History Of The HouseMuch of the southwest area of Harlem was built in or about 1890 as public transportation came to what was once a country area. Elegant townhouses sprouted up in rapid succession. Our house was no exception.
In 1889, the architect Joseph H. Taft (member of the League of New York Architects) designed the five unit structure on Manhattan Avenue between West 112 and West 113 Streets. This structure still stands today. Our house is the southernmost unit. Unlike the mid-block units, our house was built larger and with a distinctive turret, a feature that was common to other Taft designed buildings. Joseph Taft's designs are located mainly in the Upper West Side including the building on the northeast corner of 87th Street and West End Avenue and the structure that includes 308-310 West 89th Street and wraps around to 591-599 West End Avenue.
The original owner of the plot where our house stands today was a real estate investor named James R. Smith. After the house was completed in 1890 by the developer W.E.D. Stokes, Mr. Smith sold the house to its first occupant, the local organist Smith N. Pensfield on July 1, 1890. The house stood on land that measured 50 feet by 20 feet. On July 9, 1890, Mr. Pensfield also purchased the 20 x 20 adjacent property, just east of the house on 112th Street, which was a three story brick dwelling, from S. Morris Lewis of Philadelphia, PA. At some point later, the east building was taken down and the deed to the now vacant land was combined, creating our plot measuring 70 x 20. Since Mr. Pensfield owned both parcels for a long time, we assume that he took the legal steps to combine the two properties into a single lot as recorded on the records of the City registrar's office.
The series of four row houses on West 112th Street from 327 West 112th to 321 West 112th was sold to a real estate speculator named Francis M. Jencks in a foreclosure sale on May 31, 1889 for $42,300. Mr. Jencks sold 321 West 112th on October 25, 1889 for $12,000 and 323 West 112th on November 3, 1890 for $14,000. The history of New York City is filled with stories of real estate speculators having the forethought to buy property in the adjacent farmland next in line to be developed. The most famous such speculator was Mr. John Jacob Astor.
Prior to World War II, the house remained a single family dwelling. After the war, with the influx of veterans into New York City, many properties including our house became boardinghouses, as owners could earn substantial rents by dividing their properties into individual rooms for single tenants. Our house was divided into 11 boarding rooms. Each floor has 3-4 rooms and a shared bathroom. Such properties as ours were known as SROs, or Single Room Occupancy buildings. Throughout the post-war period, this form of living was very popular in New York City. Later on, as the interest for large one-family structures exceeded the available supply, many SROs were converted back to one and two family dwellings. Since there was the economic incentive to remove buildings of their long-term SRO tenants, many landlords would go to great extremes to remove tenants. In the late 1970's, the City instituted anti-harassment laws to protect the tenants. Today, owners of SROs wanting to convert their properties must demonstrate they did not engage in unlawful practices to induce tenants to vacate. We applied for and were granted a Certificate of Non-Harrassment which legally allows us to renovate the property and upon renovation obtain a Certificate of Occupancy as a one or two family dwelling.
In 1995, the building fell into foreclosure and was sold at auction to the previous owners. We purchased the property in June 1999 vacant of all tenants who previously lived there. The previous owners had a series of lawsuits between them and the tenants. After a few years of litigation, all parties agreed to a settlement whereby the tenants received some cash and received forgiveness of past rent (the tenants never paid any rent) in exchange for vacating the property.
Decades of hard use and maintenance neglect resulted in the poor physical condition of the house. These conditions include severe water damage to the roof and the walls, electrical and plumbing malfunctions, an heating system that barely works if you can tolerate the smoky odor it generates, broken walls and ceilings, squeaky stairs and damaged floors. To sum it up, almost nothing but the shell is salvageable and the house needs virtually an entire gut renovation. [Picture on the right shows the original stonework near the front door.]
We took on the challenge of renovating the house because the house had some outstanding features that were not available in other properties. First, the house was large - a total of 6,000 square feet including the cellar. Second, the house was a corner property located across from a park and across from Saint John the Devine cathedral. Thus we would be assured of outstanding views and use of the park for years to come. Third, the house has several public transportation connections nearby. One can travel to both the east and west sides of midtown Manhattan without the need to transfer. Fourth, the house was in a neighborhood that was improving. Today, our vision of the renaissance of Harlem has continued. Compared with 1999 where only a few homes were undergoing renovation, today, virtually every property on 112th Street has been renovated or is currently under renovation. New businesses with "downtown" services like dry cleaners and antique stores are beginning to appear along on Fredrick Douglas Blvd, the closest commercial avenue, only one block from the house.
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