Spark Plug Inventor Gustave Herz and His Eclectic Inwood Home

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Gustave Leoplold Herz 1919 passport application photo.
Gustave Leoplold Herz 1919 passport application photo.

On a steamy July day in the summer of 1918 Austrian inventor Gustave Herz purchased a large stable on the northern tip of Manhattan.  While many before him had built grand monuments to equestrian sportsmanship, given the neighborhood’s proximity to the Harlem River Speedway, Herz was no horseman.

Instead, Herz was a dreamer who planned to convert the large stone building on the south side of 215th Street between Seaman Avenue and Park Terrace West into his dream home.

The land Herz purchased was part of the larger Seaman-Drake estate, but did not include the gleaming marble mansion just to the east.

Shortly after closing on the deal, Herz, who held patents for early models of the spark plug, set to work transforming the old stone stable into an eclectic workshop and home for himself and his family.

Herz spark plug.
New York Times, July 19, 1918.

During the early years of Herz’s residence, the Park Terrace area would have been a serene and nearly suburban area.   Unlike the lands to the east, the western side of northern Manhattan had not yet become crowded with apartment buildings spurred by the arrival of the elevated subway in 1904.

Herz would share the hill with a small and elite group of New Yorkers who enjoyed the romantic solitude and beautiful views the area had to offer.

Seaman Mansion for sale, New York Times February 2, 1913.

Architect Thomas Dwyer, who had purchased the old Seaman mansion, now the site of Park Terrace Gardens, would have been Herz’s closest neighbor to the east.  Dwyer was famous in his own right.  From his office, in the old marble arch, Dywer drew up plans for a number of municipal projects including the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument on Riverside Drive.

1920’s photo from Hurst descendent JoAnn Jones (note Isham Gardens under construction in background)

Other neighbors included William H. Hurst, President of the New York Stock Quotation Telegraph Company.  Hurst, his wife Minnie and their eleven children lived in a large brick home designed by Irish architect James O’Connor in 1912.  The house, today in a severe state of disrepair, stands on the corner of west 215th Street and Park Terrace East.

Isham House, circa 1934.

The Ishams, an old and wealthy Inwood family, lived in a beautiful wooden home on the current site of Isham Park. (A gift from the family to the City of New York).

Among this fascinating group of New Yorkers Herz found a home away from the deafening madness of downtown.

Edith Herz 1920 passport application photo.
Edith Herz 1920 passport application photo.

There, amid the tranquility of old Inwood, Herz and his wife, Edith,  bore a son.  On the stone walls of the former stable the inventor carved quotations from Goethe, his favorite writer, and otherwise personalized the home that had once sheltered the horses of a previous generation.

This wonderful description of the old stable home was written in 1938, just before the residence was demolished to make room for more modern apartment dwellings.

The article makes one want to travel back in time to meet this colorful inventor and his Park Terrace neighbors.

New York Sun
December 3, 1938
Last Days of Famed Stable

Sales Dooms Inwood Building Made Into a Mansion by Inventor Herz
By Gerry Fitch

Old stables made into attractive homes have given many a New York street a quaint and enduring charm.  It’s something to sigh about that these old stables must inevitably be torn down to make way for changing life in changing times.

And even as this is being written the end has come for the most fantastic stable-home of them all—the stone structure standing on two levels of high ground up in the Inwood section.  This unusual “house” with its beautiful surrounding garden occupies a large plot bounded by Seaman Avenue, 215th Street and Park Terrace West.  The site happens to be ideal right now for another smart apartment building, such as loom up all around it.  For who can afford to be sentimental about charm, and aren’t the old and the thick tall trees enclosing it, and the rock garden and the lovely rose bushes just too old to live any more?

Seaman mansion before demolition.

Only a month ago the sale of the picturesque Dwyer mansion (formerly the Seaman-Drake estate) in Inwood was reported.  Already the mansion is half demolished, to be followed by five new eight-story apartment buildings.   The “stable house” used to be the stable of the fast disappearing mansion, but that was long before Thomas Dwyer bought the mansion some thirty years ago.  He didn’t buy the stable because another buyer had seen it first, G. L. Herz, millionaire Austrian engineer, who invented the spark plug.

Gustave Herz spark plug patent.

The original builders of the mansion and stable must have been picturesque individuals indeed.  Both structures, more than a hundred years old, are reflections of “individualism” at its utmost.   Following upon the sale of the mansion by Mr. Dwyer the stable-house is now sold by the widow of Mr. Herz, and upon the site will rise two more apartment buildings of six to eight stories in height.

Property Sold Monday

Herz Spark plug advertisement, 1913, The Automobile.

Last Monday Alexander and Samuel Grutman bought the property, Kadel, Sheits and Weiss acting as their attorneys.   Albert Hirst represented Mrs. Edith Herz.  Demolition will start at once; the two new buildings must be ready by next summer so that tenants can enjoy a “free summer” in the pleasant altitudes above Spuyten Duyvil Creek.  The apartments will be Colonial in design and accommodate fifty-two families.  They will be restricted against stores.

On the west wall of the stable-house is a sun-clock, in faded colors of gold and bronze.  On its face is the singularly appropriate reminder in Latin that life is brief indeed.

Except for the sun-clock that can go on somewhere else, about the only thing that can, except the stone the house is made of.

So, if you want a last look at an ancient (from our standards) edifice built with tremendous blocks of granite after the fashion of an Egyptian tomb, and intended to house luxuriously the fine horses of our landed gentry, tramp over the snow-covered garden of the Herz House.  The place has recently been used by a fermenting firm and is full of medical literature.  There are pictures on the wall of Clark Gable.  The four colonial pillars before the arched entrance still have an inviting look; inside is the foyer with great stone slabs for the walls.  Mr. Herz refused to cover them.

Poetry Carved on Walls

When he fell in love with the stable he decided to carve the most beloved phrases of his favorite poet upon the walls.  And that is why so many of the lines of Goethe are to be found cut into the stone blocks.  He made the stable into a nine-room house, modernized it in every way and still did not touch the walls.

In the office of Lawyer Hirst I learned other interesting things about Mr. Herz, “Along with being very rich,” explained Mr. Hirst, “Herz was cultured, art loving.  He had come here poor at the turn of the century.  He wanted to bring to his new land some of the art treasures of his old land.  He amassed a collection of rare cameos, of Bibles, and other objects d’art, and had Vienna craftsmen make elaborate cases for them.  These he housed in several rooms.

One of his two sons was born in the Herz House, but the family moved to East Seventy-fifth Street a few years ago upon the death of the inventor.  They took the collections with them.

Near the stable entrance is a block of granite that will give the wreckers a headache.  (‘The place will be as hard to destroy as a steel building,” says Mr. Hirst.) This is off doubtful usage in the old days, probably was a watering trough, but it makes a romantic garden seat.

The two new apartment buildings will occupy plots 100 by 100 feet and ramble with the land as do other near by apartment houses.  Some of them have several stories more on one side than the other.

Gustave Leoplold Herz 1919 passport application.
Gustave Leoplold Herz 1919 passport application.
Edith Herz 1920 passport application.
Edith Herz 1920 passport application.

5 COMMENTS

  1. There was no area as beautiful as Park Terrace. I went to Good Shepherd and a classmate invited me to her apartment there. Now it was 1949 and I lived on post ave in three rooms. When I saw her apt. with the sunken living room, wood floors that were gleaming and the housekeeper that made us lunch I thought “wow people really live like this? Hope it is still the wonderful area as I remember it. Is there any one out there that can tell me just where Cock Hill was during the revolutionary war? There was a canon sitting in a slab of concrete right in front of Good Shepherd school and below Park Terrrace. I wonder if it was there from that war and was that Cock Hill? Such a history we had but no told us about it, Thanks to Cole we can read about our great neighborhood.

  2. Thanks, once more, Cole.

    It is hard to believe how much history is concealed beneath the surface of Inwood, just waiting for you, or someone else, to dig it up. That the inventor of the sparkplug had a residence/workshop next to the Ishams, Hursts and Dwyers is a total surprise to me.

    In response to Patricia’s question above, I dug up this article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Cockhill>. It does no give a precise location for the fort itself, but the map and other print are very interesting. I see that the map maker is of the school that accepts Spiting Devil as the original form of Spuyten Duyvil and I also note that the area that is now Spuyten Duyvil/Lower Riverdale is labeled Tetard’s Hill. My wife, who grew up in the Amalgamated Houses near Sedgwick Avenue and Van Cortlandt Park, went to John Peter Tetard Junior High School in the late 60s, but I have never asked her who Tetard was. I can’t find a speck of information about him on the Net, though there appears be a book “America’s debt to John Peter Tetard, 1722-1787” by William A. Tieck available.

  3. Thank you so much Peter you solved for me something I have searched for and now I can see where Fort Cockhill was. Pat.

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