Saturday, December 20, 2014

Neville & Bagge and The Netherlands Apartments


I moved into my current studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Summer 2013. It is a condo building at present, and I rent my apartment from the owner. The picture you see here is a shot of the outside of the building, called The Netherlands. It is a lovely building with 12 floors and roof access, a beautiful marble foyer for a  rather grand entrance, and doormen, porters, and a superintendent who are all really great guys. I truly have enjoyed living here for the past year and a half. Interestingly, though, about 6 months ago, I discovered that my living in this building was, perhaps, kismet. I was having a conversation in the basement laundry room with my neighbor PC, whom I was actually just meeting at that time. He has been a resident here for a few decades, and knew much about the building's changes over time. At some point in the conversation, he mentioned that it was designed by Neville & Bagge. "Wait," I interrupted him, "did you just say Neville & Bagge?" He confirmed he had. I was dumbfounded. I knew Neville & Bagge had designed rowhouses in NYC around the turn of the 20th century, but I did not know they had designed apartment buildings. PC asked why this interested me so much, and I replied, "Because Bagge of Neville & Bagge was my great-uncle!"

Indeed, this is quite true. My great-uncle was George Arthur Bagge, the older brother of my great-grandmother Jessie Bagge Ambrose (whose daughter Martha was my grandmother, and whose daughter Kathleen was my mother!). I have actually blogged about my great-grandmother in a post about census records, but having now heard this news about the building in which I was living, I got very excited to learn more, knowing one day soon I would write a blog post about all this. That day has finally arrived. (This post may have a sequel, as PC has been waiting anxiously for me to write this, and I suspect he may have more information to share about our building!)

I began my research by consulting architectural historian Christopher Gray's incredibly helpful website for his Office for Metropolitan History Building Permits Database, 1900-1986. I confirmed that Neville & Bagge did indeed design this building. They applied for a new building permit from the City in 1908. The owner was Harry Schiff, who lived at 320 W. 113th St., while Neville & Bagge's office address was given as 217 W. 125th St. To give some sense of meaning to the location of their architectural office, they were in Harlem just down the street from where the famous Apollo Theater would be built. (The theater itself did not open until 1914 and it was originally a burlesque theater, not becoming the Apollo until the 1930s, when it then gave rise to famed musicians of the Harlem Renaissance; read more here.) Construction of The Netherlands began that year and was completed in 1909. One of the earliest advertisements I could find for the building was published in The New York Times on August 29, 1909. The building at that time had 36 apartments, 3 to each floor, and it was described in the advertisement as follows:
This new 12 story fireproof, sound-proof building, has one of the finest locations in Manhattan. Every apartment commands a sweeping view of the Drive [i.e. Riverside Drive], the Hudson and the Palisades on the opposite shore. . . . The apartments are desirably planned and the rooms are unusually large. Perfect light and ventilation prevail throughout. Cabinet hard woods have been used exclusively in the finish. Halls five feet wide, parquet floors; telephones, shower baths, combination wall safes, cedar lined closets, call bells and annunciators, electric wall switches, mail chute, filtering plant and vacuum cleaning apparatus, in addition to the many other improvements.
Rents started at $2,000. I pay almost that much per month for my studio now, which is not unheard of for NYC apartments today, but in 1909 that price got you an 8- or 9-room apartment. We are so accustomed to thinking about rents per month that I actually thought at first $2,000 was the monthly rental in 1909, but one of my neighbors did an historical cost analysis, and we have since determined that was the rent amount per year for an 8- or 9-room apartment. That means the monthly rate would have been on average $167! Times definitely have changed.

PC gave me the image you see here, which shows the 1909 plan for a typical floor of 3 different apartment layouts at The Netherlands. Each apartment had either 3 or 4 bedrooms--and a maid's room! My studio today has been created from one of the bedroom/bathroom/maid's quarters that once was part of the apartment next door. My studio looks out onto what was then called the "court." I confess that natural lighting in my apartment is abysmal, in part because I am on a lower floor and facing only the light shaft. But considering the quality of lighting, it is fascinating to look back at the description above and notice how they comment on the "sweeping view" and "perfect light and ventilation" that were marketing features for the property at the time (not to mention the modern amenities). Many of the larger apartments do still have windows on the outside walls, but it is worth noting that they cited views of Riverside Drive as part of the benefit of living in this building. That feature clearly was short-lived, because just a few years later, a new building went up next door, and it completely blocked views of Riverside Drive and the Hudson River from the west. (And if you want to know more about that building, just read this listing for the William Randolph Hearst penthouse...just a mere $31m.)

The continuing history of The Netherlands has other interesting tidbits that I have discovered. Owner Schiff went on to develop a number of other buildings in the area (e.g. the Cleburne Building on West End and 105th St., originally the site of the mansion owned by Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus, who perished on the Titanic). Schiff ultimately sold his interest in The Netherlands. According to a July 16, 1920 article in the Times, the building was sold to The Netherlands Holding Co., a co-operative comprised of the tenants who lived there, headed by Russell R. Kittell. But the co-op clearly didn't last and presumably reverted back to private ownership. On January 1, 1943, an article in the Times reported that the building had been sold by then-owner Frederick Brown to an undisclosed buyer, and they note that the building had 68 apartments and "was altered some time ago by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company into small suites," probably producing many of the layouts as they still exist today (such as my studio). I have not yet traced many individuals from the past who have lived here, but I am still searching. I did find through newspaper searcher that the German-born artist Anton Schutz (1894-1977) lived here around 1930. Also, in August 1921, Mrs. Mae Jordan, ex-wife of a physician named Dr. William Rosenbaum, was found dead of an apparent suicide in her apartment on the 7th floor of the building. Sadly, she appears to have been broke following her divorce, while her husband lived comfortably up the street in the still-ritzy Belnord Apartment.

Few people know much about the architects who designed The Netherlands, Neville & Bagge, in part because the majority of records and designs from their firm, sadly, no longer seem to exist. Nevertheless, we know that they designed numerous buildings in NYC, including about 15 in my neighborhood alone, as well as many others in the Morningside Heights (near Columbia University) neighborhood. Columbia architectural historian and Professor of Historic Preservation Andrew S. Dolkart has written about Neville & Bagge's work in these parts of the City, citing for instance a number of five-story rowhouses they designed along Riverside Drive, all in the neo-Renaissance style fashionable among the upper middle classes when they were built in the 1890s. In his book Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, he writes: "Although Neville & Bagge was one of the most prolific firms active in New York at the turn of the century, almost nothing is known about either Thomas P. Neville or his partner George A. Bagge." Dolkart goes on to note that architects such as they were often criticized in professional journals at the time for their lack of education and training, but he points out that they were "proficient in producing well-planned and well-appointed dwellings at the reasonable costs expected by developers" (279), which explains their success at the time. It pleases me to know, then, that I can fill in some of the gaps and provide information, possibly for the first time, about Neville & Bagge.

The architect George Arthur Bagge was born in Manchester, England, on October 16, 1867, and died in the Bronx, New York on January 20, 1958. He was one of 8 children born to George Bagge (1836-ca.1910) and Mary Smith (1842-ca.1910). His father was a joiner and bricklayer from Norfolk who gradually made his way north for work and ended up in Lancashire where he married and had his family. (In a strange twist, however, my great-grandmother Jessie was the only one of their children to be born in Chiswick, near London, during a brief residential stay there.) The family all appear in the 1881 census living in Levenshulme, Lancashire, but later that year and into 1882 they made their way in groups across the Atlantic to settle in the United States. Surprisingly, George Arthur Bagge traveled alone at the age of 11 on the Arizona, arriving in NYC on the June 5, 1882. His father and sister Jessie already were established there, and his mother and siblings would arrive later that year. By 1883 the Bagge family was living at 228 E. 110th St. and father George was working as a carpenter. On October 28, 1892, father George was naturalized with his family, but his son George Arthur contended in a later passport application that he had been naturalized on October 17, 1890.


The image you see here is a detail from the 1900 census showing Bagge's family. On November 16, 1887, George Arthur Bagge married Mary E. C. Willoughby (1869-1954), the daughter of Jeremiah and Margaret Wood Willoughby, and they had three children: Frank (1889-?), George Arthur (1892-1976), and Edward Jared (1894-1977). It is uncertain where or when Bagge received his architectural training, but it is likely that he moved into this profession through his family connections (note: his brother-in-law, my great-grandfather Thomas Ambrose, was a mason). I have found evidence of a few Atlantic crossings for Bagge, in the mid-1890s, 1900, and 1920, and we know he did visit various European countries where, presumably, he advanced his study from direct observation of Beaux-Arts architectural designs. Dolkart claims that Neville & Bagge was established in 1892, and this is supported by the fact that this is the earliest this name appears in the New York City Directory, with their office listed as being on W. 125th St. From 1892 until at least through the 1900 census, Bagge and his family lived on what was then 2187 Seventh Ave., now known as Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., the extension of Seventh Ave. north of Central Park. This address was just a few blocks away from his architectural firm. (As an aside, Bagge's nephew John Edwin Eaton, the son of his oldest sister who remained in England, emigrated in 1905 to the United States to work in the firm as well, clearly a sign of Neville & Bagge's growing success. You can read more about J. E. Eaton in a this earlier blog post.)

Bagge's partner, Thomas P. Neville, was born in 1874 in New York, the son of Irish immigrants Thomas and Ann Neville. The 1900 census shows Neville living with his parents and his occupation is listed as an architect. Hence, this clearly is the man who was Bagge's partner. However, considering that Neville would have been only 18 years old when Neville & Bagge began, it seems very strange that the younger partner would be the primary feature in the firm's name. Upon closer examination of the 1900 census, however, one discovers that Thomas Neville, Sr. listed his occupation as a builder. Hence, the partnership between Bagge and Neville was, then, based not just on architectural design but construction as well. Thomas P. Neville and George Arthur Bagge may have been the architects, but Thomas Neville Sr. presumably built their rowhouses and apartment buildings.

According to Gray's online database for new permits issued after 1900, Neville & Bagge requested permits for 401 house and building projects between the years 1900 and 1917 (note: that doesn't necessarily mean that they built that many, but received permits to do so). After 1917, there are no more permits under that company name, and little is known about what became of the Nevilles. One does find after 1921, however, 29 building permits issued in Manhattan to "Geo. A. Bagge & Sons," and indeed his sons joined their father as architects too. Bagge and his family had moved to the Bronx by 1905, and by 1920 he and his wife were living in Mt. Vernon, NY. After that, we know when and where Bagge and his wife died, but I have yet to trace where they were buried. I also have not had success tracing his descendants. It is hoped that one day perhaps someone will read this post and know who and where those descendants might be. Perhaps then we will discover an archive of architectural drawings and records for Neville & Bagge, including much more information about The Netherlands apartment building, which opened 105 years ago.

Works Cited:
Andrew S. Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development (New York: Columbia UP, 1998).
Christopher Gray, Office for Metropolitan History, "Manhattan NB Database 1900-1986," accessed May 11, 2014, http://www.MetroHistory.com.
Census data from the National Archives, provided by Ancestry.com.
Articles cited from issues of The New York Times.

4 comments:

tony bagge said...

Mr.Ferrari, I am trying to contact you.I am George A Bagge's great grand son. Can you contact me. I am having trouble sending you messages.

bklynbiblio said...

Tony Bagge! How exciting! Your email address did not come through so please email me directly at robertocferrari@gmail.com.

tony bagge said...

Hello Mr.Ferrari, we are long lost cousins it seems. I found your blog looking for George A Bagge my great grandfather. Let me talk later! Need to tend to my kids

Ellen Romeo said...

And I am Toni's first cousin, Ellen. Our fathers, George and William were brothers. This is extremely interesting information. My father, George A. Bagge III passed away a week ago. There are no boys on our side of the family to carry on the family name. Please contact me at e.romeo712@gmail.com if you so chose.