Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The John J. Emery House -- No. 5 East 68th Street

photo by Alice Lum
John J. Emery was born in England—far from New York City—in 1838.   When he was still a boy, his parents immigrated to the developing Midwest, settling in Cincinnati, where opportunities were limitless.    They purchased property and began land development.

With his brother, Thomas, young John followed his parents' lead and entered the real estate field with vigor, establishing Thos. Emery's Sons, Inc.    The brothers enjoyed shared success and their fortunes soared.   By 1892 they had moved to New York City and, according to The New York Times, John himself owned 2,00 buildings in Cincinnati, a hotel and two theaters at the time. 

In 1892 John, aged 54, married the 18 year old Lela Alexander, the daughter of U.S. Army surgeon, Charles T. Alexander who would achieve the rank of Brigadier General.   The new Mrs. Emery had been born in a U.S. Army fort in the Indian Territories.   Theirs was a socially prominent wedding and the Emerys would produce three daughters and two sons.

John and Lela Emery would enter East Coast society by constructing two mansions—a Manhattan residence and the socially-required summer cottage.    Architect Bruce Price was commissioned in 1893 to design The Turrets—a massive granite summer house on Mount Desert Island in the exclusive Bar Harbor, Maine, community.  Costing $100,000—about $2 million today--it would take two years to complete and was among the grandest of the Bar Harbor retreats.

With that taken care of, John Emery turned his attention to Manhattan.  On May 13, 1894 the New York Tribune reported that he had purchased two lots from Dr. C. M. Bell on the north side of 62nd Street, 200 feet east of 5th Avenue, for $140,000.  “This is said to be the highest price paid for lots in this part of the city,” the newspaper said.

Emery had chosen well.  The neighborhood off Central Park had already begun filling with the marble and limestone mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens as they moved north away from encroaching commerce.    The real estate titan chose Boston architects Peabody & Stearns to design the house.   The firm was responsible for a number of Newport estates, including Rough Point and Rockhurst.    The firm did not struggle with the design.  In 1893 it had completed the mansion of railroad tycoon Charles L. Colby directly behind the property at No. 8 East 69th Street.  The back-to-back mansions would be near mirror images of one another—an architectural and social oddity at a time when one-upmanship was paramount.
Back-to-back with the Emery House was No. 8 East 69th Street--a near twin -- photo by Alice Lum
A year after The Turrets was completed, the family moved into No. 5 East 68th Street.   The mansion announced to New York Society that Mr. and Mrs. John Emery had arrived.  The immense limestone home rose four stories above a deep English basement.    A deep light moat was surrounded by a solid stone wall that kept passersby at a comfortable distance.  The western three bays bowed out, somewhat crowding the Corinthian entrance portico.   The stocky proportions would cause the AIA Guide to New York City to call it, decades later, “bloated.”

The portico was lavished with intricate carving -- photo by Alice Lum
Like the homes of other millionaires of the period, rooms of the house were imported from historic European structures.   Among these was a handsome Louis XVI room removed from a 19th century hotel on the Avenue de Trouville in Paris.

John and Lela Emery entered New York and Bar Harbor society at full swing.   Lela quickly became a consistant entry in the society pages, hosting dinners, dances and teas.   A decade of magnificent entertainments would end sadly in the summer of 1908.   The Bar Harbor season started out normally for the Emerys.  On July 12 the New-York Tribune reported that “The first reception of magnitude occurred Saturday at the Turrets, the cottage of Mr. and Mrs. John J. Emery of New York.  Mr. and Mrs. Emery received from 5 to 7, and the greater part of the summer colony here was present.”  Lela had a band set up on the lawn playing “patriotic airs and popular music.”

Six days later twenty privileged youngsters were entertained at a birthday party for one of the Emery children.   But soon afterwards, the 70-year old John became ill.    Pneumonia set in, and on August 22 the New-York Tribune reported that he was “seriously ill with pleurisy.”   He temporarily appeared that to improve; then on September 4 he relapsed.  Early in the morning of the following day he died in The Turrets.

John J. Emery left his wife a fortune of about $40 million.    His funeral was held in Cincinnati and, after the expected period of mourning, the family continued its social functions on East 68th Street and Bar Harbor.  Then in 1911 New York society’s attention was captured when Lela Emery announced she would remarry.

photo by Alice Lum
On July 1, 1912 in St. Bartholomew’s Chapel on Madison Avenue her marriage to the Honorable Alfred Anson “took place very quietly,” said The New York Times.  Anson and his best man, Lord Dalhousie, had arrived a few days earlier on the same steamer.  Unlike Lela’s first wedding, the ceremony was unquestionably understated.  There was no wedding announcement and she wore a “simple traveling gown.”  There were no ushers, and only four guests.  Lela’s father, General Alexander, gave her away.

The newspapers (and Manhattan society) took careful note of Alfred Anson’s pedigree.  The New York Times remarked “Mr. Anson is a member of one of the most noted families of the British aristocracy.”  His brother was the Earl of Richfield; his mother was the former Lady Harriet Hampton, the daughter of the Duke of Abercorn.  He was the nephew of the Marchioness of Blandford, mother of the Duke of Marlborough, and his aunt was the Duchess of Buccleuch.   Lela Alexander had come a long way from an Indian Territory Army fort.

In the wedding notice The Times mentioned that she had “inherited many millions…She owns a splendid house at 5 East Sixty-eighth Street, and The Turrets at Bar Harbor.”    The two properties would remain her homes as she started a new marriage and the couple immediately headed off to summer at The Turrets.

In 1916 Anson left New York to join the British forces in Italy fighting the war.  Lela Emery Anson managed without him for the remainder of the war, moving from Manhattan to Bar Harbor with the three children who still remained at home. 

While Lela Emery’s 1912 wedding in St. Bartholomew’s was a simple, quiet affair, the wedding of her daughter Alexandra in the same church eight years later would be anything but.   On December 9, 1920 she married Benjamin Moore, son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Clement C. Moore.  The New-York Tribune called it “one of the most brilliant weddings of the fall” and the church filled with society’s most celebrated names.  Among the guests were five Vanderbilts, John Jacob Astor, Mrs. Henry Clews, Mrs. I. Townsend Burden, Jr. and her daughter, and Mrs. Belmont Tiffany.  Following the ceremony Lela Anson hosted a reception at the 68th Street house.
photo by Alice Lum

In 1925 Thomas Emery was married in London and the following year Lela’s last two single children were married and left the house.    On August 31, 1926 John married the daughter of artist Charles Dana Gibson and two months later Audrey wed the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia.

The Honorable Alfred Anson died in 1944 and Lela Emery Anson lived on, now alone, with her staff of servants.  Despite her advancing age she continued the life to which she was so accustomed, dividing her time among her New York, Bar Harbor, Palm Beach and Biarritz, France homes.   On July 15, 1953 the daughter of an Army surgeon who rose to become an internationally prominent society figure died in her massive Bar Harbor cottage at the age of 88.

Twelve years later, in May 1965, the Emery mansion became home to the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia.  The Consulate has lovingly maintained the house which looks nearly unchanged after 117 years.


  1. Alexandra Emery and her husband Benjamin Moore commissioned Delano and Aldrich to design a country house for them on the North Shore of Long Island. Christened "Chelsea", it is now open to the public as the Muttontown Preserve. A long gallery in the house hung with murals by Misia Sert is one of the little heralded treasures of the Long Island Parks Department.

  2. Fine article. Thanks.
    Sue Ann Painter, Cincinnati

  3. Is this Benjamin Moore related to the paint company, Benjamin Moore?

    1. No, this is not Benjamin Moore the paint company.