Friday, November 11, 2011

The E. Hayward Ferry House -- No. 26 West 56th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Banker Henry Seligman was not interested in moving into the old brownstone he bought at No. 26 West 56th Street in 1907.  He had just completed a new mansion for himself two houses away at No. 30.  Instead, he had two thoughts in mind:  protection of his new neighborhood and profit.

The house was one of five built by New Jersey-based real estate developer George W. DaCunha between 1871 and 1872.  Before long DaCunha would establish himself as an architect, designing structures like the 1883 Queen Anne-style Gramercy apartment building.  But for this project he hired the firm of D. & J. Jardine.

At that time the blocks just off Fifth Avenue had recently become fashionable.  Central Park was nearing completion, St. Thomas Church had been finished a year earlier three blocks to the south and fine residences had begun lining the avenue.    David and John Jardine produced five staid brownstone houses stretching from No. 22 to No. 30 West 56th Street.   Their formal, restrained facades reflected the dignified and proper demeanor of the wealthy Victorian families who would live within them.

The house at No. 26 originally would have looked much like these, also on West 56th -- photo NYPL Collection
Before construction was completed DaCunha sold all five buildings to real estate speculator Jacob Tallman.  Three of the houses would be home to members of his family for years; however No. 26 was leased.    Then, in 1877, Tallman sold the entire row.  Henry E. Sprague purchased No. 26.

Sprague was a wholesale produce merchant.  He lived here with his wife Harriet for only three years before selling it to George S. Hart.  As was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the deed was put in the name of his wife, Anna Dudley Hart.  Hart had moved to New York from Connecticut in 1862 and established the firm of George C. Hart & Co., a wholesaler of dairy products located on Pearl Street.

By the time the Harts moved into No. 26 his business had offices in Wisconsin and Liverpool, England as well as a second branch in Manhattan.  Anna’s step-father, Henry L. Grant was a broker of streetcar stocks and through his connection George Hart became involved in the Central Crosstown Railroad Company, eventually becoming its president.   He would gain control of two other railroad companies and serve on the board of several banks.

Anna’s mother and step-father lived with them.  When she died in 1893, her mother and sister transferred title of the house to George.  A year later he married Frances Wheeler.

George and Frances had a country house in Willard, New York and stayed on at No. 26 West 56th until 1907.  They had begun extensive travel in 1905 and, rarely being in at home, chose to sell.

And that is when Henry Seligman came into the picture.

On July 22, 1907 real estate speculator Wesley Thorn purchased the house and a day later transferred it, subject to a $55,000 mortgage, to Seligman.    Henry Seligman went to work to protect his new mansion from unwanted neighbors and to improve the look of the block.

He commissioned architect Harry Allan Jacobs to modernize the structure.  For some time now the steep brownstone stoop over an English basement had been considered passé.    Brownstone was no longer in fashion and American basements, with the entrance door directly off the sidewalk, had been the trend for nearly a decade. 

The beautiful entrance was inspired by an 18th Century townhouse in Paris -- photo by Alice Lum
Not only did Jacobs bring the interiors up to date—adding new bathrooms and plumbing, stairs and floors—he extended the front and rear and replaced the brownstone façade with gleaming white limestone.   Construction was begun a month after the purchase and was completed 10 months later in June 1908.  No. 26 West 56th Street was now a house on par with the magnificent new mansions of the neighborhood.

The block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would become known as “Bankers’ Row” as it filled with financiers and brokers.     Banker E. Hayward Ferry would add to the reputation when he purchased the house in November.   Seligman included in the contract a clause that the house would “be used and occupied as a private residence [by] one family only.”

Jacobs added a copper-sheathed mansard roof and fourth-floor balcony -- photo by Alice Lum
The Harvard-educated Ebenezer Hayward Ferry was a major force in the financial community.   He held directorships in the Phelps Dodge Corporation, the Curtiss Securities Company, Home Life Insurance Company of New York, the Northern Pacific Railway Company, Old Dominion, Company, and the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company.  The Ferrys summered at their Newport estate, “Edgehill.”

Mrs. Ferry, the former Amelia Parsons, was a graduate of Smith College.  Their only child, Harriet, had not yet married when they family moved in.

E. Hayward and Amelia Ferry lived here for nearly 30 years, despite the fact that by the 1930s most of the mansions of West 56th Street had been converted for commercial purposes or turned into boarding houses.  The pair shared the house with their three servants, Alice Smith, Louise Condliff and Elizabeth McTieh. 

Down the block the elderly Henry and Adelaide Seligan were still living in No. 30, catered to by their live-in staff of eleven.  When the pair died in 1933, only months apart, the clause in the purchase contract for No. 26 was void and E. Hayward Ferry was finally free to lease the house. 

On September 5, 1935 The New York Times casually mentioned that the "five-story American basement residence at 26 West Fifty-sixth Street…was leased by E. Haywood [sic] Ferry to Albert and Charles Boni, Inc., publishers.”   The house, said the article, “will be altered extensively for use by the lessees as their offices.”

The publisher remained in the building until September 1945 when Major L. G. Lederer, an importer and manufacturer of handbags and accessories, purchased the house from the Ferry estate.  The firm, Lederer de Paris, shared the building with the Rumanian Legation which took over the entire mansion in June of 1947.

Then things took a shadier turn.

In July of 1950 a “long-term lease” was negotiated for the house with the Gold Key Club, Inc.   Key clubs were popular at the time as after-hours restaurants or nightclubs used by members only.   The members would supply the club with their own bottles of liquor which were stored on premises.  When the members arrived, they were served from their own supply of alcohol, no money was exchanged, and everything was perfectly legal.  Supposedly.

In their 2005 book “Id Do It Again! A Memoir,” former Copa girls Harriet Wright and Brie Austin described the Gold Key Club.    “…there were after hour places all over the area, the most famous being the exclusive Gold Key Club on West 56th Street…owned by Vinny Bruno.  Anyone who wanted to continue drinking or had a special girlfriend to impress took their dates there—if they could get in.  It was members only.  This was literally one of those places where you rang the bell and waited to be ‘recognized’ before the buzzer let you in—another remnant of the old speakeasy tradition.”

In February 1956, District Attorney Frank S. Hogan did not give the club so rosy a description.   Calling it a “speakeasy with Chinese-type cuisine, very pretty girls and soft music,” he told reporters it was not a legitimate membership club but “actually an unlicensed after-hours bottle club where liquor was stored and sold in violation of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law.”

Hogan went on to say he suspected the club of being an “underworld enterprise” connected with Anthony Strollo, a “top underworld figure.”

The club, in 1956, had about 3,500 members and was patronized by well-known writers, film stars and prominent businessmen.  Truman Capote was said to have been a regular patron.   In a raid in February of that year 60 tuxedo-wearing members were handed subpoenas to appear before a grand jury investigating the club.

A year later the club was raided again.   President of the club John R. Durante, who lived in the house above the club, and Vincent Mauro, described by The Times as an “ex-convict,” were fined $200 each and given a 60-day suspended sentence.

Through it all the outward appearance of the distinguished house at No. 26 West 56th Street remained unaltered.  In 1957 it regained its dignity when 28-year old fashion designer Arnold Saasi purchased the town house for more than $200,000.  He established his showroom as well as his home here.

Scaasi hired designer Valerian Rybar to decorate the house with “velvet-pillowed divans, velvet draperies and even velvet-covered banisters in terra cotta tones,” according to The Times.   The confused fashion designer proudly announced to all that the house had been designed by Stanford White at the turn of the century and that his dining room was “the room where Stanford White pushed Mrs. Harry K. Thaw in the famous red velvet swing.”

It did make for a good story, even if it was exceedingly off-base.

The house was sold in 1964 to the Martin Foundation, established to aid educational and social services.  The building housed the foundation’s headquarters and the offices of the Eleanor Roosevelt Cancer Fund, the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation, the Dessoff Choirs and Hollywood actor-producer Sidney Glazier’s offices.

For the next two decades various other foundations and offices would come and go, including the Film Institute of America, the Federal Bar Association of New York and New Jersey and the Vassar College Capital Campaign.

photo by Alice Lum
Since 1988 the Spanish Broadcasting System has run its operations from here.  It is the largest publicly traded Hispanic-controlled media and entertainment company in the country.

The distinctive limestone mansion was designated a New York City landmark in 2009.


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