Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Robert I. Jenks House - No. 54 East 64th Street

photo by Sothebyshomes.com
In the dawning years of the 20th century, Robert Irving Jenks was living in a respectable, four-story brownstone residence at 35 East 65th Street.  Just steps from Madison Avenue, it was in the developing fashionable neighborhood where New York’s wealthy, in their constant northward migration, were settling.

The brownstone homes of the Civil War period like Jenks’ became passe as millionaires like Andrew Carnegie and James Berwind erected refined Georgian and Federal revival mansions. Following the trend Jenks commissioned the respected firm of Flagg & Chambers to design a new house a block away at 54 East 64th Street.

Ernest Flagg produced a neo-Federal residence four stories tall over a shallow English basement. It replaced the traditional brownstone home previously owned by Josephine E. Nichols, similar to the those that still flanked it.  Red Flemish bond brick was set off with white marble and black ironwork, and a wide set of four shallow steps spilled to the sidewalk from the double entrance doors. Above the cornice a brick-and-stone balustrade finished the design.

The house in 1910; the year Robert Jenks took ownership of his Olson motorcar.  Brownstone dwellings still surround it. -- photo NYPL Collection
Although Flagg produced important structures in New York City, the Jenks house would be considered attractive but unexceptional. Nearly a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would speak of “four stories of delicate but unconvincing neo-Federal detail” while conceding it has a “good entry railing.”

While they were among the city’s moneyed set, the Jenks were not socially prominent. The financier, a graduate of Yale, joined an elite group of other bankers including Percy A. Rockfeller, H. O. Havemeyer and Charles Gates who schemed to start their own motorcar company in 1910.

Each member invested $10,000 (almost $38,000 in 2011 dollars) in the company which would manufacture cars for the investors’ own use. The Orson motorcars were produced from existing parts – springs used in the Mercedes and the steel frame of the Fiat.  Then, after the one hundred cars were manufactured – one for each investor – the company went out of business the following year.

Jenks drove his very expensive, very exclusive Olson for several years.

Around the time that Robert Jenks was touring Central Park in his Olson, the Ottoman Empire was persecuting Armenians.  The Armenians sought refuge around the world, including New York. In 1915 the Near East Foundation was established to help provide relief. As time passed the foundation would broaden its scope to “to better the economic and social lines of the rural populations of the Near East through self-help demonstrations.”

By the middle of the 1940s the Jenks house sat empty; a perfect spot for the growing Foundation’s headquarters. On September 12, 1947 renovations were completed. Rooms that once served as a library, dining room or sitting room were now offices. But the Foundation treated the architectural details with sympathetic respect.

After four decades, the Foundation moved out, selling the building, perhaps unexpectedly, to Arthur L. Carter, founder and publisher of The New York Observer. The newspaper would call No. 54 East 64th home until 2004 – cramming telephones and desks into the ever-crowded space. As the newspaper grew, the space did not; and finally the opulent residence was sold to real-estate developer Janna Bullock.

photo by sothebyshomes.com
The new owner undid the half-century of office use, carefully renovating the space to be used as the Kips Bay Decorator Show House for a year. Then the 10,000 square foot home was sold to Derek Quinlan in 2006 for $18.75 million. Four years later Quinlan listed it for $36 million.

Detailing such as hand-carved rosewood paneling survived half a century of commercial use -- photo Sothebyshomes.com
Robert Jenks' dignified townhouse survives as an example of the Colonial Revival fad that swept the nation before World War I. Although the AIA Guide to New York City calls it “a minor Flagg,” it is a tasteful and essentially unchanged fixture on East 64th Street.

In 2011 it remains on the market for $27 million.

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