Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Last of the Washington Square Millionaires

Sleighing in New York by Thomas Benecke, 1855
(Print Collection, New York Public Library; bequest of Amos F. Eno)

In 1915 when Amos F. Eno died, he was recalled as an eighteenth-century millionaire philanthropist struggling to hold onto the vestiges of the antebellum city in which he came of age. 

The Great War had begun one year earlier and suffragists regularly picketed the White House.  As a creature of the past, Eno didn’t like it.  He was so out of date that it was hard to imagine that once upon a time the old man’s name perched on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  

A “peculiar expression of static citizenry,” as the New York Times described him, he objected to progress and advancement.  What a perverse outlook in light of the fact that he and his father, Amos R. Eno, contributed mightily to the modernization of Manhattan!

The Enos were real estate developers who owned property all over town, including large swaths of what would become the Flatiron and Financial Districts. They constructed dozens of houses, hotels, and apartment buildings that altered the streetscape of the city. 

Born in 1834, Amos F. Eno joined New York’s Seventh Infantry Regiment as a private in 1862.  He returned from the war a colonel, moved in with his father, and resumed his bachelor’s existence.  The two men inhabited an early nineteenth-century brownstone mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street. 

Amos F. Eno and his father lived in this brownstone mansion
at 32 Fifth Avenue, designed by Detlef Lienau in 1834.*

Amos F. liked to walk around Washington Square, three blocks south of his home, where he met vagrants and bestowed upon them money, food, and clothing. His philosophy was to give charity only when not asked.

At the other side of the economic spectrum, his neighbors included the so-called Washington Square millionaires – men like Robert de Forest, a descendant of French Huguenots, esteemed legal counsel to railroads and utilities, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amos F. Eno (1834-1915)

As society moved uptown to ever more expansive and ornate mansions, the denizens of Washington Square stayed put, as if trapped in a painting by John Singer Sargent.  Inevitably, they would have to head north to restaurants, libraries, and clubs. 

When he died at the age of 81, Amos F. left much of his vast fortune to Columbia University and the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen.*  New York University, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor also received bequests.  Evidently none of these institutions had ever tapped on his shoulder and asked for money. 

Members of the Eno family angrily contested the will.  Their lawyers argued that Amos F. loathed Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler and never would have left the school well over $10 million. Furthermore, suspicious circumstances surrounded the drafting of the most recent will.  Nonetheless, a panel of judges ruled against the family in 1922.  Fortunately, everyone survived even though they had portrayed themselves as destitute.

New York Supreme Court
In the Matter of Amos F. Eno 

A rather private man, Amos F. would have abhorred the detailed descriptions of his comings and goings that appeared in the court transcripts – 156 pages of friends’, family’s, and servants’ candid testimony about his bad temper, bad leg, and bad manners.  Miss Polly Morgan recounted her week-long visit to his home in 1914.

She drove downtown with him one day when he remained at his office an hour and a half. He spoke to her about his business. He told her that he wished he had no business to do; that he would like to simplify his affairs; that the men in his office were good for nothing . . .

Miss Morgan testified that with respect to dropping his food, and with respect to the condition of his clothing, Mr. Eno “did not look as elegant as he had in previous years.”

Miss Morgan undertook to joke with Mr. Eno. She asked him about his friends, the Democrats, and said “How is your Mr. Bryan getting on, Uncle Mo? And how do you like him?” He said, “Bryan is no good. He is the leader of the suffragettes.”

Amos F. may have been a mean old man, but at least he claimed one great passion.  That was his collection of early American prints, many exceedingly rare and valuable.  To the New York Public Library he left 192 framed and 138 unframed images – a major gift.  Some speculated that the prints had appreciated at a greater rate than his real estate holdings. 

Equally significant, the prints resonated deep inside of Amos F.  He liked the way that they evoked landscapes and streetscapes long passed into history.  They took him back to a place of memory and happiness. 

“He was very much an old New Yorker,” an admirer said.

New York from Brooklyn Heights by A. W. Graham, 1834
(Print Collection, New York Public Library; bequest of Amos F. Eno)

*Courtesy of 
**The size of Eno’s fortune has been estimated between $10 million and $30 million.

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Remembering Jane Langton

The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton
Original cover; drawing by Erik Blegvad


My mother told me that it wasn’t fair to other children to withdraw the same two library books again and again.  Since I couldn’t kick the habit, they were finally given to me as a birthday present. 

The Diamond in the Window was published in 1962 and The Swing in the Summerhouse in 1967.  I discovered them in 1970.  Across five decades, I can easily recall entire paragraphs; descriptions, dialogue, and detailed drawings. 

The author, Jane Langton, had studied astronomy at Wellesley and the University of Michigan, and held a master’s degree in art history.  She lived in Lincoln, Mass., with her husband and three sons, according to the dust jacket. 

Jane Langton
pictured in a trade journal, 1960s

Her books evoked the way that kids can’t wait to grow up, their impatience with unreasonable adults, the pain of unrequited crushes, and the desire to be popular.  But she stayed away from the trite formulas of adolescent fiction.

Instead, Langton wrote beautiful sentences that captured time and place and the feelings that went with them:  Eleanor suddenly felt overcome by the melancholy of the late summer day and the dusty untidy woods.  

Ingeniously, she wove those feelings together with grand ideas about love, truth, good and evil.  The books contained these and many similar quotations:

·       Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!  (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

·       Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime . . . (R.W. Emerson)

·       Behold a universe in which man is but a grain of sand . . . (Henry David Thoreau)

Eleanor and Edward Hall in the
front hall of their house in Concord, Mass.

(drawing by Erik Blegvad)

As The Diamond in the Window opens, young Edward and Eleanor Hall are living in a dilapidated Victorian house in Concord, Mass., with their Aunt Lily and Uncle Freddy.  The children’s parents died years earlier in a car accident.  Aunt Lily is scrambling to make money to pay off the mortgage.  Uncle Freddy, once a world renowned scholar of Emerson and Thoreau, is now daft and unhelpful. 

One day, standing at the edge of a brook in a field across from their house, Eleanor and Edward spot a keyhole window that they’ve never noticed before.  When they finally locate it, in a secret room at the very top of the house, they are shocked to find twin beds, children’s toys, and a poem that has been etched into the window with a large piece of glass which now forms its centerpiece.     

The children demand answers, so Aunt Lily sits down with them on a faded velvet sofa and opens an old photograph album.  She sighs and tells them about their “Aunt Nora” and “Uncle Ned,” Lily’s youngest siblings; lost children who once slept in the attic room.

Then she tells them about Prince Krishna, a royal but humble man, who came from India to Concord to study with then-brilliant Uncle Freddy.  From the way Aunt Lily tells the story, it is clear that she and Krishna were in love.

Krishna loved Ned and Nora, too, and he created a series of dream adventures for them on which they embarked each night.  The dreams took shape as a hunt for treasures that ranged from diamonds and pearls to a beloved, if neglected, rag doll.  The poem etched on the window, cryptic and full of philosophical references, contained clues. 

Life went along happily until suddenly, one night, the children disappeared.  A nationwide hunt ensued, but they could not be found.  Eventually Prince Krishna disappeared, too.  Still, as the money dwindled and Uncle Freddy deteriorated, Aunt Lily held out hope that Krishna and the children would someday reappear.

 In this dream adventure, Eleanor and Edward find themselves
trapped inside a Chambered Nautilus shell. 
(Illustration by Erik Blegvad)

The Diamond in the Window and The Swing in the Summerhouse belong to a literary genre called “magical realism,” which blends realistic narrative elements with magic and fantasy.  As Eleanor and Edward set forth after Ned and Nora, and Aunt Lily schemes to save the house while Uncle Freddy blithely decides to move into a hollow tree in the front yard, the ordinary meets the extraordinary.  

That is because the books are infused with Transcendentalism, a philosophy embraced by Emerson, Thoreau and other New England intellectuals.  Transcendental is defined as “beyond ordinary experience, thought or belief.”  The Transcendentalists sought to understand themselves through the Oversoul, a force that connects all living things.

Connectivity between humans and nature echoes through Langton’s writing.

Several years ago I emailed the author, just to tell her how much I loved her books.  She was then about 90 years old, and replied that she was working on a picture book about Charles Darwin and earthworms.  

Evidently the worms fascinated Darwin.  He could not bear to dissect them, but conducted hundreds of experiments testing their intelligence, orderliness, sensitivity to noise, and food preferences. 

“His experiments with worms will be a chance for someone, perhaps me, to draw lots of wriggly pictures,” Langton explained.

I must have told her about living in different parts of the country and having recently made the leap to Atlanta after three years in rural Virginia.

“Good for getting out of Virginia,” she wrote.  “I escaped from Delaware.  I guess we all have to bust out of some sort of cocoon.”

Jane Langton (1922-2018)

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Journey to Po

The Public Library 
by Guy Wiggins (1935)
He was a master of painting New York City in the snow.
This is Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street.

I went looking for Po, an Italian restaurant on Cornelia Street in the West Village.  Turns out that it closed more than a year ago.  Like hundreds of the city’s small shops and stores, it was forced out of business by a greedy landlord – a 120% increase on the $10,000 monthly rent, the owner told a reporter.

The restaurant figures in one of my deepest clearest memories, one in which I can see all the way to the bottom of a dark primordial lake.  

It was a snowy night in February, 2015, as I sat on a Fifth Avenue bus heading downtown to have dinner with a friend.  I looked forward to the evening with great anticipation.

Traveling by bus through the snow brought my father to mind.  One of his favorite essays involved a snowstorm in which the writer also boarded a Fifth Avenue bus that lumbered downtown. 

Standing up and holding on tight, the writer unexpectedly found joy in the ride.  Evidently, in the course of most days he felt slightly mournful, as if time were passing and leaving him behind like a rock being worn away by the wind and tide.

Now on the bus, the writer had an epiphany.  Time was passing, but it was taking him with it.  His perspective changed.  Perhaps, he thought, time is a stationary place through which we all move, alone and together.    

Fountain of Time
by Lorado Taft (1920)

I remembered from college a large statue called “Time” on the campus of the University of Chicago.  There was a quotation underneath:  Time goes, you say?  Ah no! alas, time stays, we go. 

My 20-year old self had been willing to embrace this maudlin saying by an obscure nineteenth-century poet.  But now, not so much. 

I got off the bus and started to cross Washington Square Park.  There is a song, Diamonds and Rust, which Joan Baez wrote for Bob Dylan “light years ago,” she once said, after their love affair ended. 

Now I see you standing with brown leaves all around and snow in your hair
Now we’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square
Our breath comes in white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me we both could have died then and there

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (1963)

How stunning to hear those words as a teenager.  Now I feel grateful to have experienced such a moment, but at the age of 16 – not fully comprehending and definitely not ready for it.

Time to pick up the pace.  Around the corner lay dear delightful Cornelia Street, snowflakes drifting under the streetlamps; storefronts drawn by Beatrix Potter.

Something happened when I opened the door and stepped in:  an extraordinary feeling of well-being.  The candlelight shimmered and streamed in every direction.  And there was my friend sitting at a far table along the left wall.

I had boarded the bus just an hour earlier.  Yet it felt like a century had passed, on one hand, and just a few minutes, on the other, during the journey to Po. Gratefully, I sat down in the glow.

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Snowy Old New York

City Watchman by William P. Chappel  (around 1870)
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Toward the end of his life, William P. Chappel painted scenes of early nineteenth-century New York City, which he recalled from his childhood.  The oil paintings are small, no larger than 7"x 10", and meticulously detailed.  Left-click on the image to enlarge it. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Louis N. Hammerling, an American Allrightnik

Louis N. Hammerling launched his magazine,
The American Leader, in 1912.

In 1908, when Louis N. Hammerling founded the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers, he had long since persuaded his colleagues that he was Hawaiian – born in Honolulu in 1874; immigrated to the U.S. in 1886. 

Unfortunately, as Louis once scribbled in a passport application, he could not recall the name of the steamer and the point of departure.  That is because he had, in fact, emigrated from Poland in 1879 at the age of nine.

Much later, when the truth emerged, Louis explained that he thought every immigrant was allowed to choose his own birthplace upon arriving in America.  He also admitted that he perjured himself while obtaining his naturalization papers in 1901.  

Hammerling used fraudulent papers 
to obtain a certificate of naturalization 
Louis led the quintessential checkered life.  Scholars and contemporary observers have described him as charismatic, problematic, and wily; a master of fraud and intrigue, a huckster, a self-promoter, and an "allrightnik."  Allrightnik is a Yiddish word for a striver who attains success yet remains vulgar and deceitful. 

Around 1890, Louis moved to Wilkes-Barre, PA, to work as a coal miner and mule driver.  He also became editor of a local Polish language newspaper.  Soon after, he began editing the United Mine Workers Journal.  Through that connection, he met Mark Hanna, an Ohio businessman and influential politician who owned mines and was largely responsible for getting the pliable President McKinley elected.  Subsequently, Hanna introduced Louis to members of the Republican National Committee.  They hired him to manage the party’s appeals for immigrants’ votes between 1904 and 1916. 

Along the way, Louis had many ideas.  One of them was this:

By the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S. was home to at least 400 foreign language newspapers published in at least two dozen languages.  In 1908 Louis formed the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers (AAFLN), requiring that each member-newspaper purchase a few shares in the association. 

Next, he made a match. 

American corporations, government, and political parties had spent years trying to reach the burgeoning immigrant population.  Big business had stuff to sell: thousands of retail products.  Politicians wanted to pitch the pros and cons of social movements such as Prohibition.  Electioneers and marketers were hired to corral the votes of immigrants.   

But language was a formidable barrier.

Organizing the foreign language press enabled Louis Hammerling to act as an advertising broker.  He established rates, bullied reluctant publishers, and pocketed money from unwitting parties on both sides of the fence.  He believed that advertising would help “Americanize” immigrants by tethering them to the consumer culture.   

Classified listing of foreign language newspapers
published in the U.S.
(around 1910)

Today, it is rather astonishing to scan an old directory of AAFLN members.  In 1917, the following nations were represented by one or more American newspapers:

Albania … Arabia … Armenia … Assyria … Austria … Belgium … Bohemia … Bulgaria … China … Croatia … Denmark … Estonia … Finland … France … Germany … Greece … Hungary … Iceland … Italy … Japan … Lithuania … Norway … Poland … Portugal … Rumania … Russia … Ruthenia … Serbia … Slovakia … Slovenia … Spain … Sweden … Syria … Turkey … and Ukraine, not to mention papers read by the Welsh, the Swiss, the Lettish, and Jews.  

Altogether they totaled 724 publications, 150 dailies and 500 weeklies plus magazines, published largely in Midwestern and northeastern cities.

In 1912, Louis started his own monthly newspaper, The American Leader.  In its pages, academics, businessmen, and foreign language journalists editorialized about current events.    

Robert Park, an urban sociologist who began his career as a newspaper reporter, once wrote that Hammerling “could give advertising or he could take it away.  He could promise the struggling little publisher that he would either make him or break him.”

But The American Leader (and other papers in the AAFLN) became best-known for a 1915 advertisement, written by Louis, entitled “An Appeal to the American People.”  It called for the U.S. to stop manufacturing weapons and ammunitions for the allies, and was widely regarded as pro-German propaganda.

During the early 1920s, Congress investigated Louis and others who were suspected of violating the 1918 Sedition Act.  Louis stopped publishing The American Leader and handed off the presidency of the association. 

Ultimately, he was expelled from the U. S., but not because of treason.  Rather, the government figured out that he had used false papers to become naturalized.  He journeyed back to Poland in 1924; then returned to the U.S. in 1930 and was re-naturalized legally.  

Louis married twice and fathered three sons.  Born Jewish, he converted to Catholicism but was not a religious man.

In 1935, he died after falling from the nineteenth floor of a Brooklyn apartment building. At a time when newspapers still announced suicides and even the gory details, no cause of death was given.

*Louis Hammerling led a complicated, duplicitous life.  See The Most Dangerous German Agent in America, The Many Lives of Louis N. Hammerling by M. B. B. Biskupski (2015).

NOTE: Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Leaving Lord & Taylor

Main entrance to Lord & Taylor (1914)

Goodbye to yet another great American department store.  

Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship palace, built in 1914 in Italian Renaissance style, closed its doors on January 2.

Soon a company called WeWork, a decidedly 21st century enterprise, will carve the space into offices and meeting rooms available to the general public.  WeWork’s design team takes itself as seriously as did the building’s original architects, the firm of Starrett & Van Vleck.

Of course, it has been many years since shoppers could take the elevator to the tenth floor and dine in the Wedgwood Room or the Loggia: a cup of clam broth, a tongue sandwich; Cantaloupe Lillian for dessert.*  

And decades have passed since a fountain and frieze of glazed terra cotta decorated the walls and ceilings of the Cut Flowers Department.**

The Cut Flowers Department was located on a second-floor balcony; the
 Rookwood Pottery Company of Cincinnati created the architectural faience.

Once upon a time the Toy Department displayed its mechanical water toys in a 7 ’x 16’ tank.  Between 1914 and 1938, the Sixth Avenue Elevated conveniently stopped just a block away from the store.

Yet even as change came to Lord & Taylor, the store had a habit of standing still.  It evoked an earlier city.

I don’t mean that the store was quaint.  Rather, it connected generations:  for us, the tail-end baby boomers, to the city where our mothers emerged from the Depression and war, and fully came of age.   

A child feels very comfortable being held by the hand as an adult knowledgeably navigates a large, old building.  Such a place was Lord & Taylor, just like Grand Central Terminal. 

Lord & Taylor (1914)

The store has a long history.  Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor opened their shop in 1826, far downtown on Catherine Street in a neighborhood now known as Two Bridges.  French satins, Indian shawls, and the like were purchased abroad.  The merchants aimed high.

Over time, Lord & Taylor moved north to the Lower East Side neighborhood, and then to Broadway where Lincoln’s funeral procession passed its black draped building in 1865.  But the city kept moving uptown, and in 1912, the company purchased land on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Street.  The new store – with 600,000 square feet of floor space, a carriage and automobile entrance, and an employees’ gymnasium – was completed in 1914. 

Lord & Taylor was designed for women but its president – no surprise – was a man, Samuel Rayburn.  In the early 1920s, he became captivated by “the Little Shavers,” a quirky collection of small male and female dolls with odd names and colorful outfits.  Hand-crafted of cloth, with painted faces, the Little Shavers quickly became a fad among women and girls alike.

Drawings of Little Shavers from an article by Elsie Shaver

Two sisters, Elsie and Dorothy Shaver, had imagined the dolls after moving from Arkansas to New York City after World War I.  Elsie turned them out and Dorothy marketed them.  That is how she met Rayburn, who soon hired her to join his staff.  Dorothy rose through the ranks, establishing the store’s Bureau of Fashion & Design in 1925.  Soon after she was elected to the Board of Directors.  And in 1945, she became president of Lord & Taylor.

$110,000 Earned by Arkansas Girl announced a New York Times headline one year later.  She was the first woman to head a major retail store.  

Dorothy Shaver, 1950s

Dorothy Shaver brought Lord & Taylor into the modern age.  She had a gift for spotting trends and shifting tastes.  During the late 1920s, she decided to introduce modern art and home furnishings.  Off she went to France and brought back furniture, rugs, silver, glassware, and paintings by Utrillo, Braque and Picasso, which were exhibited in the store.

In 1932, Shaver introduced “the American Look,” championing American designers such as Claire McCardell.  She opened branches in the suburbs, helped establish the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, and generously supported the Greater New York Fund and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Eventually she became a vice president of Associated Dry Goods, which owned Lord & Taylor.  She died in 1959 at the age of 66.

“We came to New York on a fast-running, extra-fare train from Chicago because Elsie was in a hurry to start her career,” Dorothy Shaver once told a reporter.

“I had no thought of a career for myself, then.  I just came along for the ride, and because New York sounded fabulous and exciting.  It was, and has been, fabulous and exciting to me ever since.”

Dorothy Shaver introduced the American Beauty
rose as a symbol of Lord & Taylor

As Joan Didion reflected in her 1967 farewell to New York, Goodbye to All That:

“I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

And the same for Dorothy Shaver as she strode through her department store, across the travertine floors edged with black Egyptian marble.

She really understood what Lord & Taylor meant to its patrons.

Lord & Taylor on Catherine Street

*Cantaloupe Lillian, named after the actress Lillian Russell, was a half-cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle.
**The Rookwood Pottery was established in 188o by Maria Longworth Nichols, inspired by her visit to the 1876 U. S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Many of its designs relate to the Arts & Crafts Movement.  The company is still in business.

NOTE: Left-click on images to enlarge them.