Thursday, November 1, 2012

The 1903 John R. Drexel House -- No. 1 E. 62nd Street


photo by Alice Lum
John R. Drexel enjoyed a privileged life as he grew up in Philadelphia.  The eldest son of banker Anthony J. Drexel who founded the Drexel Institute, he was educated by tutors and in private schools.  He never attended college.  As was expected, he entered his father’s banking business, Drexel & Co. and became a member of the firm.

John Drexel’s ambitions, however, were not extremely far-reaching and he soon tired of the banking business and retired.    Despite his millions, Drexel “took little interest in society,” according to The New York Times years later.  His wife, however, the former Alice Gordon Troth, did.  Alice was the daughter of William Penn Troth and the former Clara Sharpless Townsend of Philadelphia and she was accustomed to all the gaiety and glittering entertainments her social class demanded.

At the turn of the century, Drexel moved his family, including their two sons and daughter Alice, to New York.   While plans for an appropriate home were considered, Drexel leased Frederick W. Vanderbilt’s mansion at the southeast corner of 5th Avenue and 40th Street in 1901 while the Vanderbilts were away for the winter.  The following season the family lived in the home of the late Samuel D. Babcock, complete with his furnishings, at No. 636 5th Avenue at the southwest corner of 51st Street.

By now two residences had been purchased at Nos. 13 and 15 East 54th Street, just east of 5th Avenue, and the Drexels were planning their new mansion on the site.  It was a perfect location for the socially-active and ambitious Alice Drexel—just steps from Vanderbilt Row.

But then the already-annoying St. Regis Hotel, erected by John Jacob Astor, Jr. in 1901 in the midst of Manhattan’s most elite residential neighborhood, caused more upheaval.    Now, in the last months of 1902, the hotel began negotiations to purchase No. 3 East 54th Street and rumors swirled that the property would become a wing of the hotel.

The Drexels changed their minds.   In January 1903 John Drexel purchased two four-story brownstone homes in a neighborhood much removed from the inroads of hotels and stores.   The house of Martin E. Green at No. 1 East 62nd Street and that of his next-door neighbor Mrs. Prudence Boynton at No. 3 were just steps from 5th Avenue and Central Park.  The pair of old brownstones would provide the Drexels a plot 42 feet wide—enough for a mansion appropriate to Alice Drexel’s place in society.

The Philadelphia-born millionaire sought a Philadelphia architect to design his home.    Horace Trumbauer had already been at work on the proposed 54th Street residence, and now quickly switched gears.  The architect had created magnificent country estates in Pennsylvania and had designed the Newport mansion, The Elms, for Edward J. Berwind who lived just two blocks north at 5th Avenue and 64th Street. 

On March 31, 1903 The Sun announced that “Plans were filed yesterday for a new city home to be built for Mrs. Alice Troth Drexel…The second floor will contain a private ballroom and two salons in addition to a dining hall and a library.”   Drexel’s gift to his wife would cost, in all, around $500,000.

Trumbauer created a restrained French mansion four stories high with a steep mansard roof.  Clad in Indiana limestone, it sat on a rusticated base with arched openings over an American basement—the latest in fashion.    For the sedate 40-room house, the architect forewent the Beaux Arts garlands and scrollwork frothing over on similar townhouses.  The result was cool dignity that approached aloofness.

1903 was a triumphal year for Alice Drexel.    The same year that her half million dollar mansion began rising, she was a guest of King Edward and Queen Alexandra of England at a ball at Windsor Castle and at a luncheon at Ascot.  It was a social coup that the ambitious Alice no doubt relished.

photo NYPL Collection
The Drexels summered at their lavish Newport villa, Fairholme on Ochre Point.    A few years after the New York mansion was completed, Philadelphia newspapers noted that John Drexel had given Alice $200,000 “to aid her in a battle for social supremacy at Newport, where she gave elaborate dinner parties.”

Her knack for attracting the attention of the press stretched to Missouri when, on January 29, 1905, The St. Louis Republic printed a “special” item.  “A seashell bath is the latest innovation in household luxuries that Mrs. John R. Drexel is introducing in her Ochre Point home,” it said.   Alice had begun collection pretty seashells on a trip to the Bahamas on John’s steam yacht, the Sultana.  The shells exceeded “in diversity and beauty anything ever obtained on the islands,” professed the Republic.

Alice lined the Fairholme bath in the shells.  “Stripped of their outer layers and clipped to flatness, the shells are being cemented edge to edge with a waterproof compound resembling white coral, as a lining of the bath.  A transparent glaze will cover them and salt water, piped from the ocean, will sparkle with the luster of the sea’s own jewels.”   Alice told the press it was “a happy medium between the lavish silver baths and the prosaic tile.”

While Alice feverishly entertained with musicales, dinner parties and luncheons, her family was frustratingly disinterested.    While the Sultana was called by The New York Times “one of the most lavishly furnished steam yachts afloat,” it also noted that John Drexel “never was [a] yachting enthusiast.”   The New York Times would later note that “Acquaintances said that he seemed to be a man without hobbies or avocations.”  Neither son, John R. Drexel, Jr. nor Gordon P. Drexel, exhibited an interest in social life and young Alice, educated in Paris, had other things on her mind. 

While her mother was a marked figure in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Newport social circles, The Washington Post noted that young Alice “is a quiet young woman who has evinced no love for society, but has been more interested in serious things.”

It did not stop her mother from trying, though.  On New Year’s day in 1911 Alice Drexel gave a dinner in the 62nd Street mansion for Alice and John Junior.  “The guests included many young college boys and girls not yet out,” reported The New York Times.  “After dinner a few additional guests came in for the informal dancing that followed, there being about eighty in all.”

Three days later she repeated the entertainments.   Her daughter was 19 years old and, no doubt, Alice Drexel was thinking ahead of a suitable husband and the society wedding that would go with it.  Little did she know that it was not to be.

To her credit, Alice Drexler was not merely about dinner parties and teas.  She was an active worker in the social service department of the Volunteer Hospital.    In 1915 she took special interest in a bizarre case of a tall, athletic-looking boy who was admitted to the hospital with a case of amnesia.   After a week with no progress and  the doctors having exhausted their ideas,  Alice Drexel suggested that circulars be mailed to towns and cities throughout New England containing his description.

A widow in New Haven, Connecticut had reported her son, Ralph Towne missing.   A few hours after the New Haven police department received the description, the 20-year old boy’s uncle, George Chaffee, showed up at the hospital.  After half an hour Ralph had regained his memory.  He had apparently fallen from his motorcycle and somehow ended up on a train to New York.

Alice Drexel’s world of luxurious steam yachts, dinner parties on 62nd Street and balls in Newport would come crashing down around her on June 5, 1919 when she received word from New Rochelle that her daughter, Alice, had eloped.

At 5:30 in the afternoon the 27-year old had married Captain William Barrett, of the Army Air Service, who had recently returned from fighting in France.  Captain Barrett had been wounded several times in his eighteen months overseas.

The bride’s mother was shaken.  She did not know this Captain Barrett and it would get worse when she discovered that the 32-year old was recently divorced and not wealthy (although he told the press he “had enough to keep the wolf from the door”).

Alice Drexel anticipated the whispered gossip over clinking tea cups in every parlor on 5th Avenue.  She immediately issued a statement.  “Mr. and Mrs. Drexel have not had the pleasure of meeting Captain Barrett and know nothing whatever about him.  Their daughter’s wedding is, therefore, both a surprise and shock to them.”

The newspapers had a field day.  The New-York Tribune ran a headline reading “Miss Alice Drexel Wed to Army Man Unknown to Parents;” and The Washington Herald called the wedding “a surprise to Newport, Washington and New York society.”   Alice Drexel’s dreams of an extravagant society wedding for her daughter were dashed on the rocks of humiliation.

Captain Barrett told The New-York Tribune that the “suddenness and secrecy of the wedding…was due to his wife’s desire to avoid a formal ceremony.”  The younger Alice was not, apparently, swept off her feet by a dashing military man, either.  The Tribune described him as “short and stocky, with a shock of black hair.”  The likelihood that he would provide his new wife with the lifestyle in which she had grown up was slim.   The newspaper noted that he “was a tutor when he entered the air service of the American army eighteen months ago.  He has had no business experience, he said, and no idea of going into any business.”

It was too much for the Drexels to bear.    Two years later John and Alice purchased a home at No. 34 Rue Francois Premier in Paris and left New York for good.   John returned sporadically when he needed to attend to financial business.    The New York Times said the Drexels “forsook residence in the United States after the publicity that developed from the secret marriage of their daughter.”

The mansion in Newport, once filled with the chatter and music of dinners and balls, was shuttered and the 62nd Street house sat dark.  Finally in 1929, as the Great Depression set in, the New York mansion was sold to 65-year old millionaire James Blanchard Clews, senior partner of the brokerage house Henry Clews & Co.

Only five years later James Clews died in the house in December 1934 after a long illness.   By now the Depression and the cost of maintaining the hulking aging structures had brought an end to the era of grand Manhattan mansions.   One-by-one the massive homes along 5th Avenue were being razed or converted to apartment buildings.

Where the elegant mansard had been, an interesting but incongruous addition took form -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1938 the mansion was converted to spacious, upscale apartments including two duplexes.   A modernist three-story addition replaced the mansard roof that included a penthouse apartment of nine rooms with two terraces.  The penthouse living room was 42 by 50 feet and the oak paneling that John and Alice Drexel had imported from France was removed from downstairs and reinstalled here.  The conversion cost the new owner $200,000.  Happily, aside from the unsympathetic treatment of the new top floors, the façade was left unchanged.  The Clews heirs sold the property to real estate operator Webb & Knapp, Inc. in January 1941.

Among the upscale tenants at No. 1 East 62nd Street was Ernest Hemingway.  In the fall of 1959 he leased a one-bedroom 900-square-foot apartment as a private refuge when staying in New York.  The author had previously endured the visibility of hotels when in the city.  Hemingway installed an office here in 1960 where he hoped to write.  But he was in poor physical health and suffering from delusions and severe depression.  He told friends that he felt he was “living in a Kafka nightmare.”  He was unable to write and left New York for good.  Soon after, in July 1961, he committed suicide in his home in Ketchum, Idaho.

By the late 1980s the building had been converted to condominiums and comedienne Joan Rivers purchased the 5,190-square foot penthouse.  Rivers brought museum-trained restorers in to strip away layers of paint and accumulated dirt from the French paneling.

Joan Rivers had the antique paneling meticulously restored -- http://ny.curbed.com/
Alice Drexel’s once-fabulous mansion is now home to twelve fabulous apartments.  The building looks much as it did in 1938 when the incongruous modernist addition was plopped onto the roof.

2 comments:

  1. Lovely house but I am trying to figure out the plan. Is Ms. Rivers apt. the old ballroom on the 2nd floor? If so, how does that relate to the penthouse?

    ReplyDelete
  2. If you noticed in the post, much of the paneling was removed from the lower floors and reinstalled in the newly built areas upstairs.

    ReplyDelete