her teen-aged daughter, Ethel.

James McLaughlin was pulled into a robbery and extortion investigation purely by chance in August 1895.  The music store of O. H. Dodworth on East 125th Street was broken into on May 6 and six valuable violins were stolen.  Two of them belonged to a client of McLaughlin, Frank L. Pecor.

The thieves sent a letter to Pecor on July 18, offering to return the violins for the equivalent of $7,850 today.  An arrangement was made through a series of letters between the crooks and McLaughlin to exchange the money for the instruments on the night of August 1 on the East 99th Street pier.  An undercover detective was there but failed to make the connection.  Soon afterward, another date was asked for.

A few days later Police Captain O’Brien was in the Court of General Sessions in plain clothes when he was approached by James W. Callahan who mistook him for McLaughlin.  The Press reported that “he wished to negotiate for the return of some violins and that there would be $50 in it.”  O’Brien played along, and then found McLaughlin and told him he needed to “make use of his name for police purposes.  McLaughlin gave the keys to his flat at No. 101 West Eighty-sixth street to O’Brien.”

The scene in and around the apartment building on August 12 was worthy of a 21st century suspense movie.  O’Brien posed as McLaughlin in his apartment, while Detective-Sergeant John McCauley was disguised as the building’s janitor, “in blue jumpers and overalls,” according to the New York Herald.  Across the street Detective Thomas J. McCarthy kept watch, disguised as the janitor of that building, while the uniformed street sweeper out front was Detective Wieser.  Yet another detective was close by, “a supposed driver in full livery.”

According to The Morning Telegraph, “Mrs. White and Mrs. Dean are each other’s doubles in appearance.  Each is 38 years old, both handsome brunettes and of the same build and appearance.  They might easily be taken for twin sisters.”

Just before 9:00 a.m. Callahan arrived with two violins wrapped in newspaper.  He was confronted by John McCauley, “who seized him by the throat and threw him over against a radiator.”  Callahan dropped the package and reached for his weapon.  He and the officer struggled.  “Between them they brought to light a big English bull dog revolver, and after a struggle McCauley gained possession of it.”

Callahan was taken to Police Headquarters and interrogated.  The arrest of five others, including two women, followed.  The police recovered property valued at more than a quarter of a million in today’s dollars from the suspects’ rooms.

Lydia Dean’s husband had died in 1894, but even before that, starting around 1891, she had been involved in a torrid affair with a prominent Brooklyn businessman, Frank Devoe White.  An astounding fact was, according to The Morning Telegraph, “Mrs. White and Mrs. Dean are each other’s doubles in appearance.  Each is 38 years old, both handsome brunettes and of the same build and appearance.  They might easily be taken for twin sisters.”

Despite being prominent in Brooklyn society, Blanche Genevieve White could take no more by November 1898.  She filed suit for divorce, naming Lydia as the other woman.  She said in her complaint that her husband had been lavishing her “in diamonds, turnouts [i.e., carriages], and, in fact, everything she wanted.”  She claimed that White paid to keep Lydia in her Columbus Avenue apartment “in extravagant style.”  The Morning Telegraph said of Lydia, “Her stylish turnouts have made her a familiar figure on the Boulevard [then the name of Broadway on the Upper West Side] since Mr. Dean’s death, and her gowns were made, at Mr. White’s expense, it is said, by the most fashionable modistes in New York city.  She had credit at all the big stores, and the bills were sent to Mr. White’s office.”

Victorian women who read the accounts of the affair were no doubt shocked when they learned that White’s pet name for Lydia was “Mamma,” and Ethel Dean, now 17-years old, “used to kiss him and call him ‘Uncle Frank.’”

Certainly less scandalous but no less press-worthy was the relationship between Dorothy Chester and well-known actor Frederick de Belleville (described by The Chicago Tribune as “one of the best romantic actors on the American stage.”  Dorothy had come to New York from Colorado in 1896 hoping to pursue a career in acting.  After landing several roles, she met De Belleville during rehearsals in 1897.

On August 29, 1898, The New York Times reported, “Frederick de Belleville, the actor, has looked unusually happy for some little time, but until yesterday his friends were unable to ascertain the cause of his high spirits.  The story is out now that he married Miss Dorothy Chester of Colorado Springs something like a month or six weeks ago.”  The couple had taken an apartment in the Columbus Avenue building where a reporter interviewed De Belleville.  “That’s no news,” he said, “Our families knew, but we didn’t think it was necessary to send a crier out.”

Actor and Resident Frederick de Belleville

As seen in the 1915 “The Daughter of the People

Other residents involved in the arts at the time were Max Knitel-Truemann, an operatic baritone and voice coach (his voice studio was above Carnegie Hall), and John C. Dempsey, a founder of the National Conservatory of Music.

In the meantime, the corner store was originally leased to Schroeter & Co.’s pharmacy.  It remained in the space until October 1898 when W. J. Liel purchased the business.  He had been a partner in the drugstore of Barlett & Liel at Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, but now struck out on his own.  George E. Smith’s trunk store was in 546 Columbus Avenue, and Daniel T. McGuire ran his real estate office from 542.

At the turn of the century, John Sidley shared an apartment with his two grown daughters.  For years, he had operated a drugstore at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 94th Street, but he was forced to retire in 1902 because of heart disease.  The New York Press commented, “From that time forward the chief care of his two daughters, with whom he lived, was to guard him from any form of exertion.”

After a career of activity, the house arrest enforced by his daughters was too much to bear.  At about 9:00 on the evening of March 16, 1903 “he evaded his daughters” and sneaked out.  The New York Press said, “He walked about enjoying the mild air for two hours.”  But as it tragically turned out, his daughters’ protectiveness had been warranted.  “While drinking soda in a drug store, at Eighty-fourth street and Columbus avenue, he fell in a faint and died in a few minutes.”

A little while later the 70-year old’s body was brought in a patrol wagon to the apartment.  His daughters had both gone to bed, assuming their father was safe in his room.  The New York Press reported that “both daughters became hysterical,” but it was worse for Mary Josephine.  The shock was too much for the 30-year-old and she died within an hour and a half.

On March 18, The Evening World reported “This afternoon friends of the family, four daughters and one son, gathered at the house and accompanied the bodies of father and daughter to Calvary Cemetery, where burial services were conducted.”

The family of Joseph Silk moved into the building in 1908 and took full advantage of the seven-room apartment.  The 1910 census shows ten people living there.  Silk was a “wholesale importer and tropical fruit merchant.”  The ample size of the apartments was evidenced in the party held on May 15, 1909 to celebrant Bella Silk’s engagement to Simon Luven.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, “Dancing, singing and a musical programme was participated in by the guests.  A collation was served.”

The engagement of William H. Silk was announced in March 1911.  It was followed by an awkward situation for the groom-to-be.  Ada M. Elss was a “good-looking, handsomely gowned young woman,” according to The Evening World, who had been employed by Joseph W. Cushman & Co. for several years.  That came to an end in January 1912 when she was arrested for embezzling $2,000.  Her employer laid the blame on an unknown man.

He told a reporter, “This man came into Miss Elss’s life after she had learned of the engagement of William H. Silk of No. 101 West Eighty-sixth street, last March.  Miss Elss had created the impression among her fellow employees that she was going to marry Silk.”  The Evening World said, “He denied to-day he ever gave her cause to think so.  She refused to make any statement on the subject.”

But as it tragically turned out, his daughters’ protectiveness had been warranted.  “While drinking soda in a drug store, at Eighty-fourth street and Columbus avenue, he fell in a faint and died in a few minutes.”

W.J. Weill retired in 1917 and his corner pharmacy became the F. C. Oser drugstore.  Therese Cohen and Estelle Mendelson ran their millinery store, Therese & Estelle, from 544 Columbus Avenue from around 1915 through 1919.  That space then became a United Cigar Store.  It was the scene of a terrifying daylight robbery on April 11, 1921.  The 23-year-old clerk, James Horton, was alone in the store at around 10:15 when three armed men rushed in.  Two of them took Horton to a side room where they bound and gagged him.  In the meantime, as their accomplice worked to empty the register, he would coolly wait on any customer who happened in.  One of them, however, became suspicious when he heard noises from the side room.  The Sun reported “When he returned with a policeman the bandits had left.  Horton gave the police a description of the robbers.”  They made off with $500 cash.

Once home to merchants, physicians, attorneys and musicians, the building suffered indignity following a renovation in 1941.  Where there had been just two apartments per floor there were now 15 single-room-occupancy rooms. 

The change was reflected in the tenant list as well.  Among the residents in 1944 were 21-year-old Sterling Huntley and his wife.  Police knocked on Huntley’s door on June 28 that year after he pawned a diamond for $20.  The pawnbroker recognized the significant value of the gem and notified authorities.  The Huntleys’ story was hard to believe.  As reported in the Binghamton Press, he “told police he and his bride were feeding popcorn to pigeons in Central Park three weeks ago when he discovered one of the kernels to be a $3,000 diamond.”  While the investigation into the source of the jewel continued, Huntley was locked up for six months after the officers found an unlicensed gun in his room.

By the time of Huntley’s arrest, the former United Cigar Store in 544 Columbus Avenue had been home to the Maxiam Dairy Inc.’s milk and grocery store for several years.  With Prohibition over, it received its license to sell alcohol “for off-premises consumption” in 1944.

Another renovation, completed in 1979, resulted in five apartments per floor.  Among the residents in 1986 were Zorhan Jaksich and Leon Ginsberg—who ended up on opposite sides of the law that year.

Jaksich was a 26-year-old Yugoslav exile living legally in the United States.  On May 31 he was arrested in his apartment, charged with murdering Jock Slobodan, another Yugoslav, who had been found shot twice in the head five months earlier.

Leon Ginsberg was the 55-year-old proprietor of the Spinning Wheel antiques store on 76th Street at Third Avenue.  On September 5 that same year an armed robber entered his shop.  Ginsberg struggled with the gunman and was shot.  He died in Lenox Hill Hospital three days later.

Today a Starbucks occupies the corner store, which, for decades starting in the 1880’s, was the neighborhood pharmacy.  And after more than 110 years John G. Prague’s red brick structure is, for the most part, little changed.

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


540-546 Columbus Avenue


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