Friday, December 14, 2012

The Architectural Surprise at No. 23 East 73rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1871, as the new Central Park neared completion, the blocks stretching east from Fifth Avenue filled with rows of brownstone residences.  Along the north side of East 73rd Street that year J. W. Marshall commissioned architect James E. Coburn to design a row of 10 speculative residences from No. 13 to 31.

By the turn of the century these near identical upper-middle class homes were stylistically obsolete as New York’s wealthiest families spread northward up Fifth Avenue.   One by one they were razed to be replaced by limestone or marble mansions; or their outdated facades were stripped off and replaced with fashionable fronts.

As the changes were taking place in the neighborhood, Judson Scott Todd was winning the favor of debutante Elizabeth Newcomb Hall.  Todd was president of the State Realty & Mortgage Co. and a member of the exclusive Union League Club.  His colonial roots earned him a membership in the Sons of the Revolution, as well.

On Thursday May 14, 1908 at noon, Todd married the Smith College alumna in a quiet ceremony in her parents’ home at No. 107 East 65th Street.   The newlyweds arranged a “motor tour” of Europe as part of their honeymoon, before returning to New York.  They moved into No. 45 West 50th Street while contemplating their permanent home.  Here on May 26, 1909 their first son, Judson Scott was born.

Before a second baby, Merwin, would arrive on May 22, 1911 the family would have a new home.  Todd purchased and demolished one of the old brownstones on East 73rd Street—No. 23—and commissioned architects George and Edward Blum to design a fashionable new mansion.   What he got was an unexpected blend of incongruous architectural styles.

The Beaux Arts style had been popular in New York for around two decades.   Mansions along Fifth Avenue and its side streets blossomed with carved garlands, fruits and floral motifs.   But by now the more reserved Georgian revival, with its red brick and contrasting white stone trim, had gained immense popularity.  The Todd mansion would be a marriage of the two dissimilar styles.

Pristine neo-Georgian sits on flamboyant Beaux Arts -- photo by Alice Lum
The architects perched six stories of Georgian house upon a white stone Beaux Arts base.   Carved garlands draped above the imposing arched entrance, flanked by two oval windows.  Double entrance doors were protected by decorative French grillwork and graceful scrolled brackets upheld a projecting balcony.

At the second story French exuberance gave way to Colonial American reserve.  Red Flemish bond brick was highlighted by white limestone cornices and splayed lintels.   Above it all a two-story mansard roof slanted steeply back.

The Todd family moved into the new house in 1911, but their stay would not be long.  In the winter season of 1917-18, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius N. Bliss leased the house.    Bliss’s father had risen from a cotton merchant, manufacturer and banker to become Secretary of the Interior under President McKinley.  When he died in 1911, the younger Cornelius Bliss inherited approximately one-third of the $4 million estate.

The following year the noted lawyer Bourke Cockran leased the home for the winter season of 1918-19.  The furnished mansion cost Cockran a total rent of $8,000—about $80,000 today.   At the expiration of the lease, Judson Todd sold the house in March 1919 to Winthrop William Aldrich for $120,000.

photo by Alice Lum
Aldrich and his wife, the former Harriet Alexander, were still newlyweds; having married on December 7, 1916.  While he had served in the war as a Navy lieutenant, Harriet was busy on the home front in the war effort, serving as president of the Junior League and heading all of the organization’s war activities.  Aldrich’s own social standing was somewhat elevated by his sister’s marriage to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

The banker and son of the late Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Providence moved his wife and infant son into the house in November after expected renovations.

photo by Alice Lum
A year and a half later the house would be the scene of great joy and crushing tragedy.   On January 28, 1921 Harriet Aldrich gave birth to a daughter in the home.   The domestic bliss was shattered four weeks later when 3-year old Winthrop Williams Aldrich, Jr., became ill on the afternoon of February 25.  Physicians were summoned to the house but on Saturday morning the little boy who had been in apparent good health less than 24 hours earlier died.  Doctors attributed the death to acidosis.

Eventually the Aldrichs would return to their visible social activities.   Winthrop was a member of several elite clubs—the Metropolitan, Knickerbocker, University, Sleepy Hollow and Piping Rock Clubs among them—and an avid yachtsman.   Harriet busied herself by revitalizing the Museum of the City of New York and serving as vice president of the United Hospital Fund.   In August 1922 Aldrich would sail his schooner the Flying Cloud to victory, edging out Harold S. Vanderbilt’s Vagrant to win the Navy Cup.

Winthrop Aldrich would go on to become Chairman of the Board of Chase National Bank and President Eisenhower’s Ambassador to Great Britain; but by 1928 when a new baby boy was born, the family had moved a block north to No. 11 East 74th Street.

By now swell, modern Art Deco apartment buildings lured New York’s upper class.  Many of the grand private homes near the Park were either demolished or converted to apartments.    Such was the case of No. 23 East 73rd Street.  In 1937 it was converted to apartments—one each on first three floors, and two each on the floors above.

Today a fine arts gallery is housed in the ground floor.  Nearly a century after its construction the architecturally-unusual fa├žade—a somewhat astonishing marriage of France and America—remains unchanged. 
No. 23 sits among a row of fine mansions -- photo by Alice Lum

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