Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The 1907 Bliss Mansion -- No. 9 East 68th Street


photo by Alice Lum
Two years after banker George Theodore Bliss returned to New York, having worked for several years in the London branch of his father’s firm Morton, Rose & Co., he married Jeannette Atwater Dwight on February 12, 1879.   Jeanette was the daughter of the wealthy cotton merchant Amos T. Dwight.  The society wedding brought together two fortunes and two cultured individuals who both had an eye for discriminating collecting.
On January 16, 1882 Susan Dwight Bliss was born.    The privileged little girl would grow up surrounded by the finest in sculpture, paintings and rare books.  She would absorb her parents’ well-honed appreciation more for the historical importance of the collections than for than their financial value.
When Susan was just 19 years old, her father underwent an operation for appendicitis.  Bliss had already been weakened by a recent attack of influenza and he was unable to recover from the procedure.  On March 24, 1901 the 50-year old millionaire died.   Jeannette Bliss inherited not only her husband’s fortune which had been enormously augmented by his major stock holdings in the Phelps Dodge Corporation, the North Star Mining Company, Central Union Trust Company and others; but she had received a substantial inheritance from her father as well.
Jeanette and Susan continued to live contentedly together as Susan’s introduction to society came and went but she remained unmarried.  In 1907 Jeannette commissioned architects George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge to design a mansion on East 68th Street near 5th Avenue.  It was a neighborhood of palatial residences that housed the wealthiest of New York’s social set.  The choice of architects was somewhat surprising.  Heins & LaFarge was not known for residential commissions and had lately been busy with designing the subway stations for the new Interborough Rapid Transit Company and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. James in Seattle.
The firm’s expertise with municipal and club structures, however, would produce a regal and imposing home.  Completed in 1907 the brick and limestone residence rose five stories to a mansard roof.  Tall, hefty stone bases supported immense connected columns which ascended imperially past the second story.   A service alley between the mansion to the east owned by another widow, Mrs. John J. Emery, allowed for sunlight along one side; a luxurious rarity among Manhattan rowhouses.
Christopher LaFarge was the son of esteemed artist John LaFarge who would add his own touch to the new mansion.    For the landing of the grand staircase Jeannette wanted a large and impressive stained glass window.   Susan Bliss posed as Andromeda, holding back a portiere with her left hand and inviting guests with her right.    LaFarge called his creation The Welcome Window.
Susan Bliss posed for LaFarge's Welcome Window.  It is now displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  http://www.curatedobject.us/the_curated_object_/2009/03/exhibitionevent-nyc-the-american-wing-galleries-open-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art-the-curated-o.html
While the house was being constructed, Jeannette traveled Europe in search of period rooms.  To properly house George Bliss’s extensive book collection she imported a baroque-style room with a 16th century ceiling taken from a Neapolitan palazzo.    For the third floor of her new home she purchased an 18th century polyhedral mirrored boudoir from the Hotel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.  The room had been made for Louis-Marie-Augustin, duc d’Aumont.   The elaborately painted panels of arabesque motifs were based on designs by architect Pierre-Adrien Paris.

Jeannette Bliss erected the massive home for her daughter and herself--and their important collections --photo by Alice Lum
The two women moved into the mansion in 1907 and although they were socially prominent, their focus continued to be on charity and collecting.   As World War I took America’s young men overseas to fight, women did their own part at home.  In July 1918 Jeannette Bliss contributed by financing a 100-bed hotel annex for soldiers at No. 35 West 25th Street.
In the meantime, Susan added to her father’s library of extraordinary books and Jeanette collected rare historic manuscripts.  Among Jeannette Bliss’s most important compilations were a group of letters written by Mary Stuart.   She owned one of the Queen’s letters to the French Ambassador to the Court of Elizabeth I, written in 1586.  The letter, written in French, began “Monsieur mon beau Frere.”    She also compiled books and manuscripts of Francis II, one of which the King wrote to his uncle Henry of Navarre.
Susan was intensely interested in the social and medical welfare of psychiatric patients—both adults and children.  While other young and wealthy socialites busied themselves with charity teas and glittering dinner parties, she was a founding member of the social service executive board of St. Luke’s Hospital and worked for years in the hospital’s Auxiliary.
After 19 years of living a refined and quiet existence at No. 9 East 68th Street with her daughter, surrounded by their household staff, Jeanette Dwight Bliss died in the house on April 22, 1924.   Susan inherited the entire estate, which included $104,582 in jewelry and $336,219 in “furnishings, paintings and silverware.”  Jeannette’s personal library was appraised at $157,014—over $1.5 million today.

Susan Bliss came and went through the marble foyer for early 60 years -- photo by Alice Lum
Susan remained on in the house, immersing herself in social and medical welfare.  She was highly involved in the Hospital Visiting Committee of the New York State Charities Aid Association.  But with no family and no anticipation of marriage, Susan also considered the fate of her extensive—and growing—collections.
Three years after her mother’s death, Susan donated Jeannette’s Mary Queen of Scots collection to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.  The astounding windfall for the library included 113 hand-written manuscripts, 687 printed books, 627 prints and 22 medals.
In 1944 she donated her mother’s French 18th century boudoir from the Hotel de Crillon to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It was the first of the period rooms that she would have dismantled and donated.    A year later she donated the 16th century Italian library room, including two Italian Renaissance tables, to Bowdoin College.
An ornate carved and painted ceiling hangs over the library, now the Susan Dwight Bliss Room, at Bowdoin College -- photo www.bowdoin.edu.
Throughout the Great Depression and the war years, when the grand mansions along Central Park became ponderous, outdated relics--many of which were demolished and replaced with apartment buildings--Susan Bliss lived on in her wonderful Edwardian time capsule.   But the aging spinster continued to plan for the day when it would all come to an end.
In September 1963 she donated etchings by James Whistler to Bowdoin College and by 1965 had given the school the entire library—some 1,200 volumes—which were now back at home in the Neapolitan room.  A year later the refined and cultured 84-year old Susan Dwight Bliss died.
She left approximately $2 million to Yale University to establish professorships in epidemiology and public health, and a scholarship in that field.    Harvard received the collection of French royal autographs which had been started by her mother.
After serving for a time as the Clinical Psychologist Center for Marital and Family Therapy, the Bliss mansion was converted to rental apartments.  Much of the exquisite interior detailing was stripped out to accommodate 21st century tenants.  Today rooms that were once the repositories of rare, historic manuscripts and art masterpieces are unrecognizable.
A room in the Bliss mansion today reveals no painted ceilings, no French paneling and decidedly unfortunate floors -- www.trulia.com

6 comments:

  1. What an incredible example of decadence in such a socially respectable fashion. I appreciate your blog day after day to provide consistent reading pleasure. History deserves to be relived and you do a phenomenal job laying it out.

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    1. Thanks! Glad you are enjoying the blog. Always nice getting feedback.

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  2. What a thourough report, how have I never noticed this mansion? I found you via the Downeast Dilettante and will add you to my bloglist! I don't remember ever seeing the mirrored boudoir at the Met -do you know if it's on display?

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    1. I am not sure if the boudoir is installed at the Met or is in storage. I tried to find it on the Met's website with no luck.

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  3. Are Cornelius and George Bliss related?

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