Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Palmer-Starr House -- No. 19 East 73rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
As Central Park neared completion the streets between Fifth and Madison Avenues quickly filled with chocolate-colored brownstone residences.  Intended for the middle and upper-middle classes, they were mostly carbon copies with shared cornices, steep stoops over deep basements, and rows of windows that lined up down the block.

In 1871 developer James E. Coburn commissioned J. W. Marshall to design a long row of ten such homes along East 73rd Street, stretching from No. 13 to 31.   The five-story residences featured attractive details like bay windows at the parlor level and incised window enframements.

The merchant class neighborhood began changing as the turn of the century neared.  Fifth Avenue along the park saw the arrival of the grand limestone and marble mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens.   One by one the brownstone homes of a generation earlier on the side streets were either razed or converted to fashionable showplaces for the rich.

In 1908 Nicholas Fletcher Palmer, president of both the Leather Manufacturers National Bank and N. F. Palmer & Co., a shipbuilding firm, purchased No. 19.    The Palmers chose what was by now an impressive residential block.  Five years earlier publisher Joseph Pulitzer had commissioned Stanford White to erect a Venetian Renaissance palace on the site of five brownstone houses just east of the Palmer House.    Next door to them at No. 17 was Pulitzer’s son, Ralph who had renovated the outdated house to a neo-Renaissance mansion.  Other millionaires on the block would include Albert A. Berg, Robert Cuddihy, president of Funk & Wagnalls; George Doubleday, chairman of Ingersoll-Rand; and Albert Blum.

The Palmers put architect F. H. Dodge to work on transforming their somewhat stuffy brownstone into a socially-acceptable home.  Dodge had recently returned to New York after having designed a servant quarters and laundry building for the massive Henry M. Flagler mansion in Palm Beach.    For the Palmer house he would turn to a variation of the newly-popular Federal Revival style.

Dodge removed the brownstone fa├žade and dropped the entrance to street level.   A formal, Ionic portico sheltered the centered entrance in the rusticated limestone base and provided a small balcony at the second story.  Here three limestone arches framed delicate multi-paned windows capped with fanlights.   French doors opened onto the miniature balcony.  Above red brick contrasted with white limestone as the house rose to the dignified mansard roof with segmental-arched dormers.

photo by Alice Lum
Before long Nicholas and Laura Palmer moved into a home down the block at the corner of Fifth Avenue with the even more impressive address of No. 922 Fifth Avenue.  Stock broker son Francis F. Palmer and his wife, the former Isabel Fowler, took over the house at No. 19.   Francis was a member of the stock brokerage firm Palmer & Co., with offices at No. 40 Wall Street.   During the summer season the close-knit extended Palmer family—Nicholas and the two sons Francis and George—spent their time in separate residences on their sprawling 500-acre estate at Port Chester, New York. 

When Francis and Isabel would close the 73rd Street house for the season, their long-term butler, August Miller, would travel with them to The Alden, their Port Chester mansion.   Early in August 1915 the family left for a jaunt to the White Mountains, leaving Miller in charge of the staff and the house.   Their absence apparently seemed to be an opportunity to Miller.

On August 16 Miller entered a pawn shop at No. 1137 Second Avenue lugging a suit case filled with cut glass and silver.   The pawnbroker examined the goods, noticed that most of the silverware bore the monogram FFP and called the Third Branch Detective Bureau.    Miller explained that he needed “a little ready money on account of the illness and death of my wife,” and was unable to get in touch with Palmer.   Miller’s wife had died ten days earlier and he insisted that he intended to pawn the items only for a few days until he could collect on his wife’s insurance policy.  “Some of my creditors were pressing me for money.”

Detectives found checks for eight trunks in his clothing; and he admitted he had been pawning Mrs. Palmer’s items since August 7.   The silverware and glass in the suitcase alone was valued at around $1,500—or about $25,000 today.  The detectives were hard pressed to believe that Miller needed that much ready cash to satisfy his creditors.  Instead, they suspected the 43-year old was poised to take the money and return to his home country of Sweden. 

Miller’s story continued to unravel when it was discovered the Francis Palmer had paid for all the hospital expenses of the butler’s wife and for her funeral.

By the following season the Palmers were considering a new city home.  On December 30, 1916 The Sun reported that Palmer had filed plans for a $100,000 house on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 93rd Street, to be designed by Delano & Aldrich.  Like the 73rd Street house, this would be “in the Colonial style of architecture.”

Palmer held on to the house on East 73rd Street for a few years, leasing it to wealthy New Yorkers during the winter seasons.  In 1918 the esteemed architect John Russell Pope and his wife took the house, after summering in their estate in Jericho, Long Island.   Eventually, in January 1921, Palmer sold the house with its “electric elevator” for around $130,000.

Howard White Starr, retired vice-president of Theodore B. Starr & Co. took up residency in the house.   Starr’s exclusive jewelry store on Fifth Avenue at 47th Street had catered to the carriage trade.   Like its competitors such as Tiffany & Co. and Dreicer & Co., it offered “diamonds and pearls of exceptional quality, jewelry, watches, silverware, clocks, bronzes, stationery, and leather goods.”

photo by Alice Lum
Starr tempered his expertise in the jewelry field with an unlikely interest in technology.  He was perhaps as well known as a prominent electrical engineer as he was as a jeweler.    The family pedigree included Dr. Comfort Starr, a founder of Harvard College.  Susan Starr’s family tree included George H. Danforth, a founder of the New York Bank Note Company

Unlike the Palmers, the Starr family would make No. 19 East 73rd Street home for decades.

The family included six children—V. Rosamond, Natalie, Theodore, H. Danforth, Louis  and Malcolm.   V. Rosamond, the elder daughter, was introduced to society in 1926 at a dinner dance at Pierre’s given by her father.   Four years later her wedding reception was held in the house which “was decorated with butterfly roses and Southern smilax.”

Howard and Susan lived on in the house as their children grew, married and left.   In 1945 the aging couple moved to an apartment at No. 800 Park Avenue.   Here Howard died on November 29, 1946 at the age of 74.

That year the house on 73rd Street was converted to apartments—one per floor.   Over sixty years later it remains an upscale, multiple-resident dwelling, with still just one apartment to a floor.   On the exterior, little has changed since the Palmers sheared off the brownstone front and created their Colonial-inspired mansion.

photo by Alice Lum

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