Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The 1866 Wooden Houses at Nos. 312 and 314 East 53rd Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1866 the men of New York City had, for the most part, returned home from the war and the city was returning to normal. The block of land on East 53rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, formerly part of David Devore’s farm, was a seemingly haphazard collection of homes, factories and slaughterhouses.

New Yorkers were extremely familiar with the threat of fire. The city had been nearly destroyed twice, the latest being during the Great Fire of 1835; and a new law in 1866 prohibited the further construction of wooden buildings.

Robert and James Cunningham slipped in just under the wire.

Before the law was passed the two builders had completed two frame rowhouses at Nos. 312 and 314 East 53rd Street. The twin residences rose two stories with high mansard roofs. Deep, brick English basements raised the parlor floors well above street level.

Constructed as a unit, the clapboards continue across the fa├žade with no delineation of the two structures. The Cunninghams were inspired, in part, by the French Second Empire style popularized by the Paris Exhibition a decade earlier. The fashionable mansard roofs with their charming hooded dormers created two country versions of stylish city homes.

The charm of the two houses exudes even as foliage hides the mansard roofs with their hooded dormers -- photo by Alice Lum
Faced with the problem of symmetry versus sunlight caused by the entry door, the builders opted to place the parlor windows off-line with the dormer and second-floor windows.

The windows of the parlor floor were offset, forgoing the symmetry of the upper floors  -- photo by Alice Lum
The Cunninghams leased out both houses until the 1870s.

A milkman, Francis Lahey, purchased No. 314 and lived in it until 1884. Shortly afterwards Elle Crawford was living next door in No. 312. The little wooden houses led quiet existences for half a century.

In June 1909 both houses were traded as partial payment for a 6-story apartment building on 7th Avenue and 142nd Street. The new owner, continued to lease them.

No. 314 was originally the home of a  milkman -- photo by Alice Lum
The atmosphere of the two wooden houses changed as the 1920s came to an end. Lincoln Kirstein was living at No. 312. Kirstein, who would go on to found the New York City Ballet, was an author, playwright, art collector and impresario. His wide-flung talents caused The New York Times to call him “an expert in many fields.”

When Kirstein moved on, No. 312 became the home of Muriel Draper and her dancer son, John. Draper was renowned as a society hostess and lover of the arts who was friends with Gertrude Stein and was familiar with artists like Henry James and John Singer Sergeant. Kirstein, too, was a close friend of Draper and visited often.
The two houses in 1932, the year Edmund Wilson moved in -- photo NYPL Collection

On October 12, 1932 Edmund Wilson, the writer and critic, moved into No. 314 next door after the death of his wife Margaret.  According to his biographer, Lewis M. Dabney, “Hiding the depth of his grief, he moved his things across town to an old gray clapboard house between First and Second Avenues. 314 East Fifty-third Street was scheduled to be torn down and rented for fifty dollars a month. This musty-smelling place with ‘lumpy and rubbed yellow walls,’ amid the noise and grime of the slums—ironically, it would survive among the distinguished private homes on this street—was, until mid-decade, his base of operations”

Although Wilson sometimes referred to the somewhat radical Draper as “a parlor Bolshevik,” they maintained a friendly, visiting relationship.

Both residences were visited by the best-known names in literature and art of the day. On May 30, 1933 T. S. Eliot stayed overnight at Wilson’s house.

No. 314 where Edmund Wilson lived beginning in 1932 -- photo by Alice Lum
Yet this section of East 53rd Street so close to the East River was still considered a sketchy neighborhood. When one of Wilson’s many lovers said to him “Sometimes I think you’re the smartest man in the world!” he asked her how she knew he wasn’t.

“If you were, you wouldn’t be living on East 53rd Street,” she quipped.

In 1934 Wilson was threatened with eviction and, finally, in 1937 both Edmund Wilson and Muriel Draper left East 53rd Street. The two wooden houses were rented once again and Gladys L. Pratt moved into No. 314 in July.


In 1936, little had changed on East 53rd Street -- photo NYPL Collection
By the 1950s the houses were separately owned and in October 1952 Irving Fisher purchased No. 314 from Francis Robinson. Nine years later Cecilia Staples was living here. Staples was a store display designer and was highly sought after by department stores like Lord & Taylor and Chicago’s Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. to outfit their Christmas windows.

The designer lived in No. 314 with her Weimaraner, her pug, a macaw, a myna bird, eighteen fish and two tortoises. The combination of her designing inclinations and the pop-art culture of the 1960s prompted her to paint the house a color that The New York Times dubbed “shocking pink.”

The two houses were nominated for landmark status in 1968; however the owner of No. 314 bristled at the idea and only 312 was landmarked.

And that was almost the end of No. 314.  In 2000 real estate developer Harry Macklowe purchased the entire southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and 53rd Street to built a luxury apartment building. The plot included the little wooden house where Edmund Wilson had entertained T. S. Eliot one night seventy years earlier. According to The New York Observer, “The place almost became firewood.”

Landmarks Preservation Commission chairperson Jennifer Raab contacted Macklowe and implored him to save the historic structure.

The developer agreed and rather than demolish it, he put the house with its large garden and six fireplaces back on the market for $1.5 million. The Landmarks Preservation Commission bolted into action and deemed the house a landmark in June 2000. The house sold on August 8 to a female stockbroker.

No. 312 was put on the market in 2011 -- photo by Alice Lum
 In the meantime, cookbook author and restaurateur Zarela Martinez was living next door in No. 312. In 2011 that house was put on the market for just under $3 million.

Much of the detailing inside No. 312 remains; the staircase banister and newel, the decorative double doors and pine flooring -- photo Streeteasy.com
Dr. Yuman Fong, a surgeon, and Nicole Bergman Fong purchased No. 314 from Jeremy and Sarah Goldstein on May 7, 2010 for $3 million.

The two remarkable little houses have survived a century and a half in amazingly intact condition. Among the few remaining wooden houses in Manhattan, their charm is matched by the literary and artistic history that took place behind their doors.

2 comments:

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