Virginia O’Hanlon’s Former HouseDec 9th, 2016 | By Lindsay | Category: This and That
I still believe in Santa Claus. Yes, you read that right. Though I am fast approaching 40, the magic and wonderment of the Christmas season remain very real to me. My feelings on the subject can best be summed up by Francis Pharcellus Church’s famed 1897 The New York Sun editorial penned in response to a letter from eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked the age-old query “Is there a Santa Claus?” Church’s reply, which assured her and the audience at large that “Yes, Virginia, there is!,” stated that without Kris Kringle, “There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.” I remember reading the editorial as a young adult and reveling in Church’s encouragement of a belief in things that can’t be seen. So when my friend Owen, of the When Write Is Wrong blog, informed me that he knew the location of Virginia’s former house, where she wrote her famous letter, I just about died of excitement and headed right on over there while in New York this past April.
This location was an easy find for Owen. When I asked if he remembered how he came across Virginia’s address, he replied, “I definitely recall how I found that one. It took an incredible amount of investigative work and persistence on my part. Here’s the lengthy story: I found a picture of the original 1897 letter to the editor in The Sun newspaper.” Ha! Nicely done, Owen!
Virginia’s former residence, one of a set of six attached brownstones, was originally constructed in the late 1880s. The four-story property, as well as its neighbors, was designed by architect Charles T. Mott for developer Charles Bouton. In 1896, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, who worked as the City’s Coroner’s Physician, his wife, Laura Lincoln Plumb, and their daughter, Laura Virginia, leased the red-brick home.
As the story goes, the following summer, young Virginia came to her father with the query ‘Does Santa Claus really exist?’ His rather deflective response was to suggest Virginia write a letter to The New York Sun about the matter. The newspaper published her letter, which I’ve recreated below, as part of an editorial on September 21st, 1897. You can take a look at Virginia’s original note here. And yes, the original does still exist. It was appraised on Antiques Roadshow in 2012 (It’s worth? $20,000 to $30,000!) and today belongs to Virginia’s great-grandson.
The man tasked with the fateful job of composing a reply was the assistant to the editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, though his authorship went unknown until shortly after his passing in 1906, as the editorial was originally published unsigned. The Sun readers were quick to embrace Church’s poignant and heartfelt prose and over the years many wrote in asking for the editorial to be republished. The newspaper eventually complied and began featuring the column annually in 1920. It has gone on to become one of the most reprinted editorials in history. You can check out a picture of one of the many reprints, which I’ve re-created below, here.
Virginia and her family remained in the home at 115 West 95th for four years, at which time her parents purchased a pad just a few doors away at 121 West 95th. After the O’Hanlons moved out, Virginia’s former residence became a boarding house and then, in 1957, was divided into apartments. Eight years later, it was acquired by the city, along with its five neighbors, and left vacant. By that time, the properties had fallen into disarray and the city intended to fix them up as part of an urban renewal project. Those plans never came to fruition, though, and it was not long before the dwellings became the subject of a heated real estate battle.
In the 1970s, Jeanne L. Beatty, founder and president of the West 95th Street Development Corp., purchased the six homes from the city, along with five others on the street. She rehabbed five of the properties, but the remaining six, including Virginia’s, were left to essentially rot. Jeanne blamed a bad loan and construction complications. Neighbors blamed Jeanne’s greed – despite their dereliction, the residences had risen considerably in value and locals believed Beatty wanted to hold onto them for as long as possible to squeeze as much revenue out of them as she could. A lawsuit was eventually filed against Jeanne and the brownstones continued to sit untouched, dilapidating further, as the legal battle forged ahead. Finally, in 1992, the city repossessed the homes and sold them off. Virginia’s house was purchased by a man named Moshe Shrem, who began renovations. He converted the property back to a single-family residence and in 2001 it hit the market for a cool $2.7 million. The story doesn’t end there, though. Two years later, the dwelling, along with its neighbor to the west, was purchased by The Studio School, a private elementary/middle school. The two homes were combined into one large learning facility and The Studio School began holding classes on the premises in September 2007. Two years later, the school honored Virginia by affixing a plaque to the front of the building commemorating its famous former resident and the historic event that took place there more than a century prior.
A close-up view of the plaque is pictured below.
Sadly, the front door of Virginia’s home was removed during The New School renovations, so the property looks a bit different today than it did when the O’Hanlons lived there.
As you can see below, the entrance to The Studio School is through a pine wood door located at the property to the left of Virginia’s former home at 117 West 95th Street, while 115 West 95th has no entrance. You can see what the residence looked like before the doorway was removed in this 1967 photo.
Thankfully, the casing around Virginia’s former door is still intact, so it is possible to make out where it was situated, which is just below the 115 address marker.
Today, a window occupies that space.
A staircase leading to the basement level of the school was also added to the front of the property during the renovations. The rest of the original façade appears to have been left intact, though.
While researching Virginia’s former home, I came across this photo of it taken during Christmastime. The decorations are absolutely beautiful! Oh, how I wish I could have seen it all decked out for the holidays!
Big THANK YOU to my friend Owen, of the When Write Is Wrong blog, for telling me about this location!
Until next time, Happy Stalking!
Stalk It: Virginia O’Hanlon’s former house is located at 115 West 95th Street on New York’s Upper West Side.