Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Catholic Charities and a Concentration Camp Survivor; The Francis B. Hoffman House -- No. 58 East 79th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As 19th century drew to a close the mansions of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens crept further and further northward up Fifth Avenue along Central Park.  Upscale residences spilled onto the side streets, replacing the more modest homes erected after the Civil War.

Emeline Laurent lived in a wood-frame, three story house at 58 East 79th Street in the 1880s.  Although she was financially comfortable, her home was not in line with the limestone or marble chateaux that would rise within the next decade.  On August 11, 1897 The New York Times announced that the house had been sold.  “The buyer will remove the present structure and erect a stable on the plot.”

The stable never materialized.  Even the most elegant carriage house, with the noises and smells that would accompany it, would be unacceptable so close to fashionable Fifth Avenue.   Instead, a five-story brick-and-stone Beaux Arts residence was built.  The deep porch of the centered entrance extended to the sidewalk above an American basement.

Tall French doors opened onto an elegant cast iron balcony, supported by paired carved brackets, that extended the 26-foot width of the second floor.   Another balcony, this one of carved stone, ornamented the fourth floor.  Limestone quoins and a mansard roof finished off the French flavor of the up-to-date mansion.

Elaborately carved paired brackets support a stone balcony.  The window air conditioning units are unfortunate additions -- photo by Alice Lum
Francis Burrall Hoffman purchased the house.  Hoffman, who came from one of New York’s old Knickerbocker families, was a wealthy produce exchange broker and the son of Colonel Wickham Hoffman.  Colonel Hoffman was a distinguished officer of the Civil War, First Secretary of Legation at the Court of Versailles and Minister Resident and Consul General to Denmark.

Hoffman’s wife, Lucy, was from a socially prominent family as well.    And although Francis Hoffman had been educated at the Calthorpe School in Connecticut and, later, in France and Germany, all four of the Hoffman boys attended Harvard by the time the family moved into the new house.

photo by Alice Lum
One of the Hoffman’s first entertainments was a dinner for Prince Alexander George, the youngest son of the Duke and Duchess of Teck.  A few years later, on January 24, 1903, Lucy Hoffman gave a dinner with the guest of honor being Lady Swansea.  In early 20th century New York society, entertaining a titled guest at one’s dinner table was a social coup.  

But while Mrs. Hoffman would be known for her sumptuous entertaining, she would also make her mark for her charitable works and her ardent involvement in Catholic causes.  

The Hoffmans were not members of the Newport set, preferring instead their summer estates in Southampton and Lenox, Massachusetts.   Their wealth was evident when in 1901 burglars broke into the 79th Street house, making off with over $30,000 worth of jewelry.  By today’s standards Lucy lost about $800,000 in jewels.

When not relaxing at their summer retreats, Francis Burrall Hoffman managed to get away by leasing a 7,000-acre game preserve in North Carolina.  The last of his annual outings there occurred in 1906 when he and his guest, Jonathan Godfrey, were arrested and fined $250.

The State of North Carolina had changed the hunting season that year.  Previously, quail hunting lasted until March 15 but now was shortened to March 1.   The attendants of the hunting lodge failed to update Hoffman of the change.

On March 3 the two men spent the entire day in the field, shooting quail and filling their game bags until they bulged.  The next day the men while in Greensboro they boasted of their luck.    Unfortunately for them, a deputy sheriff who happened to also be game warden overheard them.
The New York Times reported that “the irate sportsmen were taken before Magistrate Collins.  He imposed a fine of $5 for each bird shot.”  

Hoffman returned immediately to New York while his friend left for Florida.  Jonathan Godfrey was quoted by the New York Tribune saying he would just as soon be robbed “in the land of palms than here in the heart of moonshine and corn whiskey.”

The following year, while youngest son Albert was still at Harvard, a number of young New York society girls made plans to attend the school’s Hasty Pudding Club dance.  As The Times noted, “The dance of the Hasty Pudding Club is a fashionable affair and takes place every year at its clubhouse at Cambridge.  The club itself is one of the Harvard’s oldest and best-known organizations, and the annual event is looked forward to with much interest by the younger contingent in society.”

Young women did not embark on such an excursion alone, of course, so Lucy Hoffman joined Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt in chaperoning the weekend-long trip.  Mrs. Vanderbilt was generous enough to supply her private train car for the journey.

While the bulk of Manhattan society was Episcopalian, the Hoffmans were decidedly Roman Catholic.  On February 11, 1912 Francis Burrall Hoffman hosted a dinner party for Cardinal Farley in the house.  About thirty prominent men were invited “and their wives were asked in afterward to meet the Cardinal,” noted The Times.

The Cardinal was treated regally, with the papal arms displayed on the wall behind his chair, the table covered in red satin and the silver candelabra outfitted with red shades.  Before dinner, Hoffman’s sons William Wickham Hoffman and Francis Burrall Hoffman, Jr., escorted the Cardinal to the drawing room “where the guests were presented to him.”

In 1913 Lucy Hoffman began a nation-wide effort to erect a national shrine in Washington D.C.  On February 8 she held the first meeting in the 79th Street house.  “It is proposed to make the church the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in which a grotto will be placed, and to which pilgrimages may be made as to the famous grotto of Lourdes,” reported a newspaper.

Under Lucy Hoffman’s supervision, committees were formed across the country and by 1914 the designs for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception were being drawn up.

The Hoffman sons made names for themselves, as well.  Francis Burrall Hoffman, Jr., was an architect.  He would live to the age of 98, dying in 1980, having helped design the magnificent 1916 Villa Vizcaya for John Deering  in Florida and half a century later the wing to historic Gracie Mansion.   William became a captain in the military during World War I and served on the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense. 

Albert would earn the Legion of Honor from the French Government in World War I and become a well-known banker, .  In 1918 he married the Philadelphia debutante Leta Sullivan.  Tragically, she died within a year of their marriage.

Lucy continued her staunch support of various causes.   In the early days of women’s rights, she hosted a luncheon of “several hundred well known society women,” according to the New York Tribune, at the Plaza Hotel.   Taking place on October 20, 1921, it was organized under the auspices of the Woman’s National Foundation.  Earlier that same year she hosted at meeting in her home for 75 women of several national organizations “to consider a plan to provide national headquarters in Washington,” said The Times.    During the month of May three such meetings would be held in the house.

In April 1922, a month before Albert would marry again, Lucy made the newspapers again when she approached  Senator William M. Calder concerning the “tide of burglary and banditry” that was overtaking the city.  Police Commissioner Enright envisioned a National Crime Bureau in Washington DC and Mrs. Hoffman firmly “asked Senator Caldor…to interest himself” in the plan.

Francis Burrall Hoffman died in the summer home, Eden Glassie, at Southampton on September 20, 1924.  The house on East 79th Street was inherited by Lucy.  He bequeathed funds to numerous “asylums and Roman Catholic schools,” but to Albert he willed two of his most prized possessions: a silver dessert service given to Hoffman’s grandfather by German Emperor William I in 1870 and, a testament to his Catholic fervor, a piece of “the true cross.”  With the fragment, reported The Times, “is a certificate of its authenticity.” 

Only five months later, on February 9, 1925, Lucy Shattuck Hoffman died in the house on East 79th Street at the age of 69.   Albert and his wife, Miriam, moved into the house where they would remain for nearly two decades.  From here Miriam was active in a child shelter charity called “Save-a-Life Farm.”  She often hosted bridge parties for the benefits of the farm, located in Nyack, New York, often accompanied with sales of “useful articles.”

In the meantime, war broke out in Europe.  In 1944 a Hungarian woman, Olga Lengyl, along with her parents, husband and two sons, were packed into a cattle car and shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Only Olga would leave the camp alive.

Because she was a trained doctor’s assistant, she was put to work in the infirmary.  Secretly, at enormous personal risk, she worked with the French underground and helped to demolish a crematory oven.  After the liberation of the camp, she ended up in New York where she wrote about her ordeal in a book published in 1947:  “Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz.”  It was one of the earliest personal documentations of the death camps and would, years later, inspire William Styron’s novel “Sophie’s Choice.”

Although she was ill with pneumonia the first six months in America, alone and poor; a number of prominent academics and anti-German activists helped her get on her feet and organize the Just Peace Movement.  They also helped her to regain her family’s property and funds.

The young woman who had recently been living in a concentration camp was now living at 58 East 79th Street.  In 1963 she was finally able to buy the residence.  In memory of her lost husband and father, she renovated the house to established the Memorial Library and Art Collection of the Second World War.

After her death at 90 years old in 2001, the Directors of the library focused their attention to teacher education.  The Holocaust Educators Network was formed; a nationwide program with a goal of bringing the lessons of the Holocaust into the 21st century.

In 2004 architect Edward Arcari of Arcari & Iovino Architects, P.C., of Little Ferry, New Jersey, initiated a conversion of one floor of the mansion into a 21st century library and gallery.  The entire floor was gutted and a new, up-to-date space was created.

photo by Alice Lum
While preservationists may cringe at the thought of ripping out the turn-of-the-century architectural detailing; Arcari’s design managed to address the needs of the Library that the residence could not.  A remarkable wooden mosaic floor is perhaps the most compelling feature of the space.

With little exterior alteration, the Hoffman house survives intact--a century-old building that housed a staunchly Catholic society family and a Hungarian Jewish concentration camp survivor.

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