Thursday, April 5, 2012

The 1902 Samuel Trowbridge House -- No. 123 East 70th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As construction began on the magnificent St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue in 1901, its architect, Samuel Trowbridge, finished the designs for his own home at 123 East 70th Street. 

Samuel Breck Parkman Trowbridge traced his impressive English lineage to the 16th century Peter de Trowbridge.  Born in New York City, the architect had studied at Trinity College, Columbia University’s School of Architecture, the School of Classical Studies in Athens, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.  By now he was a well-respected architect and partner in the firm Trowbridge & Livingston. 

Although attractive Victorian homes still lined the block along East 70th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, few of them would survive much longer.  Society was pushing the middle- and upper-middle classes further east, away from Central Park, and by the turn of the century and grand mansions were replacing the earlier structures.  One of them would be Trowbridge’s new home. 

The architect purchased the charming rowhouse erected by brothers J. M. and E. A. Thorp in 1863 and in its place erected an impressive brick and limestone Beaux Arts mansion—appropriate for the man who would become president of the Society of Beaux Arts Architects within two years.  The five-story home sat on a stone base with double entrance doors. 

The Trowbridge house replaced a Victorian rowhouse exactly like the one to the right -- photo NYPL Collection
Unlike the homes of a generation earlier, there was no high stoop; just three shallow steps from the sidewalk in keeping with the current vogue.  The combined second and third story window openings quietly smacked of Art Nouveau; a style that had raged in Paris for a decade already but one which never quite caught on in New York.   

Trowbridge used elaborately-carved limestone trims, like the scrolled brackets and cartouche beneath the fourth floor balcony, with careful reserve; controlling the Beaux Arts embellishments to achieve vivid contrast between the brick and stone while maintaining dignity of design. 

Samuel Trowbridge and his wife, Sophia Pennington Tailer Trowbridge, were highly visible in society and the architect was a member of several elite clubs, including the Century, Metropolitan, Racquet and Tennis, Union, St. Anthony, and Ardsley Clubs.    In 1903, a year after the new house was completed, he was involved in a murder case resulting from a shooting near the Ardsley Club. 

On the night of May 24, shots rang out and club members rushed onto the street to find John Hefferman dying of pistol wounds.  The men, including Trowbridge, took charge of the scene, questioning Hefferman about his attacker and retrieving brandy and a mattress from the club.  Trowbridge assisted in carrying the dying man to the station house. 

In the inquest that followed on the following Friday, “a goodly number of millionaire members of the Ardsley Club appeared,” said The New York Times.   The tangled case pitted Hefferman’s household staff against moneyed friends of the dead millionaire as accusations flew across the courtroom. 

While other witnesses testified to Hefferman naming his assailant; Trowbridge said that he was with the deceased “from the minute when he was put on a shutter until he left in the club wagon,” and “did not hear him make any statement of any kind, except to ask for water and speak of his sufferings.” 

The Trowbridges' lives were normally less dramatic. 

Sophia was highly involved in social and charity events.  Preferring to list herself as “Mrs. Breck P. Trowbridge,” she was treasurer of The Three Arts Club that provided housing and a social club for young women studying music, drama and the fine arts.  The “handsome clubhouse” accommodated 87 resident members and included a money-making restaurant. 

The indefatigable architect joined the National Guard of New York in 1903, attaining rank of First Lieutenant.  He was named Chairman of the National Council of Fine Arts in 1908; Vice President of the American Academy in Rome; President of the Architectural League of New York; and President of the Society of American Philhellenes.  As the years passed he garnered foreign distinctions including being named Chevelier de la Legion d’ Honor by the President of France; Grand Commander of St. Sava, Serbia;  and receiving the Greek Order of the Redeemer; and Commander of the Order of the Crown, Romania. 

On January 24, 1925 Trowbridge suffered a cold.  Five days later he died in the house on East 70th Street of pneumonia.  

Sophia Trowbridge remained on at No. 123 East 70th Street until her death.  In August of 1951 her estate sold the house to Allan Roos.  As was the fate of many of the grand residences of Manhattan in the middle of the last century, within four years it was renovated to include a doctor’s office on the first floor and two luxurious duplex apartments on the second-to-third and fourth-to-fifth floors. 

Apartments on this block, of course, did not mean low-income tenants.   One of the original tenants in 1954 included the Charles Einfeld family.  Einfeld was Vice President of the 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. 

The wedding of the Einfield’s daughter, Lise, was held in the house on June 12 that year.  Lise was a Smith College graduate who married Richard Malkin.  The groom had attended both Harvard and Yale.   

Three years later Lise’s sister Linda was married in the house as well.   Linda had studied at the Collegio Columbo in Viareggio, Italy, and was currently attending Vassar.  Like her sister’s husband, her fiancĂ© was a graduate of both Yale and Harvard. 

In the meantime, The Heckscher Foundation for Children was evolving.  The institution was founded in 1921 by August Heckscher, Arthur Smadbeck and Ruth Smadbeck to help needy children by supporting charitable organizations and programs. 

In 2007 the much-expanded foundation renovated No. 123 East 70th as its headquarters and offices.  From here the organization, with assets of over $300 million, provides grants and distributions to educational programs and organizations aimed at preparing students for success.

Outwardly, Samuel Trowbridge’s meticulously-maintained townhouse is virtually unchanged.  It is a highly-unusual and dignified residence, designed by one of New York’s most esteemed architects.


  1. The period view apparently has a centered entrance between two windows- when did it change?

  2. The doorway was removed, it would appear from Dept. of Buildings records, in 1954 when the first alterations were done.

    1. Makes sense- separate entrance for the doctor's office.

      BTW- this is a GREAT blog.

  3. i very much enjoy your blog.

    123 holds a special place in my heart, and I am fairly certain of some facts of which you might not be aware:

    In the early 1960's, my late step-father and a close friend if his, the baseball player Hank Greenberg, were looking to buy townhouses. At that point, single family houses in Manhattan seemed to be going the way of the Dodo bird, and they were offered at "bargain basement" prices. Additionally, both my step-father and Hank Greenberg were Jewish, and in that tail-end of the "Gentleman's Agreement" era, Jews were not welcome in the "better" Fifth and Park Avenue buildings. In any event, there were two houses available in the vicinity at the time: 123 East 70th and 109 East 69th Street. A friendly disagreement erupted between the two of them about who should have which house, my step-father finally settling on 109 which he felt was better constructed (it had been built by one John Downey for his own use. Downey was a major builder and developer turned banker), and Hank Greenberg buying 123. Hank Greenberg lived their until his death which I believe was in the 1980's. I also think that he converted the house back to single family use.

    By the way, the French style house directly to the east of 123 was built by Paul and Bunny Mellon who purchased and tore down two of the three remaining stooped row houses on the block to build it. At the time- again mid 1960's, it was the first single family house to be constructed in Manhattan in some 30 years. Construction of the house caused significant structural damage to 123, and Hank Greenberg was involved in an extensive lawsuit with the Mellons that went on for years.

    Forgive my meander down memory lane.

  4. riveting information. Thanks so much for your input.

  5. Hello....I believe Greenberg was living in Beverly Hills, CA at the time of his death in '86 and had lived there for some time. I do have a few pieces of Greenberg's letterhead from his days at 123.