Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Proper Demeanor and Painted Shawls -- No. 603 Fifth Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
In 1884 Mrs. Mary Russell Gardner published a remarkable history textbook entitled “English History in Rhyme.” The Magazine of American History was quite impressed. “We predict for this clever little volume a warm welcome in the class-room,” it said. “To memorize the barren dates and events of history is commonly wearisome and distasteful to the pupil, but with a help of this character the irksome task becomes an agreeable pastime, and the lesson is quickly and effectually learned never to be forgotten.”

Among the rhymes that Victorian students were sure to find agreeable were

“From conquered Gaul, victorious Caesar crossed the belt of sea
To meet on Britain’s fabled shore the swarming enemy”


“In sixty-one Prince Albert died, but still Victoria reigns.
And holds a wise, impartial sway o’er all her vast domains.”

The year that Mrs. Gardner’s book hit the shelves, millionaires had already begun migrating northward along Central Park to escape commercial encroachment. The mansions they left were either being razed or converted to other purposes. And so it was with No. 603 Fifth Avenue.

The remodeled house as it appeared in December 1901, the New-York Tribune, copyright expired

W. K. Aston's handsome brownstone house was leased to the Gardner’s School for Young Ladies.  It was run by Mrs. Garner as principal, and her husband the Rev. Dr. Charles H. Gardner. The Gardner school had been in existence for nearly two decades and the Fifth Avenue location was advantageous to its prestige.

Southern novelist Mary Craig K. Sinclair was a graduate of the Gardner School for Young Ladies and remembered it offered “opportunities to meet the millionaires of the world’s richest city.” In “Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography,” author Peggy Whitman Prenshaw wrote that here Sinclair was “confirmed as possessing attributes of both the belle and the ‘bluestocking.’”

Mrs. Gardner, Sinclair said, instilled proper demeanor into the young ladies. “I deferred to my elders, and while I spoke frankly, I never said anything to wound anyone’s feelings. Southern young ladies had these characteristics, and for that reason [Mrs. Gardner] always made it a point to have several in her school.”

On August 9, 1898 W. K. Aston sold his four-story mansion for around $110,000 to Collins & Collins. The Gardners moved their school up the block to No. 607 Fifth Avenue.

If the firm intended to renovate the old brownstone, the plans were never fulfilled and in March, 1901 it was sold to Jeremiah C. Lyons who, surprisingly, updated it as a modern private residence. Lyons removed the stoop and lowered the entrance to the sidewalk level, creating the more popular “American basement type” home.  The brownstone cladding was replaced with a chic French limestone façade and a fifth story mansard was added.

As the house neared completion in December 1901, an advertisement in the New-York Tribune boasted "It contains 12 commodious rooms, 5 bathrooms besides dressing rooms, foyer hall, reception hall, and the various service rooms."  The 22.5-foot wide mansion included an elevator and, of course, "servants' back stairs" and a servant's dining room.  The tempting ad said "The very best construction and handsome and elaborate interior finish after special designs will distinguish the house."

An updated, chic French limestone facade replaced the original brownstone -- photo by Alice Lum
Mary H. Clemens purchased the house from Lyons a year later, spending $200,000 for the renovated residence. Then, after living here eleven years, Mrs. Clemens, too, gave up life in Midtown. In 1913 she converted the residence “for trade” and a year later leased it to Edward Margolies for twenty years. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Margolies will pay an average of nearly $17,000 a year.” The newspaper also calculated that Mary Clemens would “in twenty-one years obtain $150,000 more than she originally paid for the place, and yet retain title to the plot.”

“Additional alterations, it is understood, will be made to the Clemens dwelling,” said The Times.

The ground floor space in the exclusive Fifth Avenue shopping district became home to Duncan Fraser, “distinctive interiors and decoration.”

By 1924 “Miss Malone” had her art studio upstairs.  That year she presented an exhibition of innovative stained glass windows by artists Mary Wesselhoeft and sisters Genevieve and Edith Cowles. Rather than using lead, the women embedded the glass into cement. “Owing to its weatherproof qualities cemented glass is especially adapted for use in concrete and stucco houses done in Italian, Spanish, Saracenic and other kindred lines, as well as in churches and synagogues,” the public was informed.

Miss Malone's were on the upper floors in 1924 -- photo by Alice Lum
On the second floor was the studio of Madame Desti (Mrs. Howard Perch), who purveyed costly hand-painted shawls, perfumes and dresses. Mme. Desti and her husband had living quarters here as well. She employed Russian artists, including the well-known Roman Shatoff, to produce the distinctive shawls on site in the studio.

Mme. Desti’s shawls were internationally admired and one in particular would become a footnote in dance history. The famous dancer Isadora Duncan was a good friend of Mme. Desti. When Mme. Desti visited the dancer at her home in Nice, France, she presented her with a shawl as a gift.

Isadora Duncan waved to Mme. Desti as she drove off in a racing car driven by a young friend. In an infamous and improbable accident, the hand-painted shawl caught in one of the wheels and strangled the renowned Duncan to death.

On March 5, 1925, the intrepid Mme. Desti noticed a suspicious man lurking in the hallway of No. 603 Fifth Avenue. When she inquired as to his business he started down the stairs, at which point she noticed he was carrying about six of her shawls partially wrapped in paper.

In an attempt to prevent his escape, Mme. Desti grabbed him and, in the struggle, they both tumbled down the stairs while the proprietress screamed for help. The thief dashed into the crowded street with the irate woman close behind. Scores of pedestrians joined in the pursuit and several men jumped off a Fifth Avenue bus to join in the chase.

The crook jumped into a cab on Madison Avenue and escaped.

That same year clothing store Weatherbee & Co. was doing business here. Hicks A. Weatherbee was grandson of James M. Constable and had been president of the family concern, Arnold, Constable & Co. At the time Margaret Kip Richardson was working as advertising manager in the store.

When Arnold, Constable & Co. was taken over by an outside interest, Weatherbee, Richardson and Joseph P. Ryan established the new clothing store. The working relationship was evidently a close one, for on September 20, 1925 Weatherbee and Richardson announced their engagement.

On April 12, 1931 the remarkable Mary Desti died in her bed at No. 603 Fifth Avenue of leukemia.  She was 59 years old. Aside from her highly successful business, she was the author of “The Untold Story of Isadora Dunan’s Life, 1921-1927” which The Times reviewer called “as frank and merciless as the autobiography itself.” She was the mother of playwright Preston Sturges. Her funeral service was held in the apartment at No. 603 Fifth Avenue.

Five years later, in 1936, Worth & Worth, Ltd., hatters and haberdashers, leased the entire building. By the middle of the 1950s it was home to Shoecraft shoe store, which remained here for over three decades.

Somewhere under the somewhat grimy limestone façade where another shoe store does business today lurks the remains of W. K. Aston’s brownstone mansion. The lower levels have been brutally altered with a modern storefront; but above, the handsome building where Madame Desti’s one-of-a-kind painted shawls were produced still survives.

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