Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The 1912 James B. Duke Mansion -- No. 1 E. 78th St.

Society eyebrows were raised when the staggeringly-wealthy James Buchanan Duke announced his engagement to the 40-year old widow, Lillian McCredy, in 1904.  The couple had known one another only briefly and, while Mrs. McCredy was prominent socially, a marriage so quickly seemed rash.

Duke, at 48 years of age, had amassed millions; mostly through the tobacco business begun by his father in Durham, North Carolina.  James and his brother Benjamin had gone on to found the American Tobacco Company.

On November 29, 1904 the pair was married.  They immediately sailed off for Europe for a honeymoon of several months.  The marital bliss would be short-lived.

Whispered rumors over Limoges tea cups insinuated that Lillian was “seeing” a man, Major Frank T. Huntoon, even before the newlyweds returned home.  Huntoon was the President of a mineral water company located at No. 11 West 25th Street, whom The New York Times said “is well known as a man about town.”

Sensing betrayal, Duke hired private investigators to follow both his wife and Huntoon.  The investigations produced the undeniable evidence of an affair and Duke sued his wife for divorce.  The two-timing Lillian received $500,000 settlement—a paltry sum when Duke’s fortune was estimated to be approximately $60 million at the time.

In the meantime, Benjamin Duke and his wife Sarah had moved into a magnificent new mansion at 5th Avenue and 82nd Street a few years earlier.  In December 1906 the couple gave a reception where James noticed the enchanting 34-year old Southern-born Mrs. Nanaline Holt Inman.  The Times called Mrs. Inman, the widow of an Atlanta cotton merchant, “a handsome brunette” who “has always attracted a considerable amount of attention.”

Following the chance meeting The Times noticed that Duke “paid her constant attention.” Eight months later on July 23, 1907 the couple was married.  The same newspaper noted that the groom purchased the Henry H. Cook mansion at the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and 78th Street for $1.6 million “as a present for his bride.”  The newspaper went on to say “it stands on one of the most exclusive blocks in the city, and the Dukes’ near neighbors will be Payne Whitney, H. H. Rogers, and Stuyvesant Fish.”

Negotiations for the property stalled, however, perhaps because Cook’s Victorian pile was decidedly out of date.  Finally in August 1909 Duke purchased the property for $1.25 million.  Although he initially hired C. P. H. Gilbert to remodel the hulking mansion; he soon changed his mind.

James Duke demolished Henry Cook's gigantic mansion, above, to build his own -- NYPL Collection
Instead he decided to demolish it and start over.  He commissioned Philadelphia-based architect Horace Trumbauer to design a new, up-to-date mansion on the site.   Trumbauer estimated the cost of the new structure at $1 million.

“From these figures it is evident that the new home of the tobacco magnate is to be one of the most magnificent of the famous group of residences along the easterly side of Central Park,” remarked The Times.

Cook had outfitted his mansion with antique architectural details that were now ripped out and resold.  The oak paneling that had cost Cook $55 per section was sold off at $3 each.  An Italian fireplace and mantel sold for $300.  Cook had paid $15,000 for it.  The contractor paid to demolish the structure called it, according to architectural historian John Tauranac “the best-built house ever torn down in New York City.”

Trumbauer was not widely accepted by New York architects who disapproved of his "stealing" designs from historic properties.  For the Duke mansion he did just that; nearly reproducing the Hotel Lobottiere in Bordeaux, France.  The changes that he made, while subtle, resulted in a architecturally-effective residential building on a New York City street.
The Duke House shortly after completion -- photograph Library of Congress
Architectural historians are generally in agreement that it was not Trumbauer, solely, who was responsible for the Duke mansion; and that his head designer, the African-American Julian Abele, was possibly highly influential.  Abele was most often overlooked during his lifetime and received little credit for his remarkable designs until later in the century.

Completed in 1912, the Duke house stood apart from most of its neighbors by being free-standing.  A stone balustrade wall separated the shallow lawn from the sidewalk, nearly matched by a similar treatment at the roofline. 

The Dukes moved into the house that year with their baby girl, Doris.   The museum-worthy interiors were sumptuous; filled with the antiques and artwork collected by Duke himself.  The bulk of the furniture was Louis XV and Louis XVI period and antique tapestries decorated room after room.

Along the second floor hallway were two Regence tapestries valued at $10,000 and a Gobelin tapestry, “Le Memorable Judgment de Sancho,” assessed at over three times that much.  Another Regence tapestry hung in the dining room along with a fourfold Bavonnieres tapestry screen.  Other tapestries included early sixteenth century Flemish, French Renaissance and Gothic examples.

Among the priceless artworks were a terra cotta bust by Houdon, “Second Daughter of the Artist,” in the library; Gainsborough’s “Lord Gwydyr” and Raeburn’s “Gentleman in Red Coat” in the main hallway.

The Dukes entertained lavishly.  Here in March 1913 they gave a dinner for 60, followed by a musicale.  Lucrezia Bori and Pasqale Amto of the Metropolitan Opera entertained, as did violinist Efram Zimbalist, according to The Sun.

The mansion on East 78th Street was convenient for business and city entertaining; but it was not the Dukes’ main residence.  Across the river in Somerville, New Jersey was their 2,500-acre country estate which James Duke listed as his primary residence.  In the Summer they spent time at a former Vanderbilt “cottage,” Rough Point,” and another magnificent mansion in Durham, North Carolina often served as a getaway in the Winter.

In March 1925 James Duke’s first wife, Lillian, reappeared.  She had lost the money left to her by her wealthy first husband as well as the half-million divorce settlement.    Lillian had studied singing under Jean DeReszke in her happier days and was now subsisting by giving music lessons.

She now sought to recover some of the millions she lost through her indiscretions.

Over two decades after the divorce she filed suit to set the divorce aside and declare her the legal wife of James B. Duke.  She protested in court that “perjured testimony was given against her.”  On May 15 Justice Giegerich dismissed her complaint and upheld the divorce, as well as Duke’s marriage to Nanadine.   Lillian had her attorneys set in motion an appeal of the decision.

The appeal would never make it to the courts.  James Duke contracted pneumonia and died in the house on East 78th Street on October 10.    Lillian, who was living in her music studio, was plunged into deep depression upon receiving news of his death.   Refusing to eat, she became weak, and then suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.  Within weeks of Duke’s death she died nearly penniless.

James B. Duke’s estate was estimated at between $60 and $100 million dollars.  $40 million went to Trinity College in Durham under the condition that the name be changed to Duke University.  The bulk of the remaining estate went to Nanadine and little Doris.

The house on East 78th Street became somewhat of a legal problem for mother and daughter due to the wording of the will.  It all ended with 14-year old Doris essentially suing her mother over the property in what the newspapers called “a friendly suit.”

Although the will gave Nanadine life rights to the Newport, North Carolina and New York City mansions; it also said in another clause that the executors must sell all real estate immediately.  Doris was permitted by the terms of the will to purchase the properties back, and the executors were to provide her with the sufficient funds to do so. 

Doris’ suit claimed the auction would be a “vain and useless proceeding” since she would end up with the properties anyway.  She also was concerned about a public auction.  “She asserts that if the property is advertised for sale the residence in New York will be opened to the public, and persons claiming to be prospective purchasers will go there with the result that the property will depreciate in value,” said The Times.

No doubt Doris and her mother were not eager to have riff-raff tromping through their home.

In the end young Doris inherited the vast real estate holdings and, as her father directed, her mother had the right to use them for life.  Now known as “the richest girl in the world,” Doris Duke was determined to live her life by her own rules, despite what conventional society thought.

Four years later her debutante ball was given at Rough Point by her mother.  600 guests were invited who danced to the music of two orchestras in the ballroom.  Doris Duke had arrived.

In 1933 she quietly celebrated her 21st birthday; a landmark date that increased her fortune by about $30 million.  The gang of journalists crowding East 78th Street prompted her to leave the city to seek the calm of Duke Farms outside of Somerville, New Jersey—which by now encompassed 5,000-acres.  Here she admitted a handful of reporters who asked her about her increased wealth.

“I really don’t know myself how much there is,” she said.

When the outspoken girl was asked if she intended to travel abroad, she replied, no, “unless people go on asking me as many foolish questions as they have tried to ask me today.”

In 1938 famed photographer Berenice Abbott juxtaposed an apartment building awning and doorman with the private mansion of Doris Duke for a project entitled "Changing New York" -- NYPL Collection
Doris Duke traveled the globe delving into exotic art, historic preservation, and—generations ahead of her time--wildlife and environmental conservation.  She became one of the first American collectors to discover Southeast Asian and Islamic art and filled her homes with diverse objects d’art.

Twice married and twice divorced, she explored areas which were still mysterious in her day:  Africa, India, the Near East and Southeast Asia.  During the Second World War she earned a salary of one dollar a year working in a canteen for sailors in Egypt.  She briefly served as a foreign correspondence for the International News Service in 1945; then took up residency in Paris to write for Harper’s Bazaar.  Later, while living in Hawaii, she added to her list of accomplishments being the first female competitive surfer.

Doris Duke arrives at LaGuardia Airport in 1947
On January 7, 1958 The Times reported that the 40,000 square-foot mansion at No. 1 East 78th Street was now the property of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.  “The three-story limestone building that will house the graduate study institute is a gift from Mrs. Nanaline H. Duke, widow of Mr. Duke, and their daughter Doris Duke,” the article said.

The Institute’s care in sympathetically renovating the beautiful home earned it a New York Landmarks Conservancy award for its “superb adaptive reuse” of the mansion.

In designating the Duke house a city landmark in 1970, the Landmarks Preservation Commission called it “one of the adornments of Fifth Avenue and one of the last reminders of the Age of Elegance.”

non-credited photograph taken by the author.


  1. Great posting! Love this building and so nice to see that the "moat" and street level stone balustrade is still in place. Beautiful!

  2. Nice post..I really liked the architecture of the building..

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  4. Thanks for sharing. I went to Manhattan last year and was impressed with the beautiful beau art buildings. Greeting from Singapore.

  5. Olden times structures really look good... Thanks for sharing

  6. Does anyone know where to find blueprints (or even simple floor plans) to this fantastic mansion?

    1. There are good quality floor plans on Pinterest