Friday, November 9, 2012

The de Berkeley Parsons Mansion -- No. 36 East 61st Street

A sidewalk bridge unfortunately obscures the house in 2012 -- photo by Alice Lum
Harry de Berkeley Parsons sprang from an impressive New York lineage.  The son of William Barclay and Eliza Livingston Parsons, he was descended from several prominent Colonial American families and he included among his ancestors Robert Bruce, King of Scotland.  His fortune, however, came from sewage.


Having received his engineering degree in 1885, he married New York City socialite Frances Walker at the age of 27 in 1890.  The following year he was appointed Professor of Steam Engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.    As the couple started their family, they lived at No. 294 Madison Avenue in a socially-enviable neighborhood.

De Berkeley Parsons’ career took a turn in 1906 when he was appointed Chairman of the city’s Commission on Street Cleaning and Waste Disposal.  He stepped down from his teaching position, retaining the title of Professor Emeritus of Practical Engineering at the school for the remainder of his life.    The engineer’s life in sewage was just beginning.

The following year on January 10 the Mayor appointed him Consulting Engineer of the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission.  The commission was established to investigate the sewage of New York Bay and its rivers.   He was additionally appointed Consulting Engineer to the Street Cleaning Department of New York City.

Harry de Berkeley Parsons’ work environment was perhaps less glamorous than banking or real estate; but his wealth and family name kept his social prominence intact.  In addition to their Manhattan home, the family maintained a sprawling summer estate, “The Rest,” in Rye, New York.  He held memberships in the exclusive Union Club, the Down Town Club, the Engineers Club and the Apawamis Club.  But his great love was yachting.

In 1904 he was a member of the racing committee of the New York Yacht Club and the following year he was admitted as a member.  It was a long-awaited gesture, since de Berkeley Parsons had been chairman of the race committee of the American Yacht Club every year since 1896.  The sailing engineer once said of his favorite sport “Yachting has a peculiar charm which is difficult to describe.  I fancy it comes from the feeling of freedom and from the intimate companionship which is so pleasant.  Men who are fond of the sea are usually fearless, frank and good sportsmen, qualities which make for stanch friendships and the pleasantest associations.”

Shortly after giving up his position in Troy, de Berkeley Parsons began thinking about a new residence.  The blocks between 5th and Madison Avenues along Central Park had been filling with grand mansions for two decades.    In 1909 construction began on the de Berkeley Parsons House at No. 36 East 61st Street.  On July 2, 1910 The New York Times noted “Mr. and Mrs. Harry de Berkeley Parsons will move into their new house in the autumn,” and on October 20 reported that they “will return to town from Rye, New York, and open their house in East 61st Street for the winter.”

The new mansion replaced an old brownstone residence built about 40 years earlier.  Unlike its reserved, dour predecessor this house did not hold back.  An ebullient Beaux Arts showplace of limestone, marble and red brick, its bowed fa├žade swelled in pride.   A deep portico sheltered the doorway, upheld by two polished marble Doric columns.   The red brick served merely as a background to the contrasting white stone.  The chic and impressive residence left no doubt as to the family’s social standing.

photo by Alice Lum
The home became the scene of dinner parties and teas, but none so important to Frances as the series of entertainments in 1915.  That year daughter Katharine was presented to society.    The month of socially-proper events started on December 2 when Frances gave an afternoon reception and ended on December 23 with a dance at Sherry’s.   Wealthy socialites vied for crucial Christmas week fetes and obtaining Sherry’s that night was a coup for Frances.

By 1917 Harry de Berkeley Parsons was nationally recognized as a yachting authority.  That year, as World War I raged on in Europe, he was made the Chairman of the Racing Committee of the New York Yacht Club.  In an odd turn of events, the appointment would bring the war to his doorstep.

Deeply-veined marble columns support the portico -- photo by Alice Lum
In mid-February someone broke into the American Yacht Club clubhouse and rummaged through the records.   Shortly after, a burglar broke into the de Berkeley Parsons mansion and rifled through papers.  The New York Times reported that “Some of the members suspect the man was a German spy, intent on obtaining information about yachts that would be available to the Government in the event of war with Germany.  In support of this theory they point to the fact that nothing was stolen from the clubhouse or the home of Mr. Parsons, although there was valuable silverware at the latter place.”

The family had no reason to believe that the attempted burglary would not be the most momentous happening of the year.   Frances carried on her activities as a member of the committee that organized debutante dances for the Junior Assemblies.    Katherine continued her social obligations and son Livingston entered the military as U.S. involvement in the war became evident.

But as spring neared, Frances became ill.  The illness worsened, turning to pneumonia, and on Friday April 20 she died in the house on East 61st Street.

photo by Alice Lum
Harry and his two adult children remained for a while in the grand mansion he had built for Frances just seven years earlier.   Their social lives returned somewhat to normalcy by 1919 when the three were guests for a month at the Irving House at Southampton, Long Island, then finished the summer at The Rest in Rye.

Perhaps the memories in the 61st Street house were too much; but when the family returned to Manhattan in October Harry sold the house for $175,000 and moved into an expansive, 14-room apartment at No. 125 East 72nd Street.

The house became home to Dr. Russell Right Morse and his wife, the former Melva Griffin of Minneapolis.  In 1924 the doctor’s office was installed in the ground floor.   Here the esteemed neurologist and his wife became the parents of Melva Griffin Morse on December 22, 1931.

photo by Alice Lum
In 1942 the house was converted to apartments, two to a floor.   Today the once-elegant block is filled with architecturally-dismal apartment buildings and a distracting red canvas awning stretches from the marble columns of No. 36 to the curb.  Amazingly, the last remaining brownstone house like the one that Harry de Berkeley Parsons’ mansion replaced still survives next door.

The two structures, along with their 20th century neighbors, present an interesting social and architectural timeline of East 61st Street.

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