|photo by Alice Lum|
Overlooking the East River, the area was home to the Peter Doelger Brewery, decaying rowhouses and tenement buildings. The society women of Fifth Avenue had, most likely, never heard of Sutton Place and certainly had no interest in seeing it. But that was all about to change.
That year Elisabeth Marbury, the wealthy literary agent and producer who had been born into an aristocratic family, commissioned society architect Mott Schmidt to transform a Victorian rowhouse at No. 13 Sutton Place into a Georgian residence. She moved in with her long-time companion, decorator Elsie de Wolfe, and began a campaign of convincing her other female friends to follow suit.
One of those friends was Anne Vanderbilt whose husband, William K. Vanderbilt died on July 22, 1920, making Anne a widow for the third time. New York society was shocked when, on January 9, 1921, a New York Times headline reported that “Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt to Live In Avenue A.” She had sold the gargantuan Fifth Avenue mansion for $3 million to move to what the newspaper called “a little-known two-block thoroughfare.” She used $50,000 of the $3 million to purchase Effingham Sutton’s house and, like Marbury, hired Mott B. Schmidt to renovate it into a 13-room Georgian mansion.
A society columnist abraded Vanderbilt for abandoning Fifth Avenue and moving to “the heart of the slums” and The Times worried that “Mrs. K. Vanderbilt plans to lead an exodus of society from Fifth Avenue and elsewhere to Avenue A.”
And, in a way, she did.
Anne Vanderbilt’s close friend, 38-year old Anne Tracy Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, announced her plans to have Mott Schmidt create a house abutting the new Vanderbilt house. “Miss Morgan’s new home is being altered, to conform somewhat to the Colonial style of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s house, after which type most of the houses in the exclusive-little nook have been patterned,” said The Times. “Many of the rooms will contain rare old paneling and furniture. Some of these furnishings will be brought from abroad, but much of it will be Colonial. It is expected that the cost of the site and the remodeling will be about $125,000.”
By now the neighborhood was filling with single and very wealthy women who were keeping Mott and Elsie de Wolfe busy changing 19th century middle class homes into fashionable neo-Georgian residences. Anne Vanderbilt’s sister, Mrs. Stephen Olin, was already here as were Mrs. Lorillard Cammann and Francis B. Griswold.
Two months later Mott Schmidt filed revised plans for Anne Morgan’s house at No. 3 Sutton Place. She had purchased the house next door, No. 5, and the original plans were scrapped so that the two houses could be merged. “The new plans call for the rebuilding of the two structures into a four-story dwelling in American Colonial style with a roof garden,” reported The Times. Reflecting their close relationship, Morgan and Vanderbilt would share a common garden to the rear.
|photo by Alice Lum|
Mott based the design on two Philadelphia houses; the 1765 Samuel Powel House and its neighbor, the Benjamin Wister Morris House. He treated the Morgan house and the Vanderbilt house as two independent but critically-related designs. A critic assessed them saying “No more valuable or successful examples of the consistent and intelligent use of English architectural precedent in the designing of American houses are to be found than these two houses on Sutton Place.”
|photo by Alice Lum|
|The Drawing Room featured antique paneling and hand-painted French wallpaper -- photo Library of Congress|
|Whimsical, fearsome creatures flank the gates to the rear lawn that gently rolled to the river -- photo Library of Congress|
“On the corner of the lot, venturing out daringly on the closest point toward the most distinguished and formal of the elegantly precise Sutton Place residences—Miss Anne Morgan’s perhaps—the Ferris wheel, like a giant squirrel cage, reared its height above the housetops.” The article teased that riders “dared to peek into the upper windows of a residential magnificence founded on preferred ratings in both the Social Register and Bradstreet’s.”
|Photographer Berenice Abbott, a friend of Morgan's, captured the street on April 2, 1936. The Vanderbilt mansion is at the near corner with Anne Morgan's house directly behind. -- photo Library of Congress|
“The party got off to a good start at 8 o’clock,” reported The Times, “when the soldiers and sailors entered the front yard of Miss Anne Morgan’s home, which was decorated with red, white and blue electric light bulbs.” The end of 57th Street was roped off to create an area for dancing and the newspaper mentioned that “Soon many soldiers and sailors were showing the spectators lined on Sutton Place that the latest ‘jitterburg steps’ were not unknown to the men in uniform.”
The patriotic Morgan was a bit of a detective, as well. The following year, in May, with gas rationing in force, Anne Morgan smelled the vapors of gasoline emanating from the basement of the house next door. She notified the Bureau of Combustibles of the Fire Department who found 65-1/2 gallons of fuel stored in the cellar. The neighbor, Mrs. Clarinne Reavis, explained that she was fearful that the rationing card she received would not provide enough gasoline for her duties as a member of the Mayor’s city patrol, a volunteer defense auxiliary.
|The indomitable Anne Morgan -- photo Library of Congress|
Anne Morgan traveled to France when the Nazis invaded and formed the American Ambulance Corps. The organization aided many Americans who had become trapped by the invasion. She returned throughout the war and had just come home in September 1947 after checking on social services she had founded in France. While at her Mount Kisco, New York, estate she suffered a severe stroke and was brought to the house on Sutton Place.
The amazing Anne Morgan would live on until January 29, 1952. Her relief efforts during the two world wars had earned her a medal from the National Institute of Social Science in 1915 and she was the first American woman appointed a commander of the French Legion of Honor. She had taken up residence near the French front from 1917 to 1921, forming The American Friends of France mostly with her own money. It provided furniture to bombed-out families, created a health service, a mobile library among other efforts.
After her death, Leigh Mitchell Hodges wrote to The New York Times saying in part, “Only those who saw her in action [in France] could appreciate her courage, rare leadership and utter selflessness. These qualities of greatness begat for her high and deserved awards, but of far more moment than medals and ribbons was the grateful love of a whole people.”
The house on Sutton Place was purchased that year by Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr., the great-grandson of the founder of Corning Glass. Exactly twenty years later, Houghton donated the house to the United Nations Association of the United States. The association leased it to the United Nations for a year as the home of the Secretary General, then sold it to the organization in 1973.
Today the stately home of Anne Morgan remains the home of the U.N.’s Secretary General. Its colonial façade, along with those of its neighbors built by independent-thinking women who broke free of tradition, looks as though it has stood there for centuries.