Thursday, February 28, 2013

The 1899 Francis Stetson House - No. 4 E. 74th Street


photo by Alice Lum
In the final years of the 19th century, brothers William A. and Thomas M. Hall busied themselves with speculative development in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood along Central Park.   William was Director of the Publishers’ Paper Co., but his income was greatly increased by the construction and sale of luxurious mansions for the city’s wealthiest citizens.

In 1898 they commissioned architect Alexander Welch of Welch, Smith and Provot to design a magnificent residence at No. 4 East 74th Street.  Welch would be responsible for several mansions built by the Hall brothers, and this one would be among his finest.

Completed a year later, it was imposing.  A rusticated limestone base was dominated by a bowed portico supported by garland-swagged columns.   A carved stone balcony above the entrance introduced the two-story bay with small-paned windows.  Limestone quoins along the side of the structure and the bay contrasted with the warm red brick.  To preserve the proportions, the sixth floor was set back so as to be nearly invisible from the street.
Behind the overhanging cornice hides the sixth floor -- photo by Alice Lum
The newly-completed mansion was purchased by Francis Lynde Stetson and his wife, the former Elizabeth Ruff.  Stetson was a highly-regarded and successful corporate attorney, the head of the firm Stetson, Jennings & Russell, and who had formerly been the law partner of Grover Cleveland.

Francis Lynde Stetson -- photo Library of Congress 
Stetson was involved in important causes of the period.  He was a member of the American Forestry Association, founded in 1875 to promote conservation of existing forests—an amazingly early example of environmental awareness.  He was also a member of the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis at a time when the disease devastated crowded urban areas like New York.

Elizabeth Stetson’s health began to decline around 1914 and she took on 19-year old Margery H. Lee as her secretary.  As her condition worsened, the young woman moved into the Stetson mansion in 1916.  What followed would raise the eyebrows of wealthy socialites throughout the city.

A chubby face is worked into the carved cartouche above the fourth floor windows -- photo by Alice Lum
Elizabeth Ruff Stetson died in the house on April 16, 1917.   Less than five months later, on September 6,  Stetson, now 71 years old, adopted the 22-year old woman as his daughter and heir to his fortune.  He explained to a reporter from The Sun in a telephone interview that “My wife was very fond of Miss Lee.”  He also noted that she “shall continue to bear her own name and to be known thereby.”

If the arrangement was unexpected by New York society, it was also unexpected by her father.  The Sun reported that “Miss Lee’s father, when seen at his Germantown home, expressed surprise at his daughter’s adoption.”

In December 1918 Stetson fell ill.  He was confined to the house on 74th Street until, finally, on March 8 seemed to improve.  The New York Times reported that “He is able to sit up and spends much time every day in his library.”

The newspaper’s assessment of his condition, however, was optimistic.   On February 5, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported that he was “confined to his residence at 4 East Seventy-fourth Street, suffering from thrombosis, involving a partial paralysis.”  The newspaper could not resist mentioning that Miss Margery H. Lee was his heir.

On December 5, 1920 the aged attorney died.  The gossip and speculation that Margery Lee would be the sole heiress to the Stetson estate were proved untrue when the lawyer’s will was probated.   Williams College received over $1 million of his $3 million estate.  The institution received the bequeath on the condition that it would “keep in good order of the Williams College cemetery and the grounds and monument of my beloved wife and myself.”   A long list of charities and organizations received bequests including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Botanical Society, the Bar Association, the Lying-in Hospital and the Young Men’s Christian Association.

As for Margery Lee, she could not complain.  She received a trust fund of $300,000—equal to about $3 million today.


photo by Alice Lum
The house at No. 4 East 74th Street, assessed at $140,000, also went to Williams College.  The following year the mansion was purchased by Edward L. Ballard, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Merchants Fire Assurance Corporation of New York.  The Ballards had one daughter, Elizabeth, and in December 1927 she was introduced to society.  Along with the entertainments in the mansion, her mother gave a luncheon in the Florentine Room of the Park Lane for Elizabeth.  The guest list included not only the girls of wealthy New York families, but some from Philadelphia and Boston.

The Ballards maintained a summer estate, Graeloe, in Ridgefield, Connecticut.  There on September 3, 1936 the beautiful Elizabeth G. Ballard married James M. Doubleday, the Vice President of the First National Bank of Ridgefield.  The New York Times noted that “After their wedding trip Mr. Doubleday and his bride will make their home in New York.”

That home would be No. 4 East 74th Street.

Doubleday obtained a position with the New York Trust Company and a year later, in 1937, a son was born to the couple.  That same year they purchased a 40-acre estate in Ridgefield near the Ballard home.  The joyful events of 1937 came to an end on New Year’s Eve when Edward Ballard died.  He left an estate of about $2 million.

Elizabeth sold the house in April 1940 to Mrs. Theodore Grubb.   Grand mansions in the post-Depression years were often viewed as white elephants and the new buyer would hold onto the property only long enough to convert it into apartments—one per floor.  In July 1942 investor Mary E. Crocker bought the altered home.  Interestingly, in reporting the sale The Times reported that it was built “from plans by Andrew McKenzie,” the architect responsible for the 1905 New York Times Building.


photo by Alice Lum
The house saw the arrival and departure of a variety of residents; but none was more celebrated than Russian artist Marc Chagall and his wife who arrived in 1943.   Chagall was not the hot artist in New York that he had been in Paris; although he was given a major retrospective in 1946 by the Museum of Modern Art.

Although the Chagalls lived in the most exclusive part of town, the artist was most comfortable in the Lower East Side, chatting with Jewish immigrants and reading Yiddish-language newspapers like the Forward.

The Stetson mansion was converted once again in 1948 when Dr. H. Bakst installed his office and apartment in the lower floors.  Finally in 1995 it was reconverted to a single-family home as increasingly multimillionaires discovered the prestige and luxury of returning the grand mansions to private homes.

3 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Headline says E. 74, 2nd paragraph says W. 74 & other references later say E. 74. It is E. right?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Most definitely East. That's what happens when you edit your own work BEFORE the coffee. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks. Your editing is usually perfect so I guess you usually do it after!

    ReplyDelete