Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Olympics, A Showgirl and Murder -- No. 20 E. 65th St.

The laughing grotesque would watch the comings and goings of many--including murderers--photo by Alice Lum

As Manhattan’s millionaires inched northward along Central Park in 1881, The Real Estate Record took special note of the East 65th Street blocks off the park.  On October 1 it reported “The neighborhood in and about Sixty-fifth st. east of and near Central Park is, in many respects, one of the choicest localities in the city.”
The periodical went on to say that “The many splendid dwellings erected there of late, by our millionaires, lead to the belief that the same judgment and foresight, to which many of them are indebted for their pecuniary success, have been exercised in perceiving and appreciating the advantages of this locality for elegant residences…
“Not the least among these is the costly and tasteful dwelling at No. 20 East Sixty-fifth street, between Fifth and Madison avenues, now being completed by Mr. Wm. Gussow.  The house, which is four stories high and basement is built of brown stone selected so as to produce perfect uniformity of color.”
The developer had commissioned the respected architect James E. Ware to design the mansion which The American Architect and Buildling News reported cost $30,000.   Intending to market the new home to the upper class, Gussow included the latest in technology and conveniences.   Included were “improved furnaces” that provided central heat—a far-sighted innovation; a gas-operated pump in the cellar that kept a fourth-story water tank filled, thus providing running water throughout the house; and fourteen speaking tubes as well as electric bells to connect the homeowners with their staff.
Gussow supplied the woodwork and cabinetry from his own factory and used the costliest of woods.  The eight-foot-wide entrance hall was paneled in polished black walnut; the pocket doors between the main rooms of the first floor were polished rosewood on one side, walnut on the other.  The Real Estate Record said the sliding door “notwithstanding its size and weight, is so perfectly poised that a child’s touch would move it.  The front parlor is finished in polished rosewood and inland marqueterie—the back in walnut—both in the Rennaissance style.”

A 32-foot extension to the rear housed the kitchen, butler’s pantry and “dining room, finished in oak, with mantels, sideboards, numerous closets, etc., all elaborately wrought and conveniently arranged.”  A dumbwaiter connected the second floor to the kitchen, and an astonishingly modern convenience was a passenger elevator from the basement to the top floor.

The Guide concluded that “On the whole, this house is commodious, substantially built, conveniently arranged, and so adorned and beautiful as to make it a most pleasant residence for some one rich enough and intelligent enough to avail himself of its sanitary, aesthetic and other advantages.”

Someone rich and intelligent enough to buy the house came along in February 1882 when Gussow sold his $30,000 investment for $92,000.

photo by Alice Lum
Charles Schlesinger and his family moved in.  By 1887 son Mark was attending Columbia University.  Five years later the exclusive neighborhood attracted the attention of cat burglar Frank Davis whom The New York Times called “the house thief of many pseudonyms.”  On April 26 he added the Schlesinger house to his list of burglaries.  When the police finally raided Davis’s home on June 6 that year they found “antiques, jewelry, watches, knickknacks, apparel, umbrellas, silverware, and burglar’s tools.”

Schlesinger’s problems continued the following Spring.   John Jacob Astor was busy erecting a magnificent double mansion for his mother, Carolina Schermerhorn Astor, and himself at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street.    The project included a private stable to be built at the corner of 65th Street and Madison Avenue, much to the disgruntlement of his wealthy neighbors like Charles Schlesinger.  When Astor ignored the protests of his soon-to-be neighbors, they rallied against him.  Schlesinger joined in the group of wealthy property owners who told the press that “Mr. Astor had treated their protest with contempt, and, refusing to give them an audience, had written a curt letter declining to consider the protestations of the property owners.”
When the group offered Astor $10,000 to restrict the lot “against a stable of similar nuisance,” he refused.   A bill was prepared to be presented to the Legislature that included the protest “We, the property owners of this vicinity, do hereby condemn the spirit of Mr. Astor in disregarding our desires, rights, and  and interests in the premises, and that we denounce his threatened act as unbecoming a land owner of the city to which he is so greatly indebted.”

On February 9, 1899 The Sun reported on the sale of the Schlesinger house to Donald Sage Mackay, the rector of the Collegiate Church.   The Mackays would not stay long, however, and in 1901 The Evening Post noted that the house was sold to William W. and Thomas M. Hall.
By now James Ware’s “Renaissance” brownstone façade was decidedly out of date and the brothers set out to make their new property more marketable.  Major developers of lavish residences in the area, they called upon the architectural firm Welch, Smith & Provot to modernize the twenty-year old house.  Completed a year later, the renovation was, by any estimation, remarkable.

The brownstone front was removed, replaced by a Beaux Arts façade.  A steep, nearly vertical mansard sat above four stories of restrained limestone.  The entrance was moved to the rusticated street level base where two elegant grilled doors were surmounted by a fantastic carved face.  The visage sprouted wings and a gargantuan moustache, establishing itself as the focal point of the structure.
32-year old single socialite, George B. Gibbs, purchased the newly-renovated mansion -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The remodeled residence was purchased by the 32-year old socialite George Barker Gibbs, the daughter of Edward N. Gibbs, Treasure of the New York City Life Insurance Company.  George’s unexpectedly masculine first name was equaled by the unmarried woman’s purchase of the mansion. 

Her marital status changed in 1906 when she wed Brigadier General Charles Hitchcock Sherrill.   The general’s talents and interests were wide-flung, reaching well beyond the military.  In 1894 he originated the series of athletic international inter-university track matches that planted the seed for the Olympic Games.  Soon after his marriage to George,  he wrote the first of a series of travel books including the 1909 “Stained Glass Tours in England;” “A Stained Glass Tour in Italy,” written in 1913; and his 1915 “French Memories of Eighteenth-Century America.”

The dormers of the copper-sheathed mansard are carved completely of stone -- photo by Alice Lum
The house at No. 20 saw the comings and goings of celebrated guests.  Sherrill had served on the military staffs of Governors Odell and Higgins and on March 1, 1908 he hosted a dinner for Governor Odell and his former military staff.  Included in the guest list was Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Sherrills spent that summer in England in the Kent estate of Lady Kenmare.  When they returned, George received a visit from the Japanese Consul, Mr. Midzumo and his wife, who presented her with a gold cup engraved with the imperial arms of Japan.  The New York Times reported that the cup bore an “inscription expressing the good will of the Mikado for Mrs. Sherrill, who in the Japanese-Russian war showed much sympathy with the Japanese.”
The Sherrill dining room featured Renaissance-inspired furniture and mantel, tapestry-like wall coverings and an intricate cove ceiling -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1909 Sherrill was appointed Minister of the United States to Argentina; a post he held for two years.  He was offered the ambassadorship to Japan in 1911; however ill health forced him to retire from active diplomatic service.  It did not stop his political interests, however.

With the United States’ entrance into World War I, Sherrill assisted the American legation at The Hague in caring for American tourists who found themselves caught overseas.  The Times noted that he “has undertaken to give what assistance he can to Americas needing attention or funds forwarded from this country.”

The General's library, in 1909, was decidedly masculine.  Knives and other weapons adorn the walls, along with framed medals and a collection of loving cups. -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The aging couple stayed in the East 65th Street house, remaining remarkably active in later life.  In 1935, as another world war loomed on the horizon, Sherrill was a member of the International Olympic Committee.  He was forced to defend his support of American participation in the Nazi-hosted games planned for 1936.  

When the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jeremiah T. Mahoney, publically lashed out at the general, Sherrill fired back with a sharp retort.  “Why doesn’t Jerry see to it that Jews are admitted as members of the New York Athletic Club, of which he is a member?  And why doesn’t he make it a point to mention the fact that Negroes are not permitted to participate in sports in the South?”

While international tensions received Sherrill’s diplomacy; barking dogs in the neighborhood did not.  In December 1935 he took his next door neighbor, Isabel Page, to court.  Not only was his own “domestic tranquility” disturbed; but the situation had caused upheaval within his household staff.

The New York Times reported “the dogs, barking during the night and disturbing the sleep of the members of his household, had been the cause of the first trouble he had ever had with servants—one had left him and two others had threatened to leave, General Sherrill said.”

When Miss Page told the judge she “would try” to eliminate the noise, he instructed her “You had better try.”

On July 15, 1936 700 members of the 107th Regiment escorted the body of General Charles Hitchcock Sherrill from the house at No. 20 East 65th Street to the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.  Madison Avenue was closed for the procession which included the Fire Department Band.  The church was filled with representatives of “the army, the American Olympic Committee, politics, business, the diplomatic corps, the bar and the world of letters,” said The Times.

George Barker Sherrill lived on in the mansion for another 12 years, until her death in the house on May 10, 1948 at the age of 78.

The mansion was about to enter an even more eventful phase of its existence.

It was purchased by wealthy mortgage broker Sam Silverman and his wife, the former Irene Zambelli.  Mrs. Silverman had been born in poverty in New Orleans, the daughter of immigrants—her father was an Italian fish seller and her Greek mother was a seamstress.  After her father abandoned them, Irene’s mother brought her to New York to study ballet.  She sewed costumes to pay for the lessons.

Irene and her mother lived in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement, supported by Irene’s $36 a week salary dancing at Radio City Music Hall and her mother’s $28 sewing income.

And then along came Sam Silverman.  

Although the chorus girl had several wealthy admirers, reportedly including Admiral Richard Byrd, she chose Silverman, who was among the nation’s most successful mortgage brokers.  The couple was married in 1941.

The girl who had grown up in Louisiana poverty and struggled to pay rent on a West Side tenement was now living in an Upper East Side mansion, with other homes in Athens, Honolulu, and Paris.

The limestone mansion was converted by James E. Casale to doctor’s offices and a handful of sprawling, luxurious apartments in 1957.   The former showgirl called the house “something between a posh hotel and a grand boarding house.”  Indeed, the upscale apartments became home to a diverse mixture of moneyed residents including Brooke Hayward and her husband, Peter Duchin, Daniel Day Lewis and the Marquess and Marchioness of Northampton.

Silverman died in 1980, leaving his entire estate to Irene, whose engaging and quirky personality made her a semi-celebrity in her own right.   By 1998 the 82-year old former Radio City Music Hall chorus girl had grown a bit pudgy; but her remarkable sense of humor and endearing personality were unchanged.

Fate knocked on the door of No. 20 East 65th Street on June 14, 1998 when 24-year old Kenneth Kimes arrived, seeking to rent the ground floor apartment.  Although he could provide no references, he did produce the first month’s rent--$6,000—in cash.    In an unusual drop of normal defenses, Irene allowed the young man and his mother, 64-year old Sante Kimes to move into the apartment.

Less than a month later, Irene Silverman had vanished.

The highly-publicized case of the missing socialite came to a tragic end when it was discovered that the mother-son team had murdered Irene in an attempt to obtain her house and her fortune.

In 2006 the mansion was converted to condominiums, commanding prices of around $17.5 million each.  The dignified architecture of the house with the eccentric carved face over the door demands attention on its own; the astounding history that unfolded with its walls makes it even more fascinating.
The apartments retain much of the original architectural detailing (note the new door that has been deftly cut into the side wall, not seen in the vintage photo above)-- photo

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