Friday, February 8, 2013

The Parge House -- No. 866 Lexington Avenue

photo by Alice Lum
British-born architect Frederick Junius Sterner came from to New York from Colorado in 1906.  He purchased a Victorian brownstone on an East 19th Street block lined with similar homes.  Before long he had transformed it into a Mediterranean-style villa with a stuccoed façade and red tile roof.    By 1911 the block was filled with Sterner’s fantastic renovations, earning it the nickname “The Block Beautiful.”

A decade later he would turn his attention to an old brownstone far uptown.

In 1878 brothers William P. and Ambrose M. Parsons joined in the building boom on the Upper East Side as development resurged after the Financial Panic of 1873.  They commissioned architect A. B. Ogden to design a string of six four-story houses stretching along Lexington Avenue from No. 856 to 866.  Sitting high above English basements, the neo-Grec homes were the latest in residential style.

Austrian immigrant Henry Zeimer purchased No. 866 shortly after the home’s completion.  An importer of artificial flowers, he lived here with his family nearly until the turn of the century.  In 1898 Solomon Stransky and his wife lived in the house.   Like Zeimer, Stransky had emigrated from Austria; his wife, the former Henritte Cohn, came from Frankfort-on-the-Main.

The couple had been married on March 1, 1848 in New York in the Temple Emanu-El.  Stransky entered the dry goods business and eventually amassed what The New York Times called “a substantial fortune.”  On the evening of March 1, 1898 the Stranskys entertained in the Lexington Avenue house as they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.   The Times noted that “They received many handsome gifts, and forty-or fifty persons attended the dinner they gave.”

By 1908 the Eggers family was living here.  Young Ludwig T. Eggers was a student at Dartmouth and it was a time of social agitation and political unrest.  Disagreements among Socialists, Anarchists and Capitalists often came to violent ends, as was the case when a Socialist mass meeting for the unemployed held in Union Square in March 1908 was ended by an exploding Anarchist bomb.

A week later the Socialists held a meeting in the Grand Central Palace.  A significant police presence was intended to squash any further violence.  Meeting attendees were carefully screened and when Max Sands and his mother tried to rush past the police, they were promptly arrested.  Ludwig Eggers felt compelled to register his feelings about the matter.  The Times said that Eggers “carried a cane and himself jauntily” and “was arrested for ‘butting in’ to say that he thought the police were erring in arresting Sands and his mother.”

Chauffeur Edward Smith lived in the Lexington Avenue house the following year.   He drove for Benito Rura who lived at the fashionable address of No. 34 East 60th Street.   Rura was perhaps unhappy with Smith when, on the morning of October 10, the chauffeur drove his automobile full speed into a fire truck.  “The machine bounded from the heavy engine and went up against the iron railing around the grass plot over the tracks of the New York Central Railroad,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day. “It was badly damaged, and one of the horses of the engine company was cut.”

And then came Frederick Sterner.

On August 3, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that Mary Appleton had sold 866 Lexington Avenue.  “The new owner is a prominent architect who plans to rebuild the house for his own occupancy.”

And rebuild he did.

The house immediately after completion--the front is facing away towards Lexington Avenue -- House & Garden 1922 (copyright expired)
As he had been doing since the remaking of his 19th Street house in 1906, Stern transformed the old brownstone into a medieval fantasy.   All traces of the Victorian detailing were removed and the brownstone slathered in stucco.  Diamond paned, double-hung windows, Tudor-like doors and similar treatments erased any hint of the original house.

Sterner added a three story office section to the rear -- Architectural Forum, October 1922 (copyright expired)

To the rear Sterner added a three-story addition as office space.   And here he gave his creative forces full rein.  The architect covered the stuccoed upper floors with elaborate and fantastic pargework—molded plaster.  Tudor heraldic shields, vines, imaginary animals and flowers sheathed the façade.

photo by Alice Lum
House & Garden magazine approved.  “A combination of red brick, white stucco and pargetry are used in the finish of the walls.  Wrought iron grills and balconies, and window wood trim in green make this a colorful exterior.  ‘Parge House’ was so named because of the English parge work used on the extension.  Leaders and gutters are of decorative cast lead.  Variegated colored slate was chosen for the steep, effective roofs.”

Inside Sterner continued his transformation.  Tudor-style paneling and fireplaces, open-beamed ceilings and wide oak floor boarding carried on the medieval motif.   Antique elements were installed, like an elaborately carved stairway post, an old French mantelpiece and, according to House & Garden, 15th century English glass windows in the library.
photo The Architectural Forum, October 1922 (copyright expired)
In 1922 The Architectural Forum noted “In this successful alteration, of which Mr. Sterner himself is the architect, there is given a striking illustration of what can be done with a city residence obsolete as to type but strong as to structure.”

Sterner used antique mantels and wood paneling to complete his medieval feel -- photo The Architectural Forum, October 1922 (copyright expired)
Despite the extensive work put into No. 866 Lexington, Sterner would not stay long.  In 1924 he sold the contents and moved back to London where he was born.  By 1927 it was the home of Adams Coffyn.  Coffyn’s wife was descended from the De la Sasseur family, among the first settlers of Staten Island.  In the house’s tradition of rapid-fire turnovers, it was purchased by Jules Glaezner, vice-president of Cartier Jewelers.  Life magazine described him as “Rich and social, Mr. Glaenzer has been twice married and divorced, is an excellent dancer and has a great flair for arranging parties.”
Glaezner did away with most of Sterner's Tudor interiors in favor of a French decor -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Architect Elroy Webber lived here briefly that year.  Like Sterner, Webber was not restricted by convention and would become best known for his residential architecture that mixed Japanese simplicity with the formal economy of modernism.

Glaezner commissioned architect Albert V. Sielke in 1937 to do $1,500 in interior renovations.  Much of the dark, historic-based decor was removed.
photo by Alice Lum
In 1962 Hyman and Elaine Weitzen purchased the building and a year later retail spaces were carved out of the ground floor level.  After the turn of the 21st century it was owned by William and Marie Samuels.  By now little of Sterner’s historic-looking interiors survived. 

Today there are four residential units inside.  But astonishingly the exterior of the Parge House is largely intact—a remarkable example of Frederick J. Sterner’s early 20th century renovations of Victorian brownstones.
photo by Alice Lum

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