|photo by Alice Lum|
With the purchase came the restriction that only a private residence could be built on the land and that it must be designed in a “splendid style.” The result was a the block filled with grand mansions anchored by the gargantuan Cook Mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and the Stuyvesant Fish mansion at the opposite corner at Madison Avenue.
The grandson of Secretary of the Treasurer, Albert Gallatin, Stevens made his fortune in finance. He had been a member of the Gold Board of New York, the precursor of the Stock Exchange, and held a seat on the Exchange from its inception until his retirement in 1883 when he devoted his time to real estate.
The Stevens residence would be unlike anything else on the block. Completed in 1909 the four-story Italian Renaissance structure was as foreboding as it was handsome. A great stone portico with paired Ionic columns sheltered the entrance. The American basement was protected by an imposing iron fence with ornate finials.
Eliza L. Wilks Stevens was the daughter of Matthew and Eliza Langdon Wilks and a granddaughter of John Jacob Astor. Educated in Europe, she was highly cultured and filled the new house with art. The couple were active in club circles—Byam belonging to the Metropolitan, Union and Knickerbocker Clubs; while Eliza was a member of the Colony and York Clubs.
|Intricate carved bands ornamented the bay windows -- photo by Alice Lum|
The Stevens' life together in the new mansion would be short-lived. In November 1911 Byam K. Stevens became ill and two weeks later, on December 12, he died in the house. Eliza stayed on, serving as First Directress of the Ophan’s Home and Asylum of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York among her other charitable works. The orphanage accepted orphans and “half-orphans” from 3 to 8 years old unless they had “incurable diseases” or were “physically imperfect.”
Mrs. Stevens divided her time between No. 11 East 78th and her “villa” named “Sunnyhome” in Lenox, Massachusetts. Then in January 1918, she leased the entire floor of the apartment building at 927 Fifth Avenue at the then-astounding rent of $11,500 a year. With the great war still raging in Europe, she offered the 78th Street mansion to the Red Cross for its use.
After the war Thomas Coleman Du Pont briefly lived in the house until his election to the United States Senate on July 7, 1921.
That year the house returned to a Stevens. Elizabeth L. W. Stevens was the daughter of Eliza’s brother, millionaire Matthew A. Wilks. In what became a tangled knot of Stevens-Wilks family relations, she had married her second cousin Richard Stevens.
Elizabeth commissioned architect Arthur L. Harmon to renovate the twelve-year-old house at a cost of $20,000. While the interiors were updated, the outward appearance of the mansion remained untouched. Elizabeth Stevens died six years later in 1927.
By the middle of the century the expense of maintaining the great mansions was convincing Manhattan’s wealthy that apartment living was preferable to private houses. On July 11, 1947, The New York Times reported that No. 11 East 78th Street had been sold “for altering into small apartments.”
The architects added a fifth floor to the mansion, adequately matching the stone and lining up the new windows with those below; but inexplicably using Gothic trim. The newspaper’s “small” was perhaps a relative adjective; however by March 1948 there were three apartments below street level, three each on the first through fourth floors, and a single penthouse apartment above.
Scandal visited the house in August 1952 when 23-year old tenant Pat Thompson (described by The Times as “a tall blonde”), and 39-year old Richard Short were arrested.
Short was a motion picture actor, working mostly as an extra under the professional name Richard Wallace. Assistant District Attorney Burton B. Roberts charged that Short lived with the young woman “on a commercial basis and an arrangement of convenience, where, in exchange for love and affection from him, she gave him at least $300 weekly.”
The actor was held on $25,000 bail on charges of prostitution and Thompson was held in jail, unable to pay her $10,000 bail.
A less shocking resident at the time was Margaret Lowengrund Lilly, the artist and lithographer known as Margaret Lowengrund. She died here at the age of 55 in 1957. Lowengrund’s works were widely exhibited and were on display in London museums. During the 1920s she had taken a position as artist with the London Daily Express and, upon returning to the U.S., illustrated the popular “Sketches About Town” column in the New York Evening Post.
Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the block of elegant residences remained prestigious. In the 1960s society names like Mrs. Robert L. Coe lived here and in the 1990s it was home to Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright David Rimmer who wrote Yankee Wives here.
From the street the Stevens mansion, despite its somewhat incompatible penthouse addition, looks much as it did in 1909—a time when millionaires spent lavishly to build homes “in splendid style.”