Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hidden House at No. 152 East 38th Street

A high wall with arched openings hides the remarkable house -- photo cityrealty.com

Perhaps it was because he sought privacy, or maybe he longed for the breathing space provided by lawns and gardens in less metropolitan settings; but when Patrick McCafferty set out to build his home at 152 East 38th Street, he placed it far back from the street.
The contractor McCafferty purchased the plot in 1855 along with the adjoining one that fronted the north side of 37th Street, giving him the full breadth of the block.  Although by then the Greek Revival style was the favorite for townhouses; No. 152 East 38th would be designed in the obsolete but elegant Federal style.

The house was completed in 1857, 60 feet back from the sidewalk.  A well-designed doorway framed by slender pilasters featured sidelights and a stylish overlight.  Stone lintels and sills accented the red brick of an understated, charming home.
After the Civil War, McCafferty moved on.  The house was home in quick succession to a real estate agent and a purveyor of carpets until James Murtaugh, a dumbwaiter manufacturer, bought the house in 1880.

Again the house was sold, in 1888, to the widowed Mary L. Van Buren.  In the meantime the Murray Hill neighborhood had gone from being a sleepy, sparsely-developed area to a neighborhood filled with mansions and upper-middle class row houses.   Madison Avenue from 36th to 37th Street was lined with grand brownstone residences, two of which would become the homes of J.P. Morgan and his son.

By 1911 Mary Lyman Sturgis was living at No. 152, the daughter of the late Robert Sturgis.  The next year she would marry Dr. Armitage Whitman and the pair moved to Lexington Avenue.  The new Mrs. Whitman did not give up the property, however, and prior to her Reno divorce in 1933 she was back in the house.

A year later Mary Sturgis (she took back her maiden name) leased No. 152 to Russell Pettengill, who took a lease on the adjoining property at No. 150 as well.  An engineer and avid collector of antiques, Pettengill commissioned architect Robertson Ward to convert both buildings into his residence and office.

Ward divided the front garden with a red brick wall with arched entrance gates on either end.  This successfully segregated the house from the office and, sadly for passersby, greatly diminished the view of the house.   The brick of No. 152 was painted and a bronze canopy supported by iron trellises was added over the entrance way.

In front of the dividing garden wall, a covered walkway protected visitors to Mr. Pettengill’s office, supported by lovely slim, paired cast iron columns.

After all his trouble in remaking the properties, Pettengill left after only a short time and Harper & Row president, Cass Canfield moved in.

In 2000 the owner of commercial printing firm Quad/Graphics, Harry V. Quadracci, purchased No. 152, which by now had been separated, again, from No. 150.  Working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (the house was landmarked in 1967), Quadracci removed the paint from the brick and undid some of Ward’s 1930s renovations – including replacing the entrance door and the neo-Regency fireplaces and other details.  Although Quadracci wanted to restore the home to its mid-19th Century appearance, the Commission stood firm on preserving some of Ward’s work as an integral part of the building’s history.

Easy to miss, the remarkable house with the huge front yard sits tranquilly behind its protective wall.  It is, as the AIA Guide to New York City called it, “a happy urban design gift.”

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