Thursday, December 6, 2012

The 1893 Wm. Buchanan House -- No. 14 East 69th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The block between Central Park and Madison Avenue on 69th Street experienced a flurry of development in the last two decades of the 19th century.   Well-to-do bankers and businessmen razed the brownstone residences of a generation earlier—or had them renovated beyond recognition—and erected fashionable mansions.   Among them was Scottish-born William L. Buchanan who, in 1892, laid plans for a new house at No. 14.

The retired manufacturer was 64 years old and married to the former Mary Josephine Pise of Brooklyn.    He had left the shipping firm of Gilmours in Quebec in 1851 to start a tobacco business in New York, one of the first in the city.    Later he branched out into jute, founding the firm of Buchanan & Lyle and the Plant Jute Mills.

By 1892 he had amassed a sizeable fortune.  The couple kept a winter estate in Bermuda and, with their children grown, the Buchanans no doubt planned to spend their golden years in a fine home in an equally fine neighborhood.    Buchanan commissioned architect Lansing C. Holden to design the roomy 30-foot wide residence.     Lansing would become known for his impressive Beaux Arts buildings; but for the Buchanan home he turned to the French Renaissance.

Completed in 1893, it was decorated in delicate Francois I ornamentation.    The limestone façade dripped with slender, engaged colonnettes that sat on floral bosses.  A second story oriel provided relief to the otherwise flat façade and on the fourth floor three deeply-recessed openings pretended to be a quaint loggia.  An offset pyramidal roof broke free of the flat angle of the mansard roof.   The Buchanans had added another “ornament” to the distinguished block.

The street address was worked into the ornamental iron grill above the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
As was often the case in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the title was put in Mary’s name.  The practice assured wives of financial stability in the case of the husband’s death.    The aging couple was not especially active in social circles, but lived quietly in the house attended to by their staff of servants.

On Wednesday, June 24, 1908, fifteen years after moving in, Mary Josephine Pise Buchanan died in the house at the age of 73.  In a somewhat unusual decision for the time, the funeral was not held in the home, but at St. Agnes’s Church on East 43rd Street.   Buchanan requested through the newspapers “kindly omit flowers.”

The house as it appeared around the time of William Buchanan's death -- photo NYPL Collection
William L. Buchanan lived on in the 69th Street house, alone, for another three years.  He died suddenly at his Bermuda house in November 1911.  In an executor’s sale in December the following year, William M. Cahill purchased the house for $123,000.  The banker was the President of the Mercantile Trust Company headquartered in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In 1945, a year after the house was converted to apartments, potted greenery adorns the fence posts and entrance -- photo NYPL Collection
Before long another banker, Dr. Charles A. Holder acquired the house.  Holder was President of the Park-Union Foreign Banking Corporation.   But, like Cahill, he would not stay on in the limestone mansion for long.  In 1920 he leased the house “for a term of years,” and in 1922 he sold it.

Like many of the grand homes on the Upper East Side as the 20th century progressed, the Buchanan house would not survive much longer as a private home.  In 1944, while the United States was embroiled in the second World War abroad and hulking residences had passed from fashion, the mansion was converted to apartments – two per floor.

photo by Alice Lum
Despite the conversion, William and Mary Buchanan’s splendid retirement home is virtually unchanged on the exterior.  The formidable paneled entrance doors and the intricate wrought iron overlight survive with the other architectural details; preserving No. 14 as an ornament to the block well over a century after its completion.

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