Peter Mintun, Society Pianist
New York Times: Streetscapes

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Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005

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If woodwork has been disturbed, or even refinished, it is impossible to tell. The house is amazingly intact, a survivor of streetscapes past.

1897 Town House That Looks Like an 1897 Town House

A HOUSE owner will often dig into a building's past, but the pianist, singer and music historian Peter Mintun has dug deeper than most. Mr. Mintun, who bills himself as "one of America's favorite society pianists," and has reviews that support his statement, has assembled a collection of plans, photographs and artifacts relating to his 1897 house at 436 West 162nd Street - as well as the rest of his block - that is a remarkable artifact of old New York.

Mr. Mintun's own town house remains amazingly intact, a century-old survivor of streetscapes past.

In 1896, the developer William W. Watkins had his architect, Henri Fouchaux, file plans for 10 single-family houses at 162nd Street and Jumel Terrace. Fouchaux's work was often a notch or two above the usual speculative project, and although these houses are not extraordinary, they have several sophisticated touches. The corner house has a small window on the wall facing Jumel - and to make that opening symmetrical with the rest of the facade, Fouchaux paired it with a carved panel of limestone of the same size.

The houses use two kinds of stone: the ground level is the older-style brownstone, but the main, second and third floors are limestone, with the lighter feeling that was coming into vogue.

Julian Meyer, an importer, and his wife, Clara, moved into 436 West 162nd Street in 1897. The next owner, Adam Priester, bought it in 1903. The German-born Priester, then in his 40's, had a restaurant downtown on Spring Street. He arrived with his wife, Anna, and their eight children; no census shows any live-in servants.

About noon on Jan. 28, 1910, the Priesters were out and their daughter Carrie, 21, was at home. According to The New York Times, she responded to the doorbell in the basement to find a "a short man with a black beard" who said he was a telephone inspector. The Times reported that Carrie replied: "I don't believe you. You are not the regular inspector."

The man reached into his coat, pretending to look for his credentials, and instead took out a bottle and threw carbolic acid at her, burning her arm, neck and face severely - she had raised her arm and successfully protected her eyes. There had been other instances of assaults, and even the murder of two young boys, in the neighborhood by a man with a similar appearance, but it seems the police never solved the case.

Adam Priester died in the 1920's, and the Priester family was unusual in that five of the eight children remained in the house - all unmarried - with their mother into the 1930's. Carrie was among this group, and served as her mother's executor when Mrs. Priester died in 1939. Still single, Carrie was living in the house when she died in 1958, the day before Christmas.

Mr. Mintun says that the remaining siblings - who made only negligible changes to 436 West 162nd Street - gradually left the house or died there, until it became vacant in the late 1970's. Through several intervening owners, the Priesters' little time capsule survived intact - no exposed brick walls, no whirlpools, no urge to make it "clean and spare" interfered.

Mr. Mintun had been living in a Victorian house in San Francisco with his partner, Eric Bernhoft, when they began looking for a house in New York. He was not really prepared to step into 436 West 162nd. "I noticed that none of the wood had been painted," he said, "and then I noticed that the rods for the hanging curtains were still up, and then I noticed they had their original rings - it was eerie." Indeed, a recent tour of the house was like a trip to a movie set - except this is real life.

Mr. Mintun's house has a complete set of intact speaking tubes for communicating between floors, and if any woodwork has been disturbed - or even refinished - it was impossible to see. He has the original spindle screens over the doorways, the original buttons to call the servants from the kitchen and the original controls to light the gas lamps (although no gas fixtures are working).

Mr. Mintun has become the historian for his row and area. He has found Fouchaux's grave in Altadena, Calif. - the gravestone reads "One of Life's Nobles." He has canvassed his neighbors for documents, finding Fouchaux's original architectural drawings for the houses facing Jumel.

At the turn of the 20th century, an amateur photographer lived at 430 West 162nd, and a current owner has given Mr. Mintun early photographs of deliverymen, children playing on the sidewalks, card players on the stoops - the quotidian things rarely seen in professional photographs.

Mr. Mintun has also collected neighborhood lore, like the 1937 book "Rolling Along in Song," compiled by the composer J. Rosamund Johnson, who lived at 437 West 162nd Street. Johnson and his older brother, the teacher, poet, songwriter and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, were important figures in the Harlem renaissance and composed the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."

Like the preservationist Michael Adams, Mr. Mintun is also interested in the pre-African-American history of the areas around Harlem. "The black culture is widely documented," he said, "but I think it's interesting to learn about the European culture here."

He has photographed every original element in the other houses in the Fouchaux row, to develop an understanding of how the houses were finished. He carries a notebook "wherever I go," he said, with measurements for every room, details of missing architectural elements and samples of fabric, so he is prepared for any accidental discovery.

Mr. Mintun, whose performance-oriented Web site is www.mintun .com, cuts a prominent and assertive figure in what is otherwise essentially a somewhat quiet brownstone enclave. Proudly referring to the elaborately figured stained-glass skylight panels in the Fouchaux houses that face 162nd Street, Mr. Mintun made a point of mentioning that "the ones on Jumel are just rectangles."

"I challenge anyone," he said in a spirit of friendly competition, "to show me a more original town house in the city."


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