Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, however, was building a new house. Mrs. Vanderbilt had divorced William K. Vanderbilt three years earlier. A devout Roman Catholic, she had resisted divorce although the couple had not lived together for ten years. But by 1927 William K. had decided to remarry.
|William K. and Birdie enjoy Florida during happier marital times in 1907 -- photo vanderbiltcupraces.com|
She purchased three houses on East 93rd Street in 1930 – Nos. 60 to 64 – as the site for her new home. She was no doubt encouraged in the choice of that block by nearly simultaneous construction of mansions by her friends, William and Florence Loew, and George Baker, Jr. (Florence's brother). Like the Loew house which was started the same year, Vanderbilt’s mansion would be both dignified and restrained.
Pope produced a Louis XV-style limestone palais entered through a lofty arched doorway, placed to the side above a small flight of steps. A steep slate mansard roof was protected by a stone balustrade and high, narrow stone chimneys thrust upward on one side. There was a 20-foot by 57-foot private garden in which to escape on warm afternoons or evenings.
In order to keep Birdie and her guests separate from the staff, Pope designed the house as two separate sections: the main house rose three stories with 15-foot ceilings in some areas. The ceilings in the servants’ areas were significantly lower, allowing for seven stories within the same height. Doors between the two sections were padded and there were separate elevators and staircases so servants and gentry had no reason to meet unnecessarily.
|Having entered the street doors, guests were led through an impressive stone entrance foyer to the main doors above the stairs to the left -- photo by Elissa DeSani|
|Beneath the paint, the paneled walls of the staircase hall are solid mahagony -- photo by Elissa Desani|
When not in Paris or her country seat, "Fairmont,” in Manhasset, Long Island; Birdie Vanderbilt entertained from the East 93rd Street house; often combining her many philanthropies with her social obligations. On Christmas night 1932, for instance, she hosted a “small dance” in the ballroom to benefit the Lisa Day Nursery.
|The sole-existing original mantel is in the Marble Room which overlooks the 50' garden. -- photo by Elissa Desani|
In 1933 while driving home from his father's Florida estate Birdie’s 26-year old son, William Kissam Vanderbilt III, was killed in an accident on a South Carolina highway. The socialite was thrust into profound grief from which she never totally recovered. Two years later she died in her home from pneumonia, leaving an estate of nearly $7 million.
Bryan C. Foy and his wife, Thelma, purchased No. 60. Like Birdie, Thelma was independently wealthy, the daughter of Walter Chrysler. Bryan became the Vice-President and, ultimately, a director of the Chrysler Corporation.
|Thelma Foy was known for her elegant style -- photo newyorksocietydaily.com|
|An enclosed back staircase with bronze banister tightly winds down the span of the three stories -- photo Elissa Desani|
Cynthia’s debut was two days before Christmas in 1949. Thelma had flowering quince and camellia trees brought in to decorate the ballroom and the “supper room” was adorned with greenery ropes and wreaths. A tall Christmas tree in the entrance hall gave guests a “holiday note to the party,” according to The Times.
Despite her admiration for French antiques, it was apparently during Thelma's residency that the 18th Century paneling that Virginia Vanderbilt had installed in one particular room was removed, as well as all but one of the original fireplace mantels.
Thelma Foy, whose obituary said was “noted for her elegance of wardrobe,” died in 1957 in her early 50s.
The mansion was purchased as the Romanian Mission to the United Nations. During this period there was most likely little lost interior detailing.
Neighbors remember when Nikita Kruschev stayed over. As the Soviet Premier's motorcade approached the house, a recording of the American national anthem was played from a nearby balcony as residents of the block lined the sidewalk.
Premier Kruschev paused on the steps of No. 60, turned to the crowd as if directing the music with his fingers, then turned again to enter.
After two decades in the house, the Mission sold it to the Lycee Francaise de New York in 1978 for $680,000, making it one of five grand homes in the school's possession. By August 2000, when the school decided to move to a new facility on York Avenue it owned six such residences.
London-based antiques dealer Carlton Hobbs bought the Vanderbilt home for $10.6 million in 2002. The prestigious dealer had founded his business in 1973, dealing in rare and historic furniture and other objects whose buyers are either museums or extremely discerning and wealthy collectors. Hobbs initiated a two-year restoration of the property which, upon completion, would become his firm’s headquarters.
According to Stefanie Rinza, Managing Director of the firm, the loving restoration was painstaking. Each wall and window frame was scraped down to discern the original colors. Approximately half of the Bricard door fixtures had to be replicated, and cracked limestone blocks in the facade were replicated with stone from the original French quarries. Sixty workers toiled on the project.
"Nothing was lost," Rinza said, referring to suggestions that ceilings be dropped or walls altered to accommodate ductwork. "We found old flues ... there were nine chimneys ... and used those to run the ducts."
Unfortunately, years of use as a school had taken a serious toll. The floors on the lower levels, having endured years of unsympathetic use, had to be replaced with parquet replicas, hand treated on site by the Hobbs staff in a labor- and time-intensive project. Sadly, all of Virginia Fair's original lighting fixtures had been lost over the years
The thorough restoration was at times like an archeological dig. On the back of the carved paneling in the staircase hall were French inscriptions from the manufacturer. Evidence of French doors that once looked out onto the side entrance hall were discovered, as was an unfinished door behind a wall in a French-paneled upstairs bath.
The exterior of the Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt House is remarkably unchanged since its completion in 1931. And as the Carlton Hobbs headquarters, its interiors are lovingly preserved as the backdrop of museum-quality antiques.
Many thanks to Stefanie Rinza for taking the time to show me throughout the house and for sharing her extensive knowledge of it.