Saturday, March 30, 2013

The 1918 Francis Palmer House -- No. 75 E. 93rd St.



photo by Alice Lum
On the northwest corner of 93rd Street and Park Avenue in 1911 stood the elegant wood-and-stone country house of General Winfield Scott.  Its gardens long ago swallowed up by development, it was now use by the Ursuline nuns as an academy for young Catholic girls.

But progress and the upward movement of Manhattan’s millionaires demanded that the historic building sitting on valuable real estate come down.  In February 1912 The New York Times reported that “Robert Shaw Minturn has joined the uptown Park Avenue residential colony by purchasing…from the Ursuline Sisters of St. Theresa a large plot on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Ninety-third Street, which he intends to improve with two handsome dwellings.”

Minturn did construct his own mansion on the eastern end of the property along 93rd Street; however his mother’s home did not materialize.  Instead Minturn sold the corner lot to wealthy banker Francis F. Palmer in April 1916.  Palmer commissioned architectural firm Delano & Aldrich to design his new mansion. 

On November 12, 1916 The New York Times commented on the many elegant homes being built in the area.  “The number of new buildings or extensive alterations of old dwellings in the choice private house blocks north of Sixtieth Street is exceptionally large,” it said.  The newspaper noted that “Last week contracts were let for a fine residence for Francis F. Palmer on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Ninety-third Street.”

A tall brick wall hides the garden -- The Architectural Review, January 1919 (copyright expired)
By now the Colonial Revival movement had firmly taken root in America and for the Palmer house, the architects turned to the country’s architectural beginnings.  Completed in 1918 the mansion opened on to 93rd Street, despite its 1180 Park Avenue address.    The red brick home was trimmed in white marble and recalled the lofty Georgian residences of colonial America.  A steep mansard level, covered in slate and punctured by formal dormers, sat behind a marble balustrade.   Dramatic slabs of chimneys more than a story tall thrust through the roof.

The Architectural Review, January 1919 (copyright expired)

Palmer created what even in 1918 was an extravagant luxury—a huge side court that served as a formal garden behind a tall brick wall.  The courtyard entrance was framed in marble extending two stories, creating a Juliette balcony above the doorway.

The Palmers filled the house with period-correct furnishings -- The Architectural Review, January 1919 (copyright expired)
By the time George F. Baker Jr. purchased the house from the Palmer family eight years later, the Park Avenue address had been discarded and No. 75 East 93rd Street was used..   Baker eyed lustfully the house on the old Minturn property, now owned by William A. Alock.  Finally on October 21, 1927 he acquired the five-story Alock house, extending his property to 100 feet along Park Avenue and 139 feet down 93rd Street.

The wealthy banker brought Delano & Aldrich back.   A year later one of the most impressive residential complexes in Manhattan had been created.  In place of the Alock house was a garage with servants quarters above.   Joining the new structure with the mansion was a long extension known as the “ballroom wing.”  The dexterous use of materials and details made the addition, which now fully embraced the formal  garden, nearly seamless.

To the left, on the far side of the garden, the new garage and servants' wing is visible -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Baker was the son of George F. Baker, for many years the Chairman of the First National Bank.  His wife, the former Edith Kane, was the great great granddaughter of Henry Brevoort.  Their combined fortunes made the Bakers among the wealthiest couples in the city.  The renovations to the mansion were completed just in time for daughter Florence’s coming out.

photo by Alice Lum
The house was the scene of “several dinners” in 1930 according to The Times for Florence’s debut.  It all culminated on the night of December 22 with a dance “to introduce her to society.”

The courtyard entrance with its quaint Juliette balcony -- The Architectural Review, January 1919 (copyright expired)

The following year was not so joyous for Edith Kane Baker.  Her cousin, Mary Emma Calhoun, took offense to remarks Edith made in public about her—that she was a narcotic addict and “a liar and not to be trusted.”

Calhoun sued her cousin for $500,000 for slander.  What ensued was a months-long game of tag with the wealthy socialite staying two steps ahead of the process servers.

Edith Baker was not at the 93rd Street house when the server first came.  It was, after all, August and she was summering in the Baker country estate on Peacock Lane, Locust Valley, Long Island.  When he attempted to find Mrs. Baker there, “admittance had been refused him at Locust Valley,” said the press.

Back at the 93rd Street house, the butler told the process server to serve the papers on Mr. Baker.  Mrs. Calhoun’s lawyers then sent a letter to Edith asking her to “arrange to accept the service.”  She responded by leaving a message for her cousin to call her.  One might assume the subsequent conversation was less than pleasant.

Finally on November 27, 1931 the charges were dismissed by Justice Gavegan on the grounds that they were “indefinite.”

The ballroom wing was the scene of one of New York society’s most important weddings on May 3, 1934 when Edith Brevoort Baker, the Baker’s younger daughter, married John Mortimer Schiff.  “The marriage united two members of families long prominent in the philanthropic and financial worlds,” noted The Times.

The ballroom had been transformed into “a garden of Spring flowers,” including full-grown dogwood trees grouped into the corners of the room.   The newspaper made note of the courtyard.  “Had the weather been more conducive to staying out of doors, many of the guests would have had the privilege of wandering through a garden of dogwood and shrubs between the house and garage adjoining, which had been included in the scheme of floral decoration.”

Following the wedding, a 50-pound wedding cake was brought out; “a product of Mme. Blanche, who also made the wedding cake for the bride’s parents in 1912 as well as that for her sister, Mrs. T. Suffern Tailer Jr., the former Miss Florence Baker.”

George Baker died in 1937 while cruising near the Hawaiian Island.  Edith Baker continued to live on in the house; however around the time of the Second World War, she closed off the main house and ballroom wing.  She had the servants’ and chauffeur’s quarters above the garage renovated as her Manhattan pied-a-terre and spent most of her time at the Long Island estate.


photo by Alice Lum
When the White House was being restored during the Truman administration, Edith donated the two antique chandeliers from the ballroom—each containing about 80 carved crystal prisms.  Otherwise, the grand home was shuttered and dark and unmolested.

In 1958 The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia approached Edith Baker, offering to buy the mansion as its headquarters.  Russian-banker Sergei Semenenko managed to pull together the funds and acquired the house for the church.  And as is almost always the case, when religious institutions purchase old houses, changes are necessarily in store.

Because the ballroom was to be used as an assembly hall, an outside staircase in the courtyard was installed and French doors replaced the ballroom windows.   A large opening was broken through the garden wall and decorative gates were added. 
The added staircase in the courtyard is seen through the gates, added during the renovation -- photo by Alice Lum
The renovations were done with dexterity and sympathy, making the alterations harmonious with the original design.  The handsome complex remains one of the most impressive and unusual of Manhattan residential structures.

2 comments:

  1. I believe the current owner is Richard Jenrette, of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

    ReplyDelete
  2. James I believe if you walk down there now, you can actually enter the building and see that it is still the administrative centre for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The ballroom was converted to the main Cathedral of the Synod long ago and houses a priceless icon of Virgin Mary found in 1295 by a hunter in Russia.

    ReplyDelete