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  • The Florence
  • John M. Gretchko

In his syndicated column of 7 November 1890, some seven months after the death of Jane Louise Melville at the Florence Apartments, the Dutch-born journalist and future 30-year editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, Edward William Bok (1863–1930)1, wrote of his having seen Herman Melville routinely walking East 18th Street at 9 a.m., as he did any morning (NN Corres 531). Bok does not say when or even where on East 18th he encountered Melville, although he believed that Melville was still working at the Custom House (from which Melville had retired in December 1885). Perhaps Melville had “tripped the light fantastic” as did James W. Blake in 1894, who as lyricist characterized its residents in “The Sidewalks of New York.” Less plebian than Blake’s residents were the Golden Age denizens of the Florence and their notable effects upon the creativity of Herman Melville.

At the northeast corner of East 18th Street and Fourth Avenue or East Union Place (today Park Avenue South) in New York City in the late nineteenth century, the Florence Apartment House or the Florence Apartments or simply the Florence became successively the home of the widows of both Allan and Herman Melville (Fig. 1). Scheduled to open in November 1878, the Florence at 105 East 18th Street was built for Virginia Leedy Matthews, née Brander, for some $500,000, of which $400,000 was a balloon mortgage from the Bank for Savings. Virginia was the wife of Edward Matthews, a real estate entrepreneur who at one time controlled more property from Wall Street south than anyone else. Allan Melville and Jane Louise, his second wife, knew Edward Matthews from as early as 1 October 1863 when Allan sold his own building at 19 Wall Street to Matthews for $61,5002 (New York City Register 498–501). Edward and Virginia Matthews were the parents of James Brander Matthews, familiarly known as Brander Matthews (1852–1929), who would become theatre critic, playwright, and author and who at this time was living nearby at 330 East 17th Street with his English wife, Ada Harland, a dancer and actress from a burlesque show.

In the Gramercy Park environs and designed by a Belgian emigrant, Emile Gruwé, the Florence was built by White and McEvoy during a glut of newly erected apartments.3 It was seven stories tall (or maybe seven and a quarter), [End Page 22]

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Fig. 1.

The Florence Apartment House circa 1906. Photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

fronting 200 feet on the Street and 53 feet on the Avenue with an eastern wing 20 feet wide and running 90 feet back (Stern 541) and intended to be the City’s first genuinely fireproof apartment house. With an exterior of pressed brick and Nova Scotia stone façade, with the interior furnished in hardwood and a marble staircase and with the latest in modern plumbing, no expense was spared to make this 42-unit building function equally as a hotel (“New Buildings” 117 and “Improved” 280). With the exception of the ground floor, there were seven units per floor. The Florence also had four passenger elevators, two for the guests and two for servants, and a package lift, none electrical at that time but probably hydraulic. The Florence was one block west from the Stuyvesant Apartments at 142 East 18th, which had been built in 1869 and was generally considered to be the first French-style apartment house in New [End Page 23] York City. Apartment dwelling for the well-to-do was a new concept, allowing a family to dwell all on one floor, apparently in imitation of the French. Such living was considered slightly decadent, if not lascivious. This was called a French flat. “Flat” was a word officially adopted by the New York City Buildings Department in the early 1870s. This was an era when anything French was the rage among those who could afford it.

William Dean Howells may have voiced the times when in The Hazard of New Fortunes4 he has the flat-hunting...


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