Saturday, October 22, 2011
Last February, searching for something esoteric to blog about, I hit on big old free standing houses still extant on crowded Manhattan. Why settle for boring Gracie Mansion, thought I, when the exotic James A. Bailey house - as in "the Greatest Show on Earth!" - was still standing on 150th St. and St. Nicholas Place. Designed by the totally unknown (at least to me) Samuel B. Reed in 1888, the Bailey house speaks to a once ubiquitous architectural aesthetic that has been practically wiped off the face of America's cities. Be honest, it looks like a funeral home, right? That's because so many of these old piles survived as exactly that - including this one. Then it caught fire in 2000.
The fire wasn't catastrophic, but the fire department broke windows and probably compromised the roof. All you need is a pinhole in the shingles to bring down a mansion, and by 2007 interior water damage was becoming substantial. The owners belatedly put it on the market for an ambitious $10 million. It sold 2 years later for $1.4 million - still big money for what most of us would call a white elephant. Having not been back since last winter, I decided to head uptown to see what's been happening.
Here's what it looked like last week - clearly a work in progress, but you may note that there has been a first class restoration of the corner conical tower.
Here's a closeup of the roof. I see typical Victorian design patterns plus copper valleys, intricate cresting, and an excellent period finial. This costs bucks. After I snapped these photos, I noticed an elderly Oriental lady - she could have either been an amah or a billionairess - pulling weeds out front. I crossed the street just as she was joined by a younger Asian woman, who smilingly confirmed that the house was again a private residence. The genteel reticence that has cursed me throughout my life forbade me from asking probing questions - even though I was dying to know everything about her and what she and the rest of them were doing.
The next three interior shots were taken after the fire and before the sale.
If roof leaks were doing this to the main floor, one wonders what it looked like above.
This kind of house is not everybody's ideal but it is, in its way, an architectural tour de force that evokes an era. Bailey was a self-made man who built a showy house in a smart new neighborhood full of arrivistes like himself. Interestingly, almost as soon as he finished the house, apartment buildings began to invade the neighborhood, prompting his evacuation in 1904 to Mt. Vernon.
I love this old photo, looking north on St. Nicholas Place, taken in its heydey, ca. 1895. The tower on the Bailey house is clearly visible a little to the left of center. What I found as interesting as the Bailey house itself, was the wholly unexpected survival of a small group of neighboring houses. Note the high 1880s manse immediately to the right of Bailey's, located on the southeast corner of 150th and St. Nicholas Place. It's also still with us.
Here's what that house on the southeast corner looked like last week. The unusual hipped gable overlooking the street survives - barely - in spite of a lot of cheap repairs.
I've learned in my life that as far as old houses go, there is nothing that can't be fixed - if you have enough money. Unfortunately, not everybody does, to which these "repairs" so eloquently testify.
The Bailey house is such an overshadowing presence on the corner that it's easy to overlook what's immediately to the north.
Probably built as one big house - at least, I think so - this building has been divided into two residences. Sandwiched between drab early twentieth century apartment blocks to the north and architectural fireworks on the south, most people don't even see it.
Here's a closer view of the southern half. That wild Russian dome is clearly visible in the vintage street view above.
I'm pretty sure that first floor window, the one with the suspicious infill under the sash, was once the front door. Today's double house has two separate entrances. I'm dying to know what the interiors of these places look like.
Here's the northern house. Cute, no? Even has its own driveway.
There are only two houses on West 150th Street between St. Nicholas Place and Edgecombe Avenue: the Bailey house, and that of Nicholas Benziger, who was, according to the plaque out front, a purveyor of religious books. Built in 1890, the Benziger house spoke exactly to Bailey's (soon to be dashed) hopes for the neighborhood. Today it is owned by the city and operated as a permanent residence for homeless people, who I guess aren't homeless any more.
Decades would pass before Harlem Heights' apartment house invasion reached the fevered peak that Bailey feared, but eventually it did.