Friday, December 2, 2011

The 1913 James Sheffield-Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper House - No. 45 E 67th Street

photo by Alice Lum
On the morning of Wednesday, November 12, 1902 the funeral of Thomas H. Lowerre, Jr. was held in the parlor of his fashionable townhouse at No. 45 East 67th Street. The impressive house was one of many similar brownstone homes built half a century before in the upper-middle class neighborhood.

That neighborhood was changing, however. As the turn of the century arrived, so did the wealthiest of New York society who were gradually inching up Fifth Avenue along Central Park, filling its side streets with chic, updated residences. On February 25, 1911 James R. Sheffield purchased the house from the Lowerre estate.

A prominent and wealthy attorney, Sheffield commissioned architect Walter B. Chambers to design a mansion to replace the Lowerre house – one that would reflect the family’s position and social status.

Five stories tall and completed in 1913, the 20-room mansion featured a white marble base with two deeply recessed arched openings. One sheltered the double-doored entrance, accessed by two extremely shallow marble steps; the other provided access to the American basement behind a handsome wrought iron fence.

Carved Beaux Arts details of oak leaves and ribbons embellished the first floor. Above, a three-sided oriel window rose through the second and third floors, creating a balcony to the fourth story. Above it two striking hooded dormers pierced the mansard roof.
photo by Alice Lum
Sheffield’s wife was the former Edith Tod, granddaughter of David Tod who was both the Governor of Ohio and United States Minister to Brazil. The couple was as active politically as they were socially; Mrs. Sheffield holding the posts of vice-president and governor of the Women’s National Republican Club, vice-president of the Union Settlement, and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames of America and the Daughters of the Cincinnati.

Upon Calvin Coolidge’s election in 1924, Sheffield was appointed Ambassador to Mexico, a post he would hold for three years. Later President Herbert Hoover named him Special Ambassador to Venezuela to present a statue of Henry Clay to that country.

When in town, the Sheffield house was the scene of dinner parties, dances and teas until James R. Sheffield died in 1938. Edith Tod Sheffield remained on at No. 45 East 67th Street for nearly two decades. She died in June 1956.

The year that James Sheffield was appointed Ambassador to Mexico, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and his wife, Gloria, celebrated the birth of their only child, Gloria Vanderbilt. The little girl’s life would be a tumultuous one. Her father died when she was 18 months old and a scandalous custody battle later ensued between her mother and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who felt Gloria’s mother was unfit.

After three failed marriages, Gloria met and married screenwriter and author Wyatt Cooper in 1964. The newlyweds purchased No. 45 East 65th and moved in along with Gloria’s two sons by her former husband, conductor Leopold Stowkowski. Within the next two years two more sons would be born – Carter and Anderson.

The styles of the 1960s were avante garde and splashy designer Gloria Vanderbilt was right in the middle of it all. In addition to her fashion designing, she threw herself headlong into interior design. American quilts became her signature theme.

The designer lined entire rooms of the mansion with quilts – even the ceilings were fair game. Later a grown-up Anderson Cooper would recall the floors of his bedroom being covered with quilts, which were then shellacked. The interiors were striking, if perhaps not quite in the taste of Edith Tod Sheffield.

The master bedroom in 1970.  The walls, ceiling and floor were quilted by Gloria -- photo by Horst P. Horst from "Horst: Interiors"
Wyatt E. Cooper died unexpectedly of a heart ailment on January 5, 1978.  Years later Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper would reminisce “Always, when I go by there I look at the wisteria vine in front of that house because Carter and Anderson and I were there when their father, Wyatt, planted that vine. It was a little tiny foot-high wisteria. Now it’s grown up over the whole building.”

The wisteria vine planted by Wyatt Cooper still twines up the facade -- photo by Alice Lum

The imposing house at No. 45 East 67th Street remains a private home, its outward appearance unaltered during the past century. And the wisteria vine still twines up the fa├žade.