Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Lyman Bloomingdale House -- 21 East 63rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
In the early decades of the 19th century, women’s straight-gowned Empire styles gave way to more voluminous skirts. Then around 1860 the hoop skirt took hold. To be truly in fashion, women needed the new-fangled contraption that supported yards of fabric spilling in a great circle from their waist to the floor.

Lyman G. Bloomingdale and his brother, Joseph, were quick to recognize the potential of the new fad. In 1861 they opened the Ladies Notion Shop on what was then the fashionable Lower East Side of New York. The brothers sold one item: the hoop skirt.

By 1870 the hoop skirt had passed from the forefront of fashion. In its place came elaborate dresses with bustles and flounces. There were suddenly different gowns for different occasions – tea gowns for entertaining at home, the “seaside dress,” day dresses with high necklines and evening gowns with plunging necklines and off-the-shoulder sleeves.

The brothers reacted, renaming the business The East Side Bazaar in 1872 and selling a variety of European apparel, including undergarments and corsets, gentlemen’s furnishings and ladies’ dresses.

In 1886, while the grand emporiums were clustering together along 6th Avenue’s “Ladies’ Mile,” the Bloomingdale brothers made a daring move. They relocated their store to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, far apart from the shopping district. It was a good move.

When Joseph B. Bloomingdale retired in 1896, he was a wealthy man. A year later Lyman enlarged the store to 60th Street to cover the entire block front.

As well as being a successful merchant, Bloomingdale dabbled in real estate, was a patron in perpetuity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Treasurer of the Temple Beth-El and several other institutions, and a Director of the Montefiore Home.

The entrance, as seen around 1910, was originally set to the side -- NYPL Collection
By 1903 the Bloomingdale family – Lyman, his wife Hattie, their grown sons Hiram, Samuel and Irving and a daughter Corinne – were living in a fashionable limestone mansion at 21 East 63rd Street. Four floors high over an English basement, its rusticated fa├žade was broken by carved balconies, Beaux Arts embellishments and a handsome projecting hood over the offset entrance door.

Lyman Bloomingdale died in 1905 and his will provided an odd twist. It allowed his three sons and their mother to continue running Bloomingdale’s Department Store for “not more than five years.” The sons successfully petitioned “to acquire the business if possible.”

The Bloomingdale brothers left 21 East 63rd Street one by one. In 1908 Hiram Collenberger Bloomingdale married Rosalind C. Schiffer and built his own 4-story mansion at 11 East 80th Street.

Cousin Louis and his bride Ilsa Asiel briefly lived in the mansion following their 1909 marriage; but finally on September 30, 1911 the family sold the house for $135,000.

The house became home to Hannah Collins Isham as World War II drew near.  The was the widow of William Burhans Isham, a wealthy leather merchant and philanthropist. Here on January 21, 1943 the stylish but shocking wedding of Edith Buckingham to Minturn Post Collins took place. The 72 year old groom was the brother of Mrs. Isham and collective eyebrows were raised across parlor teacups when his engagement to the blushing 23-year old was announced.

When Hanna Isham died on July 31, 1948, she bequeathed the mansion, valued at the time at $95,139, to Princeton University. The school quickly sold it to the self-reliant Mary Stevens Baird.

Mary was the elder daughter of Robert L. Stevens, who founded the Stevens Institute of Technology. On January 22, 1926 the wealthy debutante married Matthew Baird III, a Princeton graduate and club man. The marriage did not last. In December 1930 Mary obtained a divorce in Paris before sailing home to New York to fend for herself.

The house that Mary bought on East 63rd Street was converted into offices and a retail shop; private mansions were now mostly white elephants. A floor was sensitively added as a handsome mansard roof above the existing roof line. Schlumberger, Inc., a jewelry shop, took a lease on what had been the parlor floor. It was an unlucky move for Schlumberger. The store was held up twice before Mary Baird sold it to Mitchell P. Marcus and his wife in March, 1951.

The entrance door was deftly moved to the center, complete with a hood similar to the original -- photo by Alice Lum
Marcus and his wife kept the property until 1956. When they sold it that year for $111,000 to the Cadby-Birch Gallery of fine art was here.

Today the mansion houses a high-end jewelery store. Lyman Bloomingdale’s elegant French row house looks today much as it did in 1903. It is a lovely survivor, erected with the fortune that was started when women of the 1860s just had to have a hoop skirt.

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