New York Architecture Images- Spite House


One Marble 1880 Building That Used to Be Three

THE weathered flaking marble of the midblock building on the west side of Lexington Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Streets sparkles in the morning light. But even with its unusual marble facade and its ''1880'' datestone at the top, the four-story 1220 Lexington Avenue is stranger than it appears.

It was built as three buildings, 1220-24 Lexington, by the eccentric millionaire Joseph Richardson, who two years later built the famous five-foot-wide ''Spite House'' at the corner of 82nd and Lexington and then moved in.

Lexington Avenue was created in the 1860's between Park and Third Avenues, leaving a number of odd-shaped parcels, including one in an L-shape at the northeast corner of Lexington and 82nd. In 1879, Emily Emmett bought the parcel, which consisted of a strip only five feet wide on the side street but 102 feet long on Lexington, and a more conventional section, 50 feet wide and 46 feet deep, at the middle of the block.

News reports at the time identified Emmett as a niece of Richardson, a railroad investor and real estate developer who lived in a modest house at 110 East Houston Street. Apparently Emmett was acting on his behalf, because in 1882 Richardson filed for a building permit -- as owner, architect and builder -- for the midblock section.

His plans called for three single-family houses, four stories high, to be built for $4,000 each. Each was 16.6 feet wide.

In a letter to the Department of Buildings dated April 3, 1880, Richardson sought an exception to the building law, asking permission to make the front walls only 12 inches thick -- instead of the required 16 inches -- and also reduce the thickness of the side walls. It is not clear if the department agreed.

Started in April 1880 and completed in July, the three houses were unusual because brownstone and not marble was the preferred exterior material in row-house construction. Richardson built each house two windows wide, with a doorway only four steps up from the street. The first-floor window lintels had the incised carving associated with the neo-Grec style. But the rest was much less distinctive, except for the marble front with its datestone and a gable over the center house with a small half-round window.

Richardson's houses soon gained a much higher profile -- not because of their architecture, but because of their owner. He was known as a sharp dealer -- an 1895 article in The New York Times estimated his worth at $30 million and said that he was ''a very keen hunter after the almighty dollar.''

Although his three marble houses could be considered a prudent if trivial investment, the five-foot-wide corner strip was of value only to the owner of the inside lot facing 82nd Street, identified in news reports as Hyman Sarner.

In 1882, Sarner and Richardson had some sort of falling out, and when Sarner began a small apartment house on his inside property, Richardson blocked the side walls of Sarner's building by putting up a four-story house for himself on his slim corner lot. It became known as the ''Spite House.''

Richardson died in the house in 1897; during his lifetime the intersection of 82nd and Lexington was one of the most talked about in New York. In 1900, Richardson's daughter from his first marriage, Dellarifa Richardson, tried to have his widow, Emma (her stepmother), evicted from the house. What happened is unclear, but by 1902 a new owner had converted the ground floor to stores.

FOR the three marble houses, the earliest tenants were typically prosperous Manhattanites. Walter Hamilton, a mineralogist and assayer who had a gold and silver refining operation at 15th Street and the East River, lived at No. 1220. Arthur T. Watson, a dry-goods importer, moved up to 1222 Lexington from a house on Union Square. And Spencer T. Pratt, a produce dealer, lived at No. 1224. But the 1890 census indicates that by that time the three buildings were being run as boarding or apartment houses -- No. 1224 had 15 residents.

In 1915 a new apartment house went up that still stands at 129 East 82nd Street and replaced both the Spite House and Sarner's building. The three marble houses survived intact until 1923.

In that year, a lessee built out the front of the lower two floors, joined the entrances and converted them to a single building of apartments, offices and stores. It was still owned by a member of the Richardson family -- Anna Richardson, the daughter of Joseph Richardson's brother, Benjamin. He was another rich eccentric -- the 1895 article in The Times said that he grew his beard down to his feet, but braided it and kept in inside his clothes.

The Richardson family sold the 1880 building soon after the front extension was built. This year work crews began repairing loose masonry on the side walls and facade -- and ''as long as we were at it, we cleaned the front,'' said Howard Paley, the managing agent.

The cleaning has brought out a wonderful array of subtle colors in the marble -- olive, white, orange and several shades of gray.

The red brick facade of the two-story commercial extension was peeling away, so he decided to replace it with a buff brick. Mr. Paley said that he was not sure of the purpose of the small gable window but that he had to break through the roof of the apartment below a few years ago to gain access for repairs.

Roger Mitchell, an interior designer whose office has been in the building for several years, said he had seen nothing left of the original 1880's construction in the offices or apartments. But he thinks the basement may be original. ''It's dark and cramped, and I had to climb over things to get to my fuse box,'' he said. ''It's pretty scary down there.''