Monday, October 3, 2011

The 1905 James A. Burden Jr. House -- No. 7 East 91st Street

photo by Americasroof
In 1898 Andrew Carnegie surprised New York’s wealthy class when he chose to buy land at 91st Street for his new mansion, far north of Millionaire’s Row.   Carnegie had no intention that his proposed residence would be surrounded by neighbors of whom he did not approve; so he purchased several plots nearby that he could sell to whomever he chose.

Houses already stood on 91st Street, just off Fifth Avenue.  At No. 7 was the home of Martin and Margaret Mulvey.  It had been the scene of an unhappy incident when the couple engaged in an argument one evening and Mulvey beat his wife to death.

Happier times would come for the address.   Three years before Carnegie bought up the land, James Abercrombie Burden, Jr. had married Florence Adele Sloane in one of the most important social weddings of the year.   Florence was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and daughter of the fabulously wealthy William D. Sloane.  Burden’s family’s fortune was made in the iron works founded by his grandfather in Troy, New York.  At the time of the wedding, the young groom had an annual income of more than $1 million.

Because the couple was married in Lenox, Massachusetts, Sloane made careful (and expensive) arrangements to ensure that those on the exclusive guest list arrived pampered and happy.   The New York Times called the guests “representatives of the best society of the land.”  Sloane hired special trains to transport them – Vanderbilts, Mortons, Depews and Stokes among them.    Tea was served on the way up and “Mr. Sloane gave a dinner on the train this afternoon on the return trip,” as reported in The Times.

Fifty freight cars were hired to bring 180 carriages to Lenox to transport the guests in fashion from the train station to the church.  The Curtis Hotel, one of the largest in Lenox, was emptied out for three days for the exclusive use of the wedding guests.   The wedding was, as the newspaper said, “one of the most elaborate and costly affairs of the kind ever given in this country.”

The bride received mostly jewels as gifts, which totaled around $700,000 in value.  But the bride’s father outdid them all.  He gave the couple a new mansion.

Land was purchased from Carnegie including the two plots on East 91st Street where the Mulvey house and its next door neighbor stood.  Here the Burden mansion would rise.  Sloane commissioned architects Warren & Wetmore in 1901 to produce a grand residence that would reflect not only the wealth and status of its owners, but would have all the necessities for lavish entertaining.
Simultaneously the house next door at No. 9 was being built for Florence’s sister, Emily and her new husband John Henry Hammond – also another wedding gift from Sloane.  For the Hammond mansion, Sloane hired the esteemed firm of Carrere & Hastings.
photo by Alice Lum
 Construction on the Burden house began in 1902 and three years later the magnificent mansion was completed.   Decades later the Landmarks Preservation Commission would call it “the finest Beaux-Arts town house in the City.”

It was almost not to be, however.    On December 6, 1905 as the house was nearing completion, a workman paused to smoke his clay pipe in one of the rooms off the main hall.   He went back to work, leaving the still-lit pipe in the room.   When the foreman smelled smoke and opened the door to the room, he was hit by a rush of heat and flames.

One hundred workman rushed to the scene of the fire where carved wooden paneling was burning.  The men attempted to pry the paneling from the walls, but could not.  While firefighters were on the way, smoke blacked the Caen stone in the main hall and the Italian frescos on the domed ceiling above the staircase.  In the ballroom ceilings and walls were layered in soot.

photo by Alice Lum
The architects worked in harmony and the two houses shared a broad carriage drive.   The private entrances faced the drive rather than 91st Street.  Frederick Field, John Hammond’s cousin who was reared in a Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue later remarked that the houses “boasted an elegant feature which our house lacked:  a drive-in entrance so that you could walk into the house from your coach or automobile without exposure to the stares of the less privileged.”

Within the drive was a stone “lodge” for the concierge who was stationed there unless the family was at home; at which time he would be found pacing up and down the covered drive.
The Burden house in 1905.  Next door is the John Hammond House, another wedding gift from Wm. Sloane -- NYPL Collection
The ballroom floor (or as the Burdens would have called it the “piano mobile”), was placed at the third floor, a surprising innovation that required guests to ascend the sweeping staircase.   The three great arched concave windows on the 91st Street façade with the wonderful stone-and-iron balcony flooded with room with light.   On the same floor was the dining room and a reception room.    The ballroom was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles and the walls were paneled in violet-colored marble.  Guests entered through doors 12-feet high.

The dining room (which the Times remarked should be called a “banquet room”) was used “as a supper room when dances are given and as a dining room when many dinner guests are entertained.”

The Hauteville marble staircase which the guests climbed had “a tread so low and wide that one ascends without being conscious of any effort,” reported The New York Times.

On the second and third floors, a balcony hallway with marble pillars looked down upon the stairway.  The murals on the staircase ceiling which had been soot-covered in the fire were executed by French artist Hector d’Espouy of Paris and depicted allegories of the arts.

The family quarters were on the second floor.  Here was Florence Burden’s French boudoir, furnished in gilt furniture.  The wall panels included medallion paintings.  Adjoining it was her “sleeping apartment” decorated in pale gray and turquoise, with Directoire-period furnishings.   James Burden’s bedroom was next door with “fine old mahogany furniture and green hangings.”

The high, concave arched windows of the ballroom are a focal point of the facade - photo by Alice Lum
The Burdens’ white marble and tiled bathroom was up-to-date with a tub and separate shower and, as The Times reported, “all the sorts of devices such as are used in the Turkish bath, including the needle.”

James Burden’s den was the definition of masculinity, paneled in English oak with brown leather furniture and antique carved English tables, “so old they are black.”  A Renaissance period mantle of white stone was flanked by built-in bookcases.

As was necessary at the turn of the century, there was an exotic Eastern room filled with cabinets of Japanese and Chinese curios – miniatures, carved ivory, snuff bottles and jewelry.  Japanese tapestries hung on the walls and the furniture was carved of teakwood.

Florence Burden’s portrait by Robert MacCameron was seen for the first time in February 1910 when the socialite gave a musicale – one of her favorite forms of entertainment.  The house was regularly alive with dinners, dances and musicales, with soloists from the Metropolitan Opera Company often providing the vocals.

On June 18, 1910 the Burdens were off in the Adirondacks, leaving the house in the hands of their 17 servants.  Taking advantage of their absence, the family chauffeur took the large touring car for a spin.   Along with him were two women, Susan McGee and Frances Burke.  The trio was having a great time in the Burden car.  But they were all, unfortunately, drunk.

The chauffeur careened across 129th Street towards Lexington Avenue, swerving from side to side, until he drove directly into the side of a taxi cab.  The front axle of the Burden car was broken, the mudguards town away and the running board split.  The chauffeur ran away.

The joy ride had come to an abrupt end and the drunken young ladies were taken away to be booked on the charge of intoxication.

The Burdens accomplished a tremendous social coup when, in 1924, the Prince of Wales used Woodside, their Long Island country home in Syosset during his visit.  It would be in the same house, eight years later, that James A. Burden, Jr. would die of an embolism.

The widowed Florence Adele Burden left the house on East 91st Street.    On December 16, 1933 the engagement of John Jacob Astor to Eileen S. S. Gillespie was announced.   “In the prospect of his marriage to Miss Gillespie, Mr. Astor had taken a long lease on the spacious house of Mrs. James A. Burden, 7 East Ninety-first Street,” reported The Times.

The lease included all of the Burden furnishings and artwork.   The Astors lived in the Burden house for several years, then on April 21, 1938 the contents were sold at auction by Florence, who was now Mrs. Richard M. Tobin.  Among the items sold by Parke-Bernet Galleries were 18th Century Brussels tapestries, Adam-period furniture and artwork.  The $31,591 yield is equivalent to about $480,000 today.

Within months the Convent of the Sacred Heart purchased the mansion.  Five years earlier it had procured the immense Otto Kahn mansion next door at the corner of Fifth Avenue.     The private, all-girl school was among the most elite in Manhattan and the Burden House would be used for grades pre-kindergarten through 4.  Among the young ladies who would attend here were Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and just about all the Kennedy girls:  Caroline Kennedy, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Jean Kennedy Smith and Joan Bennet Kennedy.

In 1994 the Convent spent about $250,000 on masonry and ironwork repairs and façade cleaning.  Although the Landmark Commission called it “the finest Beaux Arts town house in the City,” the AIA Guide to New York City said “We’d rather dub it the finest Renaissance Palazzo, austere, monumental, and master of the street.”

However you decide to tag it, the AIA Guide got it right when they added “Those lucky students.”


  1. Great article. Thanks.

    But did you notice that one of the photos of the 2 houses (I would guess the older one) is reversed?

  2. actually, it isn't. what you're seeing in one of the photos is a chunk of the Otto Kahn mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue. Here's a better perspective of all three mansions with the Burden House in the middle:

  3. Thanks for the clarification and for the lovely additional photo.

  4. I am reading the diary of Florence Adele Stone. Entitled 'Maverick in Mauve'. With annotation by Louis Auchincloss. Vivid account of a life in 'the 400'.