Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Payson Merrill House -- No. 41 E. 67th Street

The remodeled house in 1945.  It would originally appeared much like the sole-surviving brownstone on the block next door.  photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
With Central Park completed, the Upper East Side rapidly developed—partially because of developers like Breen & Nason who erected speculative brownstone-fronted rowhouses.  The pair often acted as their own architects and produced handsome residences marketed to the wealthy merchant class.

Having completed a house at No. 39 East 67th Street in 1877 designed by brothers David and John Jardine, they immediately started work on the empty lot next door at No. 41.    They would design this house themselves.  Work was finished in 1879 and the house was purchased by millionaire
Anderson Fowler.

Fowler had made his fortune in the West in the packing business.  Upon his retirement he invested heavily in mining and other industrial enterprises.  By the turn of the century his estate was valued at between $8 and $10 million.  Fowler and his wife had nine children, a fact which doubtlessly kept the household staff busy.

By 1903 the Fowlers had moved a block north to No. 60 East 68th Street.  Tragedy would befall the elderly couple in 1906 when they sailed to Europe.    While a day away from Naples Anderson Fowler died aboard White Star liner Republic.  The body was embalmed in Naples, to be transported back to New York on the Carpathia for burial in the family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Word was cabled home and family friend banker E. R. Chapman made arrangements for the funeral and burial.   The entire family rushed to New York to meet the ship and Mrs. Fowler.  When the Carpathia docked, they received shocking news.

“The embalming in Naples had not been well done,” explained The New York Times.  “It was learned that the aged widow found it necessary to give her consent to [a] sea burial.”

Adding to the widow’s intense grief, the burial at sea was performed.  The captain selected 6:30 in the evening for the ceremony, “when most of the passengers were dressing for dinner.”  Mrs. Fowler and her sister gathered with the friends they had made on the ship for the service.  “The coffin, heavily weighted, slid over the side, there was a splash, and Anderson Fowler's body found a resting place,” reported the newspaper.

In the meantime Yale-educated attorney Payson Merrill and his wife were living in the Fowlers’ former home on East 67th Street.  It was often the scene of meetings of Mrs. Merrill’s charity work.  She was for several years the chairman of the Industrial School No. 6 located at No. 259 East 4th Street.  The school had been established in 1866 for “the education and training of destitute children.”

On April 13, 1909 The Times reported that Payson Merrill had sold his “four-story dwelling.”  It was a time when the old brownstones had fallen out of fashion and were quickly being razed or remodeled into stylish upscale residences.  The article noted that the buyer “will erect a new house on the lot.”

The buyer was John Ames Mitchell and if he originally intended to raze the old house, he changed his mind.   Architects Denby & Nute instead stripped off the old façade and transformed the house to a five-story neo-Classical beauty. 
photo by Alice Lum
Clad in glistening white limestone—a sharp contrast to the dour brownstone it replaced—the residence relied on the first and fifth floors to make its impression.  The wide set of steps spilled onto the sidewalk from the rusticated base, flanked by solid stone railings that curved open like welcoming arms.  An ornately-carved pediment crowned the double entrance doors, and above it all a striking mansard roof with three dormers sat behind a carved balustrade.

photo by Alice Lum
Mitchell had been educated as an architect at Harvard and later at the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  But he was a man of many more talents.  In 1883 he co-founded the humor magazine Life, the position for which he would be best remembered.   He was also an artist, illustrator and author.

Mitchell and his highly-popular magazine would introduce America to several new writers and artists—among them Charles Dana Gibson (famous for his Gibson Girls).   He found the time to write over a dozen novels, one of which, “Amos Judd,” became the 1922 silent film The Young Rajah starring matinee idol Rudolph Valentino.

The graceful design of the window grills matches the double entrance doors -- photo by Alice Lum
The publisher-novelist-architect also spent time at the easel and several of his etchings were given honorable mention in the Paris Salon.  He and his wife spent the summers in their country home in Ridgefield, Connecticut.  It was there, on June 29, 1918 he died.  The New-York Tribune reported that “He suffered a stroke of apoplexy early in the day and his death followed a few hours later.”

Mitchell was especially generous to his household staff in his will.  His chauffeur received the same amount as did his own sister--$5,000 (about $50,000 today)—and the “servants in his employ all receive legacies of $500,” reported The Sun.

Mary Mott Mitchell lived on in the house and in February 1922 she remarried.  Former banker Thomas H. Kilduff had lost his wife, Alice, two years earlier.  The wealthy widow and widower, both middle-aged by now, started life anew in the Mitchell home.

The groom, at 59 years old, was a “financial advertising man,” according to The New York Times; although he apparently enjoyed a cavalier work schedule.  He preferred to sleep in and often would not rise until after noon.

Mary’s bedroom was on the second floor and her husband’s, somewhat oddly by today’s perspective, was on the fourth.  At 11:00 on the night of July 6, 1922 Mary said goodnight to her husband of six months and went to bed.  When Thomas Kildruff had not come down for breakfast by 1:30 the following afternoon, she went up to rouse him.

She found him, clad in pajamas, in bed with a bullet wound in his right temple.  “He had covered himself completely with a heavy robe,” said The Times, “evidently to muffle the shot.”   Mary told police she could not think of any motive for his suicide.  “He was in perfect health, had no apparent financial troubles, and appeared to be happy,” she said.

Twice a widow, Mary retook the name Mrs. Mary M. Mitchell.  She lived on alone with her staff of servants until her death in the house on February 22, 1932.  With no children to receive the estate, Mary Mitchell parceled out her fortune to the household staff and numerous charities.

Her chauffeur received $30,000 and an automobile; the gardener, Patrick McCarthy also received a car and $20,000; Mrs. Mitchell’s maid, Kate Flynn inherited $30,000; and Katie Roth, the cook, and Rose Duffy, “a waitress,” each received $20,000.

Among the numerous charities that received large amounts was the Life Fresh Air Fund, founded by John Ames Mitchell.

While World War II raged on in Europe, The City Bank Farmers Trust Company sold the house in 1944.  It was assessed at the time of sale at $54,000—about $555,000 today.  Six years later, as Manhattan’s grand mansions were being demolished or divided into apartments; the house at No. 41 East 67th Street was converted to luxurious high-end apartments.

Among the first tenants was popular singer and movie actress Gertrude Niesen.  Although her motion pictures were mostly musicals or light comedies like This is the Army; she also appeared in dramas such as The Babe Ruth Story.  She was the first recording artist to sing “Smoke Gets in your Eyes.”

She had barely unpacked when George Feld broke into her apartment, making off with $55,000 in jewels--more than half a million dollars today.

For over half a century the limestone mansion remained the posh home of wealthy renters.  Then in 1991 it was purchased by Andrew Cohen of Cohen Brothers Realty who began "serious renovations" to return to house to a private residence.  Mr. Cohen moved in to the restored private home in 1994.  
photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous! Glad it is back to being a house. I love the entrance way - the "rails" on the sides of the steps seem to be outstretched arms, beckoning and welcoming visitors in. The historic picture with the lamp post is sweet - that light added a lot of character (IMHO) tho' I'm betting it is not there now.