Building of the Day: 404 55th Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Dr. Maurice T. Lewis House, now office of Felix W. Ortiz, New York State Assemblyman
Address: 404 55th Street
Cross Streets: Corner Fourth Avenue
Neighborhood: Sunset Park
Year Built: 1907
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Harde & Short
Other Work by Architect: In Brooklyn – Kismet Temple, Bed Stuy. In Manhattan – Alwyn Court, 58th Street, and other apartment buildings on Upper East and West Side
Landmarked: No, but on National Register of Historic Places

The story: Sunset Park was designed and built for ordinary middle and working class folk. This is unique amongst our brownstone neighborhoods, most of which were built for the upper classes, no matter where they may lie on the economic scale now. It’s a huge neighborhood full of rows of fine row houses, apartment buildings, churches and other civic buildings, and this last weekend, I had the pleasure of touring many of its blocks in a walking tour organized by the Sunset Park Landmark Committee. The leader of the tour, Joe Svehlak, grew up there, and we’ve known each other for years, in one of those convoluted Six Degrees of Separation connections that occur so often in life. I was eager to learn more about a neighborhood that I knew very little about, and I have a wealth of information now that I am more than willing to share in upcoming BOTDs.

Ironically, in this working class ‘hood, I’m starting with the only freestanding mansion in the district. This is the Dr. Maurice Thomas Lewis house, built for him in 1907, when he was president of the Bay Ridge Savings Bank. Doctor Lewis was a busy man. He graduated in the Class of 1892 from the Long Island Hospital School of Medicine, and practiced medicine for over 38 years, and for many years was a consulting pathologist at Harbor Hospital, which stood on Cropsey Avenue at 23rd Street, here in Brooklyn. Perhaps because his patients couldn’t complain about his scheduling, being dead and all, that enabled him to pursue an entirely different line of work, and have a successful second career as a banker.

He became a Trustee and eventually President of the Bay Ridge Savings Bank, which was founded back in 1868 as a bank where sailors and other local dock workers and their families could deposit their money. The bank grew swiftly, and was soon the area’s largest banking institution. They built a handsome main office on the corner of 5th Avenue and 54th Street, in 1909. In 1929, when the financial world came apart, Dr. Lewis and his bank officials successfully stopped a run on his bank, begun by rumors spread by a dissatisfied customer who was rejected for a loan he didn’t qualify for.

Rumors about the bank’s supposed insolvency spread fast in a time of great panic, and within a few days, there were not only rumors about the bank’s financial state, but a rumor also was spread that Dr. Lewis was dead. On the morning of August 16th, customers were lining up to withdraw their funds, but taking fast action, Dr. Lewis and his bank officers had over a million dollars brought into the bank, and stacked up visibly behind the tellers, so customers could see the bank was fully funded.

They also had three million in the vault, just in case, and handed out flyers to all customers with statements from 25 other banks, and federal bank officials, testifying to the Bay Ridge Savings Bank’s continued solvency. Dr. Lewis also made a personal appearance, proving he was still at the helm of the bank, and very much alive. Many of the bank’s customers, who had withdrawn their money, were so embarrassed at their haste, they quickly redeposited their money, and the run on the bank was over in a day.

Dr. Lewis’ regard for the community was such that he had this grand house built in 1907. At that time, 4th Avenue was a grand boulevard, with trees and a landscaped center median. It’s a Renaissance Revival townhouse, with classical lines and ornament. The house was designed by the firm of Harde & Short, a memorable name if there ever was one. Herbert Spencer Steinhardt changed his name to “Harde” in order to Anglicize himself, and was the son of a wealthy Prussian merchant who made his fortune in America. Richard Thomas Short was born in Canada, and came to Brooklyn in 1885. The two began their partnership in 1901, and were responsible for some remarkably ornate and interesting buildings, most of which were in Manhattan.

Here in Brooklyn, their most fabulous building was the Kismet Temple, a Moorish-style fantasy in Bedford Stuyvesant, built for a Shriner’s order. Their Alwyn Court Apartments in Manhattan, on 58th Street, near Central Park, is a riot of elaborately carved terra-cotta trim that practically covers every surface. It’s interesting that this building, a perfect banker’s home, which conveys conservative prosperity and decorum, is so different from their usual flare. It would be interesting to find out how the firm got the job.

Dr. Lewis died here at home after a long illness, in 1931. In addition to his bank presidency and medical practice, he also was the Director of the Guarantee Title and Mortgage Company and was also a Director of the Lindsay Laboratories, a medical lab on Ashland Place, near Brooklyn Hospital. His widow and daughter eventually gave up the house only a couple of years later. Today, it houses the offices of Felix Ortiz, the Assemblyman for this district to the State Senate, as well as some housing. It still seems to be in great shape, and in spite of the signage and window air conditioners, conveys a rather majestic sense of dignity. GMAP

Last week’s walking tour of Sunset Park was filled up, due in great part to Brownstoner’s coverage, so the Sunset Park Landmarking Committee is having another tour this coming Saturday, April 20, at 10 am. Please go to their website at www.preservesunsetpark.org to sign up. It was very informative and great fun. Thanks to the “Lynns” and Joe for the hospitality and opportunity to get to know Sunset Park a bit better. Thanks to CGar for being a great walking companion. I’ll be back.

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