Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The 1907 Rives-Gerry Mansion -- No. 69 East 79th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In May of 1906 the respected Dr. J. Lee Morrill was living in the 4-story brownstone residence at No. 67 East 79th Street. Morrill’s house had been constructed, along with the other similar homes along the block, around 1877 when the neighborhood was filling with upper-middle class families. As the 19th century drew to a close, however, Manhattan’s millionaires crept further and further north, abandoning their 5th Avenue mansions below 59th Street to escape the encroaching commercial district.

Dr. Morrill and his neighbors on either side would not be living here for long.

That month George L. Rives purchase all three homes—nos. 65, 67 and 69—with the intention of erecting in their place a single, grand home. Rives was well-known in New York and across the nation. A lawyer, he had risen to Assistant Secretary of State under Grover Cleveland and served as Corporation Counsel to the City of New York. He was President of the Board of the New York Public Library, President of the Board of Governors of New York Hospital, a Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, a trustee of Columbia University and held many other offices.

Two years after the death of his wife in 1887, George Lockhart Rives had married Sara Whiting-Belmont. Sara, known as Sally, had been married to the fabulously wealthy and socially-important Oliver H. P. Belmont. The New York Times would later recount “The match was not a happy one.” Shortly after Sally gave birth to a daughter, she divorced Belmont and married Rives.

The esteemed architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings produced a French Baroque mansion seemingly plucked from the Place Vendome. Although toned down in terms of ornamentation, the overall feel of the 17th century architecture was evident. Ground was broken in 1907 and the imposing home was completed a year later.

The family entered through the doorway at No. 69.  The help used No. 67. -- photo by Alice Lum

The first floor was directly at sidewalk level with three arched openings; two doors flanking a central window. To preclude any unnecessary mixing with the help, the entrance to the right, marked No. 69, was the family entrance that led to a vestibule into the main house. The matching door at No. 67 on the opposite side accessed the servants area below ground.

The second and third floors featured four shallow pilasters. Here the tall floor-to-ceiling second floor windows were capped by enclosed pediments. The windows poured sunlight into the library which extended the width of the house. Above the fourth floor a mansard roof finished the Parisian effect.

photo by Alice Lum
The year that construction began the Rives announced the engagement of Sally’s daughter, Natica, to Williams P. Burden. Not only was it a match of two excessively wealthy families, it was one of the most socially-important pairings of the year. Overriding the socially-uncomfortable issue of her parents having divorced was Natica's pedigree.  Not only was she the granddaughter of Caroline Slidell Perry Belmont who was nearly revered by New York society; but her godmother was Caroline Astor.

The Times praised Natica as “a very beautiful girl. She is clever and vivacious, and has been a great belle. In fact, few young women in New York society have been more admired.”

The Rives had summer homes in Newport and Tuxedo; although as Natica had matured they spent less time in Rhode Island. “Miss Rives,” said The Times, “since the year of her debut, although classed with the Newport set, has seldom passed a Summer at that resort, as Mrs. Rives did not approve of the social atmosphere of the city by the sea for young girls.”

As the Grace Church wedding approached, Sally Rives arranged rooms at the Hotel Netherland for Natica along with a trained nurse, to combat pre-nuptial nerves. “It was deemed best by Mrs. Rives that her daughter should be away from the confusion incident to the wedding preparations, which Mrs. Rives attended to in detail,” reported The Times.

The house was the scene of glittering dances and dinners for eight years, then in May of 1916 George Rives became ill. A month later Drs. Charles H. Easton and Austin Flint were summoned from the city to Swanhurst, the Newport mansion on Bellevue Avenue, while the family gathered.

Rives survived the scare; but his health scarcely improved. A year later, on April 11, 1917, he was too ill to walk his daughter Mildred down the aisle in the Whiting Chapel of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  (Rives and Sally had built the chapel as a memorial to her parents.)  A subdued breakfast for the bridal party and families followed the wedding at the Rives mansion.

Three weeks later, on May 1, her Mildred’s brother F. Bayard Rives was married in the same chapel to Helen Leigh Hunt.  Three months later, on August 18, their father died at the Newport home. The New York Times was compelled to write an editorial, saying “The death of a citizen so active for many years in many fields of public endeavor as George Lockhart Rives compels a note of comment.”

Shortly afterwards in memory of her husband, Sara Whiting Rives donated a set of granite steps designed by the late Stanford White to the campus of Columbia University leading to the South Field.

Real estate broker and early conservationist Robert Livingston Gerry leased the Rives mansion around 1919. The family, including four sons, moved in with their dozen servants.  Finally in 1926 they purchased the home.

In addition to his real estate business, Gerry was a director of several banks and two railroad firms. A descendant of Eldridge Gerry who signed the Declaration of Independence and served as Vice-President under James Madison, he established a private game reserve dedicated to the study of wildlife preservation.

The house remained as it had been when the Rives built it; although the sports-loving Gerry did add a squash court. Throughout the Great Depression, World War II and radical social changes the house at No. 69 East 79th Street remained unchanged--an anachronism on a block where mansions had become white elephants and were either razed or converted to apartments.

On October 31, 1957 within just a few hours of his brother's death, the former Senator Peter Goelet Gerry; Robert Livingston Gerry died at his country home.

Two months later, after having lived in the house for 31 years Cornelia H. Gerry sold the mansion to the Government of Greece for $300,000, to be converted to its United States consulate.

Greek architect Pierre Zannettos was given the responsibility of redesigning the structure and adding three floors. Unlike many mid-20th century additions which entailed simply plopping a modern cube atop the existing structure, Zannettos melded his seamlessly. Window details, a balustrade, and building materials were copied with such precision that the casual passerby has no clue that the building has been altered.  Deep rustication of the formerly-smooth street level provided a handsome base.  Inside, renovations for the most part treated the original architecture with careful sympathy.

1962 alterations included the incised rustication of the first floor -- photo by Alice Lum
The renovations were completed four years later, in 1962. The result is a superb example of sensitive recycling of an historic building. The house that the AIA Guide to New York City called “An import from the Place Vendome,” is, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, “a reminder of an important period in New York City’s history and a way of life that has largely disappeared.”

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