Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The 1904 Duncan-Mackay Mansion -- No. 3 East 75th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Grocer John Duncan stumbled onto a good thing in 1839 when he ordered a small shipment of a new British condiment, Lea & Perrins Worchestershire Sauce. At the time it was the only commercially-bottled condiment available in the United States and New Yorkers could not get enough of it.

As sole U.S. distributor, Duncan was soon importing larger and larger shipments and within a decade the bottled sauce was being sold as far away as the California gold fields. His New York store, at No. 1 Union Square, became a destination of the carriage trade as he stocked it with this and other hard-to-find imports.   In 1876 the The New York Times said, “Everything is of the best grade, pure in quality, fresh and palatable. Nothing which can by any stretch of terms come under the designation of groceries is wanting in the stock of this well-known store.”

By the time he died in 1901, his keen sense of marketing along with the spicy brown condiment had made Duncan a wealthy man.

John Duncan’s son, Stuart, inherited the fortune. In January of that same year The Evening Post recorded the sale of “two lots 50x102.2; sold by the estate of John R. Ford to Stuart Duncan, who will build a house for his own occupancy.”

Duncan commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design his new home just 115 feet east of Fifth Avenue on 75th Street. The architect produced a dignified, limestone-clad mansion 50-feet wide that rose six stories, completed in 1904. The sidewalk-level entrance was centered in a rusticated base behind a tall and graceful wrought-iron fence. A carved stone Juliette balcony graced the window directly above the doorway while another balcony stretched across the entire fifth floor above a bracketed cornice.

To soundproof the interior, some walls were two feet thick. The ballroom stretched 50 feet wide with a ceiling height of 20 feet, rooms were paneled in exotic woods and on the upper floor was a squash court with a spectators’ gallery. A bronze-railed marble staircase split to either side as it spilled from the second floor to the reception hall.

The marble staircase formed a mezzanine just above the reception area -- photo The New York Times June 15, 1941
Although his new home technically sat on the second plot from Fifth Avenue, Stuart Duncan was positive that whoever built next door would take the smart Fifth Avenue address.  He therefore took the street number One East 75th Street.  He enjoyed the address for five years until Edward S. Harkness built his elegant Italian Renaissance mansion next door. Never one to flaunt, Harkness demanded, and got, his rightful address. Duncan begrudgingly changed his stationery and cards to No. 3 East 75th Street.

A surprised and disappointed Stuart Duncan was compelled to change his address to No. 3 -- photo by Alice Lum
 The Duncans were socially prominent. Among those in their drawing room on December 6, 1911 listening with rapt attention to Thomas H. Mawson speak of English and Italian gardens were Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Mrs. Henry Phipps, and Mrs. Arthur Dodge.

Two years later on December 12 one hundred married couples came to dinner and afterward “two hundred unmarried people” arrived for dancing. The mansion was filled with palms and pink roses and, according to The Times, “the house was gay with Christmas greens and American Beauty roses.”

On April 9, 1920 the announcement was made that Duncan was in negotiations to sell the house for $750,000. Two weeks later the deal was completed. No. 3 East 75th had been purchased by the fabulously wealthy Clarence Hungerford Mackay.

photo by Alice Lum
 Mackay’s father, John W. Mackay had discovered the “big bonanza” of the Comstock Lode with three fellow Irishmen in 1876. The silver mine yielded $300 million within six years.

Clarence Mackay was Chairman of the Board of the Postal Telegraph and Cable Corporation and President of the Mackay Radio and Telegraph Company. Six years earlier his wife, the strikingly beautiful Katherine Mackay, had slipped off to Paris where she obtained a “mutual divorce” and quickly married New York surgeon Dr. Joseph Blake.

The devout Roman Catholic Mr. Mackay was given custody of the three children, Ellin, Katherine and John, who would share the grand home – including the squash court with its viewing gallery. He made “extensive changes” to the house, according to The New York Times.

Four years later, in 1924, Mackay hosted a dinner dance in honor of the visiting Prince of Wales.  But that same year storm clouds developed in the Mackay household when Ellin, the elder daughter, met and began seeing the composer Irving Berlin.

Mackay was opposed to his daughter’s relationship with the Jewish Berlin and discouraged it to the point of sending her on a voyage to Europe. Nevertheless, on January 4, 1926 with apparently no prior planning the couple was married in a rushed ceremony at City Hall.

The irate Charles Mackay refused to see or speak to his daughter for five years.

In the meantime the house was the scene of meetings of patrons of the symphony orchestras, a gala dinner and reception for Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh who triumphantly returned to New York in 1927 from his trans-Atlantic flight, and even a conference by the Rev. Father Cornelius Clifford on “Evolution and Revealed Religion.”

On July 18, 1931 Mackay, long a patron of the fine arts, married soprano Anna Case, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera. The lavish wedding took place in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Roslyn, Long Island. Seated among the family were Irving and Ellin Berlin.

The millionaire underwent an appendectomy in the winter of 1937 and, although he recovered, his health declined. He was hospitalized twice the following Spring and finally, at 11:00 on the night of November 12, 1938, the 64-year old Mackay died in his bed at No. 3 East 75th Street.

Mackay’s death marked the end of the mansion’s use as a private home.

In a move reminiscent of a scene from “Dr. Zhivago,” plans were announced by the Hendon Construction Corporation in April 1941 that the grand home was “being altered for occupancy by twenty-three families.” Real estate agents Brown, Wheelock, Harris, Stevens, Inc. promised that “much of the charm of a private home will be retained in the remodeling process.”

The nearly two dozen apartments ranged from one to three rooms, some with terraces. The developers pledged that the paneling, high ceilings and “most of the fireplaces” would be preserved. “The marble stairway will be kept as part of the entrance hall for the apartments,” said The New York Times.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the 22 apartments are now condominiums and the interiors are certainly not what Stuart Duncan or Clarence Mackay would recognize. Gone are the ballroom, the paneled dining room and, yes, the squash court. Yet the exterior of No. 3 East 75th Street remains unaltered, a gracious reminder of the unspendable wealth of New York’s multimillionaires in the early 20th Century.

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