Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The John D. Crimmins House -- No. 40 East 68th Street


photo by Alice Lum
In 1874 George W. Pettit, a music teacher in Grammar School No. 36, lived in a comparatively modest home at No. 40 East 68th Street.   Four years later, while his son Henry was attending Columbia University, he sold the property to John Daniel Crimmins.

Crimmins had entered his father’s construction contracting business at the age of 20.   He took over the firm in 1873 and by now the boy with a public school education was a director in at least a dozen corporations or banks.  His company was responsible for constructing the Croton Aqueduct, multiple gas facilities, most of the elevated railroads and would construct the early subway system—what the New-York Tribune called the “underground trolley system.”

The contractor commissioned German-born architect William Schickel to design a more fashionable brownstone house on the site of Pettit’s home.  In the meantime, George and Nathaniel Williams were erecting a similar residence next door at No. 42.

Crimmins and his wife filled the house with a collection of prints, books, historical documents--and children.  The couple shared the house with their ten sons and daughters.  Devoutly Catholic, Crimmins was a prominent parishioner of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and donated altars, sculptures and paintings to the church.  He involved his family in his charitable works and every Christmas Day the entire family would don white aprons and serve dinner to the indigent, elderly women at the Little Sisters of the Poor on East 70th Street.

In 1898 the Crimmins's drawing room was an eclectic mix.  "Moorish" style upholstered chairs share space with a French screen covered in Japanese print.  An ebonized upright piano has Empire decorations.  Heavy velvet draperies hang alongside Art Nouveau-inspired wallcovering.  -- photo Museum of the City of New York
When his wife died in 1888 John Crimmins erected a memorial chapel adjacent to the Corpus Christi Monastery at Hunt’s Point.

John D. Crimmins and his children lived on in the house at No. 40 and he continued his generous gifts to the Roman Catholic Church.  On New Year’s Day 1893 he wrote to The Most Rev. M. A. Corrigan, president of the Board of Managers of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, saying in part “Appreciating the need of funds to meet the cost of erection of the new building, the sum which I have enclosed on account of the endowment ($5,000) I shall be pleased to have the treasurer use.  When the value of the endowment is determined I will pay the balance.”

Next door lived the family of Henry Hildburg, the owner of the insurance firm Hildburg & Co.   Lillian Hildburg, described by The Sun as “a handsome woman,” was the daughter of Gottlieb Rosenblatt, one of the wealthiest Jewish businessmen in the city.  The couple had two children.

In the Fall of 1890 Lillian developed “symptoms of mental aberration,” as described by The Sun.   Three nurses from Mount Sinai Hospital were hired to watch over the 35-year old.  Then early in November a nurse left Mrs. Hildburg’s bedroom for a moment and when she returned found the woman gone.

The house was searched while Henry Hildburg went to the East 77th Street police Station for help.  The search went on all night and at 7:00 am Hildburg walked the block and a half to Central Park, asking for any information at the arsenal.  Fifteen minutes after he returned home, the door bell rang.  A servant of Thomas Powell Fowler who lived directly across the street, reported that a woman was lying on the pavement.

“It was Mrs. Hildburg,” reported The Sun, “She was completely dressed, even to her diamond earrings.  She was dead.”

There were no open windows and, due to the house having been thoroughly searched, it was surmised that she had hidden on the roof all night, finally throwing herself to her death.

As the Crimmins children grew, the house apparently became too small.  In 1897 Crimmins purchased the Hildburg house and called back William Schickel, now in partnership with Isaac E. Ditmars, to combine the two homes.  The neighborhood was filling with fashionable mansions as New York’s wealthiest citizens migrated northward and the architects would take the opportunity to create a totally new façade equal to its newer neighbors.

The renovation was completed a year later.   Two rather drab brownstones were now melded into a dazzling Beaux Arts beauty.  The white stone façade stood in stark contrast to its chocolate-colored neighbors.   Four stories tall, including an elegant mansard level, it sat above a deep rusticated English basement.  A two-story bay provided a large balcony at the third floor with an ornate French railing.  John D. Crimmins, the son of an Irish immigrant, had unmistakably arrived.


Previously looking like its brownstone neighbors, the combined Crimmins house now stood out -- photo Museum of the City of New York
Crimmins’s library of rare books and manuscripts continued to grow.  The New York Times noted that “For years Mr. Crimmins has been known…as the owner of one of the finest private libraries and the ready purchaser of any volume that suited his fancy, regardless of the price.”  He employed Edward Kearney in 1899 as “second secretary.”  Kearney was responsible for the care of the collection and the arrangement of the extensive number of autographed letters.

In the Spring of 1902 Crimmins noted that several of his most valuable books were missing.   “But his treasures are scattered indiscriminately all over his large house, and, as he is not of a suspicious nature, a great many of his most expensive volumes had vanished before he became convinced that thievery was going on.”

John Crimmins's personal study had an interior wall of stained glass.  A rubber tube connects a table lamp to the gas supply from the overhead fixture.  On the wall hang some of the millionaire's collection of rare autographs and documents.  -- photo Museum of the City of New York
Among his most cherished books now missing was a unique 1627 volume of Smith’s “History of Virginia.”  Now that Crimmins was convinced that thievery was going on, he embarked on his own investigation.   He ventured into the rare book shops of Fifth Avenue and casually mentioned that he would like an original “History of Virginia.”  Before long he found his lost copy.

In the basement of the house on 68th Street was an enormous vault, the combination of which only one other person besides Crimmins knew—Edward Kearney.

The 30-year old secretary confessed to the robberies.  Crimmins told reporters he “felt very sorry” for him.  He said the young man was “his own worst enemy, being at times addicted to drink.  It is exceedingly disagreeable to have to bring these charges against one who was employed in my own house.”

A stone balustrade protects the mansard roof and French ironwork decorates the balcony and third-floor windows -- photo by Alice Lum
The Crimmins house was rarely the scene of grand social events.  On April 3, 1907, however it saw the wedding of Constance Crimmins and Frederick Robbins Childs.  The pro-rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Monsignor Lavelle, performed the ceremony.

Another wedding took place in the house a decade later when Evelyn Crimmins married Arthur Cox Patterson on April 14, 1917.  Monsignor Lavelle officiated again.  Evelyn received the house at No. 39 East 83rd Street as a wedding present from her father.

Just four months later another Crimmins child would marry; albeit with less social decorum.   Rumors swirled that young Cyril Crimmins had eloped with a showgirl.  Finally on September 2 The Sun broke the story.  “The report which has been current for the past week the Cyril Crimmins, a son of John D. Crimmins…had married Miss Kathryn Daly, one of the original members of the cast of the Ziegfeld ‘Midnight Frolic,’ was confirmed yesterday.”  The newspaper added “At the Crimmins home yesterday it was said that the wedding had taken place.”

The Sun complimented the bride on “her beauty and her dancing” which it said made her one of the Follies’ most popular members.  “Mrs. Crimmins appeared in the farce ‘Twin Beds’ after several months with the first Frolic show, and later rejoined the Ziegfeld organization, appearing as one of the ‘sweeties’ in the current attraction and taking a prominent part in the show.”

Two months after the scandalous reporting, John D. Crimmins contracted pneumonia.  On November 9, 1917 he died in the house on East 68th Street.  Seven of his ten children were at his bedside—the three others, all lieutenants in the Army, were overseas fighting the war.

On the morning of November 12 the casket was removed from the house.  “Thousands of persons stood with uncovered heads yesterday as the body of John D. Crimmins was borne from the family residence at 40 East Sixty-eighth street to St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” reported The Sun.  The cavernous cathedral was packed and mourners stood in the aisles.  Fifty priests from the different churches of New York joined the procession and one hundred boys from the Catholic Orphan Asylum attended the funeral.  Crimmins casket bore the decoration of the Knights of St. Gregory; an honor bestowed upon him by Pope Leo XIII in 1901.

Within three months of the funeral the Crimmins children left the house they grew up in.  The Sun reported on March 26, 1918 that “The Crimmins family…will occupy the dwelling at 15 East Sixty-second street, a small house, in the future.”   As partial payment for their family home, which was sold for $350,000, they received the house of Alfred S. Rossin, valued at $97,000.

Robust Beaux Arts carvings, like over-spilling cornacopiae, decorate the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Rossin was a partner along with his brothers in their father’s tobacco firm, S. Rossin & Sons.   His wife, Clara, was the daughter of Adolph Lewisohn who, with his brothers, amassed enormous fortunes in copper in the 1870s.  The couple moved in to the house with their five children and Clara went to work to bring the big house up to date.

Although, like other socialites, she filled the house with European antiques, tapestries and paintings, she had a keen eye for the contemporary.  She commissioned artist Clagett Wilson to paint murals on the walls of the music room.  It was this room that would be the center of entertainment in the home.

Clara Rossin hosted monthly musicales which presented new works of modern composers to her guests.   The newest works of composers like Bartok and Ravel were often first heard in the music room of the Rossin house.

Clara’s wide-flung interests went beyond music; she loved modern dance and was fascinated with Isadora Duncan, she played golf, and was the President of the Hebrew Technical School for Girls.  In the meantime, her more mundane husband retired from the tobacco business in January 1922 to accept the post of President of the Public National Bank and Trust Company of New York.

On December 17, 1927 the 47-year old Clara Rossin left the house for her customary afternoon walk along Fifth Avenue and into Central Park.   She suddenly felt ill and hailed a taxicab to take her home.  When they arrived at the house a few minutes later, the driver helped her into the house.   A servant helped put her on a sofa in the parlor.  The family physician was called but before he arrived Clara Rossin was dead of a heart attack.

The private funeral was held in the house.

Although daughter Carol was married in the mansion on April 8, 1937, there would be little entertaining following Clara’s death.  The music-filled mansion fell silent.  Alfred lived on in the grand home until he died in his sleep in June 1947 at the age of 80.

In place of the dramatic staircase, a rather industrial entrance was added -- photo by Alice Lum
As with many of the great mansions off Central Park, the Crimmins house was divided into apartments.  At some point the sweeping entrance staircase was removed, the doorway moved to the basement level, and the decorative iron cresting on the roof was lost.   Despite the alterations, it remains an architectural treasure.

13 comments:

  1. I grew up around the corner from this wonderful house. For many years, you could peer into the 2nd floor East bay window to see a room richly furnished in the Louis XV/Louis XVI style. It was very grand, very old fashioned and, at least from the outside, appeared slightly dusty and unused. I never saw a light burning there. When I first read Dickens (this would have been in the 1970's)and encountered Miss Havisham, I pictured her living behind that bay window.

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  2. Fascinating house. Thanks for the post.

    But is it on East Or West 68th Street? The first sentence says West, but the title and I think the rest of the post uses East.

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    1. Most definitely East. Thanks for catching that. It's all fixed now!

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  3. Its one of the most glorious looking buildings I've seen as a residence in my life. Its as if it was imported straight out of modern aged London. Such great craftsmanship.

    -Adam Ahmed

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  4. I have lived in a garden apartment in this building for over ten years. It really is a stunning structure.

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  5. I found Cyril's Army trunk at Re-Store in Stratford, CT today, and decided to look him up. Interesting piece!

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    1. I did the same exact thing, and took a bunch of photos of it :)

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  6. Thank you for this marvelous piece, which I only just came across. My understanding is that the "underground trolley system" you mention was not actually an early subway system, but rather an underground electric powering system. In July of 1895, Crimmins initiated a project to score Lenox Avenue in Harlem with an electrical trolley line that was inspired and adopted from a similar system in Buda-Pesth, Hungary. His system spanned the 21-block stretch between 146th and 125th Streets. From there it went west to Manhattan Avenue, and then down to 116th Street. The considered success of Crimmins' Lenox Avenue surface railway experiment fueled an ambitious development idea he expressed, as the New York Times reported it, “to create a special neighborhood--something on the plan designed for the King model houses,” best known today as Harlem’s Striver’s Row. He’d recently bought the entire two Lenox Avenue to Seventh Avenue blocks--between 143rd and 144th Streets, and from 144th to 145th Streets--for about $400,000 each from Thomas L. Watt. But Crimmins' "special neighborhood" project was never realized. By March 1898 he'd leased two adjacent lots on the southwest corner of the Lenox Avenue and 145th Street intersection, upon which was built a three-story hotel and saloon. That particular corner building still stands today (albeit defunct), an example of Crimmins' noted penchant for corner building lots. The little building's most famous incarnation was as the former Hotel Olga, Harlem's foremost swank hotel for African-American travelers during the storied Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. -- Eric K. Washington

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  7. My name Martin Lalor Crimmins I am the great great grandson of John D. Crimmins. If anyone needs any information regarding the New York property and or Firwood the summer house which was lived in by the Ewing family. Let me know as I do have several letters written by my Grandfather. Sadly, Firwood was leveled to the ground, I suspect it will be turned into condos of some sort. It is refreshing that people still appreciate historical buildings and their impact on future generations.

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    1. My name is Lenny Babbish; we had a telephone conversation a few years ago during which you directed me to Mary Ewing. She invited me to lunch at Firwood which was very exciting for me, having read about it in the NY Public Library. She and I had a wonderful visit and I invited Mary to my home on East 68th Street which was built by John D. Crimmins in 1881 and had been inhabited by Ernest Simpson and Wallis Warfield before they were married. Mary told me she had never been in one of her grandfather's houses and was very much looking forward to our visit. We spoke on the phone a few times afterward, but her health failed and it was never arranged. When I pulled up to Firwood, Mary came outside to greet me and I mentioned that she looked very much like her great grandfather. She said "you mean my grandfather" and I said no, she looked like her great grandfather Thomas. She told me she had never seen a picture of Thomas and was also looking forward to that. All this to say, if you'd like to be in touch (I think you moved to California from E 67th street sometime after our phone conversation), please feel free to email: MLBthree@aol.com

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  8. I ran across this house looking for a structure seen in a 1970 Chrysler New Yorker sales brochure, although not the same structure it is remarkably similar, quite probably the same architect. The structure in question can be seen in this picture...
    http://www.mrmopar.com/fcbo/New_Yorker/1970_Chrysler_New_Yorker.png
    I scanned much of the Lower East Side but it appears this house may not exist anymore.

    Feel free to contact me if this house rings a bell.

    Alan cuda_al@yahoo.com

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    1. The ad shows what appears to be a semi-circular drive. Unless it was mocked up for the shot that would mean this photo was not taken in Manhattan. (Actually, the more I look at it the more the shrubbery, etc., looks faked.) The house does not ring bells and may be one of the hundreds of demolished mansions on the UES.

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  9. For certain you wouldn't find it on the Lower East Side. You might try the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side or Morningside Heights. It does look vaguely familiar, especially where it joins the other house. I agree that the extra shubbery has been added.

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