Friday, February 1, 2013

The 1902 J. S. Uhlman House -- No. 24 E. 81st Street




photo by Alice Lum
Wealthy leather merchant Julien Stevens Ulman was 36 years old when he took Gertrude Oldfield Barclay as his wife on April 29, 1901.   The newlyweds would quickly throw themselves into the swirl of fashionable society.  Just eleven days later the New-York Tribune noted “Mr. and Mrs. Julien Stevens Ulman…will visit Newport and Southampton this summer, and make frequent coaching trips around New-York, which will be their headquarters, on account of Mr. Ulman’s business.  They will take a party of friends to the races to-morrow on their coach.”

With their summer social plans laid out, Ulman now had the task of finding a suitable home for his bride.  As luck would have it speculative builder J. C. Lyons was busy at work on East 81st Street.     The block between Central Park and Madison Avenue had been, only a few years earlier, far from the rows of mansions that defined Millionaires Row south of 54th Street.   Now those wealthy families had spread up Fifth Avenue along the park far north of the unpleasant encroachment of business.

Lyons commissioned the architectural firm of Buchman & Fox to design a splendid residence fit for the likes of its Fifth Avenue neighbors.  Begun in 1900, it would follow the historic-based trend started a few years earlier by mansions like Isaac Dudley Fletcher’s massive 1898 French Gothic pile just two blocks to the south, and William K. Vanderbilt’s French chateau at No. 660 Fifth Avenue.   For Lyons, the architects created a five-story limestone clad neo-Renaissance fantasy encrusted with late Gothic detail.  How much of an influence C. P. H. Gilbert’s Fletcher mansion, completed just two years earlier, was on Buchman & Fox is speculation; but many of its Gothic details reappeared here, such as the pierced balustrades and decorative corbel tables.

photo by Alice Lum
About six months after the Ulman wedding, Lyons began advertising his still-unfinished mansion.   He described it as a “palatial dwelling” of 34 rooms, “including six bathrooms and lavatories.”   While the architects provided an historic fa├žade, Lyons brought the interiors into the 20th century.  “An electric passenger elevator, dumbwaiter, intercommunicating telephones, electric lighting and indirect steam radiation are among the various modern improvements that have been introduced,” his advertisement boasted.

Lyons included a sketch of the house in his advertisements -- New-York Tribune August 31, 1902 (copyright expired)
By September 1902 J. C. Lyons pronounced the new residence “ready for immediate occupancy.”  Before long J. Stevens and Gertrude Ulman had moved in.  Uhlman was a partner in the exporting firm F. Blumenthal Leather Company at No. 27 Cedar Street.   The company was a branch of the Frankfort leather company founded in 1715.

The Ulman family quickly grew with the birth of Audrey in 1905, Anthony in 1907 and Granville a year later.   Another son, Rutgers, would arrive in 1912.   The addition of children to the Ulman household did not significantly slow the social activities in the house, however.

Gertrude's drawing room included French paneling, furniture and, perhaps surprisingly, a tiger-skin rug -- NYPL Collection
On February 4, 1910, the same year that Julien would be made Vice President of the firm, The New York Times noted that “Mrs. J. Stevens Ulman, who entertained last evening with a dinner, will give another to-night at her residence, 24 East Eighty-first Street.”  The scope of the entertainments was evident in December 1915 when the newspaper reported on a “large dance at her home.”

“The first two floors were cleared for dancing, and there were more than 200 present, and a number of dinner hostesses brought their guests.”  In turn of the century New York it was often customary for socialites to synchronize their entertainments—one giving a dinner and another a dance on the same evening, for instance, with the same or overlapping guest list.

photo by Alice Lum
The carefree gaiety of New York society took on a more serious mood when the United States entered World War I four months later, on April 6, 1917.   Debutantes joined the Red Cross, socialites offered their help in hospitals, and the young sons of millionaires marched off to war.  The Ulmans, too, offered their support.

As Thanksgiving neared that year, the city pulled together to give the soldiers and sailors in the nearby camps a memorable holiday.   Millionaires and working families alike opened their homes to the enlisted men, or booked restaurants to entertain them.  The Sun reported “Thousands upon thousands of homes in New York city, throughout Long Island and in New Jersey will be opened to-morrow for the entertainment of the legion of soldiers and sailors now in camps and on ships in the immediate vicinity of New York.”
 
Mrs. Henry Clay Frick opened her Fifth Avenue mansion’s dining room for ten men and J. B. Taylor invited fifty soldiers to his home at No. 903 Park Avenue.   Julien and Gertrude Ulman gave up their Thanksgiving dinner at home to spend the holiday, instead, with twenty-five enlisted men at Reisenweber’s restaurant.
A different view of the drawing room shows exquisite ceiling moldings.  And a polar bear rug to keep the tiger company.  --NYPL Collection
Society managed to mix the war efforts with lighter diversions.  On January 31, 1918 the Ulmans hosted a dinner in their home for Milenko R. Vesnitch, the Serbian Minister to France and Belgium, and Chief of the Serbian War Mission to the United States.    Simultaneously Ulman was preparing his stable of show horses for the very fashionable New York Horse Show.

By November of 1919 Julies Stevens Ulman had made significant advances in his career.  He was now President of F. Blumenthal & Co.; President of the Amalgamated Leather Companies; President of the Transocean Products Company and the Fashion Publicity Company; and a Director in the Manila Railway Company.   To add to his responsibilities he was appointed Special Deputy Police Commissioner that month.

The millionaire quickly gained the reputation as “the cop’s friend” by recognizing the financial problems policemen faced and instituting programs to help alleviate them.  He quickly established and supervised a chain of cooperative stores where policemen could purchase goods below retail prices.  He told the press that he “hoped to develop this enterprise far enough to enable ‘the cop’s dollar’ to regain the power it had before the war.” 

A month after he took office, he opened the first of the police stores on the ground floor of the old police headquarters building at No. 300 Mulberry Street.   Patrolmen William F. Schneider and Christopher J. Henry were taken off their beats to become store clerks.  Officers could now make their scant pay stretch farther with the store selling sugar at 10 cents per pound, for instance.

Ulman also did away with the policy that required policemen to purchase their own uniforms.   And he went further.  The New York Times reported that “In one of the Liberty Loan drives he subscribed heavily through the police division, and announced that he would buy a thousand-dollar bond from any policeman who stopped him on the street and asked for a subscription.”

In the meantime Gertrude continued her entertaining and her charity work.  In January 1920 she was a patroness of a charity performance by Pavlowa at the Manhattan Opera House for the Navy Club.  Her name was printed alongside other patronesses who formed a list of Manhattan’s wealthiest socialites; Mrs. James Roosevelt, Mrs. Otto H. Kahn, Mrs. Edward Harkness, Mrs. Hugh D. Auchincloss, Miss Mary Harkness Flagler, Mrs. Ogden Reid, and Mrs. Arthur M. Dodge among them.

But glittering entertainments and improvements for police personnel were drawing to a close for Julien Stevens Ulman.   For several months he had suffered from a tumor of the chest.  Finally on February 28, 1920 an operation was performed at the Post-Graduate Hospital by Dr. John F. Erdmann.  Ulman was sent back home to No. 24 East 81st Street, where the 54-year old died on May 7.

The coffin was displayed in the parlor where Gertrude Ulman received visitors for two days.  Then at 10:00 on the morning of May 10 Police Commissioner Richard E. Enright, accompanied by all of the deputy commissioners, paid their final respects.  A police escort proceeded with the body from the house to St. Bartholomew’s Church where the funeral services were held.  A platoon of mounted police acted as honor guard.

The will, which The New York Times referred to as “unique,” was made public a few weeks later.   Of the “several million dollars” Gertrude’s share was perceived by most to be small.    The New-York Tribune said “Apparently meager provision for the widow, Mrs. Gertrude Oldfield Ulman, consisting of the income from the residuary estate, the testator’s personal effects and jewelry and the use of his city and country residences, is explained in the will by the statement that Mrs. Ulman has personal means, is the beneficiary of insurance policies and because the decedent made liberal provisions for her during his lifetime.”

The will ensured that Gertrude would receive no less than $40,000 per year (about $350,000 today) and provided her the use of the homes for life.  The three boys, the oldest of which was just 13, were to received $250,000 at the age of 25 “to enable them to engage in a profession or business.”   Audrey would inherit a trust fund of $200,000 “If Mr. Ulman’s daughter marries with the consent of her mother,” said The Tribune.

Ulman was generous to the household staff, giving his secretary, Kate D. Warriner, $1,000; the butler Arthur Thornhill $500; and Gertrude’s maid Jeanne de Buyzer $500.

After the expected period of mourning, the house was reopened for social functions.  On November 21, 1922 Audrey Barclay Ulman made her splash into New York society with a debutante dinner given by her grandmother, Mrs. Barclay Bayne at the Ritz-Carlton.  The New-York Tribune called it “one of the largest” of the season’s entertainments and the guest list included other debutantes with socially-powerful names like Robb, Stillman, Brokaw and Stevens.

Gertrude sold the house on 81st Street to Hagop Kevorkian, an Armenian-born archaeologist, art connoisseur and collector.   An early archaeologist in the Middle East, he directed important excavations such as those of Rayy and Sultanabad in Iran.   His focus was primarily on Islamic art and he collected artifacts and art objects for collectors such as J. P. Morgan and was an ardent supporter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.    While living in the former Ulman house, Kevorkian acquired the forty-one leaves of the Mughal “Emperor’s Album” which were later donated to the Metropolitan Museum.   The museum calls it “one of the world’s great assemblages of Mughal calligraphy and painting.”

In the fall of 1941 The Bentley School purchased the house from Kevorkian, “in an expansion move.”  The school had been founded in 1915 as the Social Motive School after the earlier Speyer School, an experimental branch of Teachers College, was closed.  In 1933 the school had acquired its main building on No. 48 West 86th Street.   The new property, said The New York Times, would serve as an annex “to take care of an expanding student body and also to ease the transportation problem of pupils now living on the East Side.” 

The school had paid about $125,000 for the house which it intended to alter “to fit its new use.”  The Times reminisced about the structure.  “The ornate stone exterior of the house identifies it as being of the period about a generation ago, when fronts of this type were the mode for families of wealth and social position.  Stone-railed porches overlook the street at the second and fourth floor levels.  Spacious rooms and high ceilings will help to adapt the place to school purposes.”

photo by Alice Lum
The Bentley School would not be in the Ulman home for long.  In 1946 the mansion was converted to apartments—two per floor.   Among the first tenants was the 50-year old George Tiffany.  Tiffany had served in both world wars and his personal story read like a novel. 

Having left Harvard in 1917 when war was declared, Tiffany won a commission as a lieutenant in the Aviation Corps. and arrived in France with the first contingent of American fliers.   He was subsequently shot down behind German lines along with five other pilots.  During his months in a prison camp.  Lt. Tiffany hid the fact that he spoke German from his captors and listened carefully to conversations.  Finally the American pilots escaped and made their way back to Allied lines.    The information he had gathered was passed to intelligence officers.

During World War II Tiffany advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel.   Now with the war ended, Tiffany entered civilian life, opening a business office at No. 405 Lexington Avenue.   But on November 28, 1946 the bachelor's heroic life ended when he was found dead in his apartment at No. 24 East 81st Street from natural causes.

In 1959 William M. Singer had an lush apartment in the building.   Singer was the managing director of the Shelton Towers Hotel; but he was best known to police as a forger and scam artist.  Once described as “New York’s most notorious stock swindler,” he had been arrested nine times and convicted three times.   His prison terms were the result of offense such as second-degree grand larceny, grand larceny, and forgery.  On January 24 he was back in police custody, held in complicity in forgery and theft of $318,000.

The house was converted again in 1964 to include an art gallery on the second floor.  The Bykert Gallery, headed by Klaus Kertess, represented modern artists like Brice Marden, David Navors and Dorothea Rockburne.  Later it would be home to the Vanderwoulde Tananbaum Gallery that exhibited works by artists like Nevelson, Resnick and Stamos.

Architectural detailing survives in the Crown restaurant -- photo http://www.crown81.com/gallery/
Today the street level is home to Crown, an upscale restaurant opened by John DeLucie.   While neither Julien Stevens Uhlman nor his wife, Gertrude, could possibly have imagined such a harshly public use of the parlor floor of their grand home, the restaurant has carefully preserved much of the interior detail; and the exterior is virtually unchanged.

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