Saturday, March 24, 2012

The 1899 Edmund C. Converse Mansion - No. 3 East 78th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1897 the gargantuan stone mansion of Henry H. Cook had already filled the corner of 78th Street and Fifth Avenue for nearly two decades, most of that time essentially alone.  By now, however, the city’s wealthiest citizens were on their way; building grand chateaux and palaces further and further northward.
Cook's mammoth mansion sat along on the undeveloped Cook Block for nearly two decades.  In 1912 it was razed for the white marble James Duke mansion.  -- American Architect and Building News (copyright expired)
Cook had no intentions of his neighborhood suffering the humiliation of commercial structures or apartment houses.  He bought the entire block of land from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, 78th Street to 79th; then waited for rich prospective buyers to come knocking.
The multimillionaire could afford to be patient.  He had made a fortune in railroads and banking and his mansion housed an internationally-known collection of art.  So when Edmund Cogswell Converse decided to purchase the lot next door, he had to play by Cook’s rules.
A codicil to all deeds of land on the “Cook block” forbade “forever” the erection of anything but a private-family house.  And those houses were to be built in what The New York Times would later call a “splendid style.”
Converse’s house would be splendid indeed.
The Boston-born banker was not only president of the Bankers Trust Company and a founder of United States Steel; he was president and director of the National Tube Co. and National Tube Works, Co.; trustee of the American Bank Note Co.; director of the Liberty National Bank and general manager and director of the McKeesport Connecting Railway Company.   His held memberships in the Union League, Lawyers’ Club, New York Athletic Club, Metropolitan Club, American Yacht Club, Seawanhaka-Corinthian Yacht Club, the Republic Club, the Ardsley Golf and Fairfield County Gulf Clubs, the Sons of the American Revolution and Society of Colonial Wars.
Edmund Converse commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design his new home.  Gilbert completed the designs of the massive Isaac D. Fletcher mansion—also on the Cook block, at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue--and the Converse house nearly simultaneously, both in the French Gothic style, in 1897 and 1898 respectively.
When construction was completed in 1900, Converse’s five-and-a-half story residence looked somewhat out of place on the mostly-undeveloped block.  It would not be alone for long.  Within the next few years the marble and limestone mansions would line the block, making it one of the most prestigious residential streets in the city.
When completed, the house sat conspicuously among undeveloped lots.  On 79th Street, in the background, upper-middle class brownstones still remain.
Like the Fletcher’s, Edmund Converse’s house was frosted in Gothic tracery, finials and lacy carvings.  Unlike its big brother, however, it boasted a herd of griffins.  They squatted menacingly on the roof, appeared below the fifth floor cornice and supported the Juliette balcony above the doorway.  Two griffin-like winged lions, one male and one female, perched on the two stone newels of the entrance steps like guard dogs.

Two stylized, winged lions guard the entranceway -- photo by Alice Lum
Inside, art treasures included Van Dyck’s portrait of Mlle. Cottigniers and a collection of Chinese, Persian, Japanese and Italian ceramics, mortuary glass and jade.

The Converse family was here only a few years before Henry Huttleston Rogers purchased the house.  Rogers had made a fortune in railroads, energy and banking; and in 1882 was made a director of the Standard Oil Company and elected vice president of the United Pipe Lines, a subordinate company.  The position put him in charge of all pipe lines from the oil wells to the storage tanks and refineries.
Rogers met Helen Keller just as her continued education was in question due to financial problems.  He paid for her college education, cementing a life-long friendship.  Samuel Clemens was another high profile friend and the two men relished their times together.
In July 1907 Rogers suffered a mild stroke and, while he did not retire, he immediately put all his personal business affairs in pristine order.
On Sunday May 2, 1909, Samuel Clemens sent a humorously-veiled request to stay at the 78th Street house that read:
Dear Mrs. Rogers:

I shall arrive at noon next Friday, and go at once down town on business, and back to No. 3 for dinner, provided there will be a bed for me and no extra charge.  I return home next day.  I’m due at the Jerome banquet Friday evening at 10.  If there’s no vacant bed, or if you are to be away Fairhavenward, will you please telephone me here when you receive this?

Yours ever
SL Clemens

Please don’t tell Mr. Rogers.  He would try to raise the limit. 

As it turned out, the Rogers were in Fairhaven, their country estate, the weekend of Friday May 7; so Mark Twain was unable to stay at No. 3 East 78th.  But the pair arranged another get-together later that month, beginning on May 19.

That meeting would not happen, either.

The 69-year old Rogers rose, as he always did, between 5 and 6 am on the 19th.  He woke his wife, telling her he had a severe headache and nausea—most likely “a passing indisposition.”  Before long his arms became numb and just before 7:00 his doctor was summoned.  By 7:20 Henry Huttleston Rogers was dead.

Upon receiving the news, Samuel Clemen’s daughter rushed to Grand Central Station to intercept her father.   She told him about his friend’s passing as gently as possible. 

The New York Times reported “Samuel L. Clemens, (Mark Twain) for years one of the warmest friends of Mr. Rogers, arrived in town from his home in Redding, Conn. at noon…intending to meet Mr. Rogers at the latter’s home, and heard the news of his death on arrival at the Grand Central Station.”

The article continued “As Mr. Clemens left the station he looked greatly grieved, and was leaning heavily upon the arm of his daughter…Tears filled his eyes and his hands were trembling.”

Clemens told reporters “This is terrible, terrible, and I cannot talk about it.  I am inexpressibly shocked and grieved.  I do not know just where I will go.”

Rogers left an estate of approximately $20 million.  His widow stayed on at No. 3 for another four years, involving herself in charity work, including the Messiah Home for Children which had been a favorite of her husband.

In 1912 Henry Cook’s grand mansion next door was razed and James B. Duke erected a white marble palace in its place.  The following year No. 3, called “one of the finest residences in the famous Cook block” by The New York Times, was sold for $400,000 to John D. Ryan—a close business associate of Henry Rogers through Ryan’s Anaconda Copper Mining Company and Standard Oil.

Ryan had started out as a simple lubricating oil salesman in Michigan earning approximately $200 a month.  When he moved to Butte, Montana he developed a close relationship with Marcus Daly, a financial mogul and head of Anaconda Copper Mining.   After marrying Nettie Gardner at the age of 32, Ryan decided to improve his lot and, using all his savings and everything he could borrow, bought up stock in Daly’s banks until he was the major stockholder.

After Daly’s death in 1901 he became the president of the Daly Bank and Trust Co., headed Anaconda and managed Margaret Daly’s significant fortune.   Ryan’s interests and talents were diverse.  With no formal education, he developed the use of water power and introduced the first important hydroelectric system for railroads in the U.S.

Although Ryan considered Montana his home, he needed a New York base and No. 3 West 78th became it.  He temporarily walked away from his businesses with the outbreak of World War I and served as director of the military relief work of the American Red Cross.   Then in the spring of 1918 President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to organize the production of aircraft as Second Assistant Secretary of War under Newton d. Baker.

The dashingly handsome Ryan had no formal education, but left an estate of about $20 million -- photo Library of Congress

Things returned to normal after the war and the Ryans purchased a country estate named Derrymore in Roslyn, Long Island.   When the couple’s only child, John Carlos, married Marjorie H. Close in 1924 and moved out, they lived on at No. 3 attended to by a staff of servants.
On Friday, February 10, 1933 Ryan attended services at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola at Park Avenue and 84th Street.  Upon returning home, the 69-year old suffered a heart attack.  Two physicians spent nearly 24 hours attending to him but around 9:00 in the morning on Saturday, he died in his bed on 78th Street.  The funeral was held in the mansion the following Tuesday.
Nettie Gardner Ryan lived on at No. 3 East 78th Street for nearly three more decades.   She regularly hosted card parties and teas to benefit charities like the McMahon Memorial Temporary Shelter for Children.   The shelter, at 128 E. 112th Street, provided care for children between 3 months and 6 years “whose homes for various reasons have been broken.”
When she died in the house on June 6, 1960 she was 90 years old.
Despite Henry Cook’s stipulation that houses on his block would be private homes “forever,” in 1964 No. 3 was renovated to accommodate a doctor’s office on the ground floor and three upper-class apartments on the upper floors.
Six menacing griffins support the Juliette balcony above the door -- photo by Alice Lum

For several years in the 1970s it was the home of the respected Ingber Art Gallery.  In 2010 the house was renovated again by Harry Elson Architect, PC.  The apartments were updated and enlarged and the systems modernized.
Outwardly, the griffin-encrusted French chateau is beautifully intact; a dignified remnant of New York’s age of opulence and Henry Cook’s insistence on homes “of splendid style.”

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