|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1883, as the mansions of New York’s millionaires were inching further up Fifth and Madison Avenues, real estate speculator James V. Woolley lived at No. 75 East 79th Street; a neighborhood ripe for high-end development. That year he commissioned architect James E. Ware to design a pair of fashionable residences across the street at Nos. 78 and 76.
Completed a yea r later the homes were at the cutting edge of architectural taste. High stoops led to the entrances in the brownstone bases, above which dramatic double-height arched openings exploded through the red brick façade. The new Queen Anne style showed itself off with stained glass transoms, bay windows and quirky carvings.
At the turn of the century No. 78 was owned by Mrs. Emily L. Landon. Emily’s husband, Melville De Lancey Landon, went by the pseudonym of Eli Perkins. Perkins was a well-known humorist, the author of “Wit, Humor, and Pathos,” “Wit and Humor of the Age, “Kings of Platform and Pulpit,” and “Thirty Years of Wit,” among other works.
While Emily’s husband was busy writing and lecturing, she was active in the real estate market, especially in the Upper East Side. In March 1906 she sold No. 78 to Frederick S. Sellew. The New York Times noted that “The buyer will occupy the house.”
Dr. Sellew lived here with his wife, the former Catherine E. Willcox. He was among the foremost physicians in the city; a member of the Academy of Medicine, the Society of Medical Jurisprudence, the Pathological Society and other medical organizations. The wealthy couple maintained a summer home in Portland, Connecticut.
Six years after moving in, Frederick S. Sellew died in the house on December 28, 1912. By 1915 another doctor, Joseph A. Hyams, was living and practicing in the house.
By 1915 Dr. Alfred M. Hellman was living in next door at No. 76 and would stay on through at least through the 1920s. Hellman had received his medical degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in 1905. He lived here with his wife, Clarisse, and their daughter.
He would go on to become president of the Medical Society of the County of New York, director of the Physicians Home, and medical adviser to the Health Information Foundation. Both the doctor and his wife would be remembered for their welfare work, especially in the area of maternity.
In the meantime, in 1926 Joseph Hyams officially converted No. 78 to doctors’ offices below his residence. Along with his own practice, the medical dynasty in the offices would include his brothers, urologist Mortimer N. Hyams and dentist Harry R. Hyams. He had the marvelous brownstone stoop removed, installed new windows and cut new doors into the basement level.
Joseph Hyams died of a heart attack in January 1943 at the age of 58. Astoundingly, at the time he was director of the service of urology at Post-Graduate Hospital; director of the service of urology at Gouverneur Hospital; consulting urologist at Beth David Hospital; at St. Francis Hospital of Port Jervis, New York; at All Souls Hospital of Morristown, New Jersey; and attending urologist at Reconstruction Hospital.
Hyams’ brothers continued their practices in the house at No. 78 East 79th Street.
Next door, by the late 1940s the Hellmans had moved to Park Avenue and No. 76 was owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and converted to apartments. The organization sold the house in November 1954 to the Joseph L. Ennis Co., which quickly resold it two months later to art dealer and restorer Caesar R. Diorio. Diorio’s art treasurers—works by Mary Cassatt, Renoir, Boucher, and other masters—would be hung in the nation’s most prestigious museums.
In 1965 No. 78 was converted to apartments—one per floor-- above the doctors’ offices. In the early 1970s, with the new wave movement taking over the country, the Alphagenics Institute moved in. In 1971 the organization touted “an exciting new experience in mind control” with its “Alpha Wave Training via Bio-Feedback.” An advertisement in New York Magazine in June 1973 offered training courses “employing techniques designed and tested at the Menninger Foundation.” The ad read in part “If you’ve wondered whether the newly developed technology in biofeedback and relaxation training can help you overcome tension, stress and a variety of psychosomatic disorders…here’s your chance to find out.”
Before long the handsome one-time twin next door would be severely threatened.
In 1982 the two houses to the east of No. 76, designed by Anson Squires in 1882, were brutalized by a developer who recognized that the Landmarks Preservation Commission was preparing to landmark the district. He swiftly began demolition. Before he could be stopped, only the Queen Anne facades remained.
Now, three years later, the Commission was faced with a perplexing proposal. To preserve the two historic facades, a 19-story apartment tower was suggested which would use the old houses as the 79th Street face. But the plan would require the demolition of all but the façade of No. 76 as well.
In order to preserve the two facades next door, the bulk of No. 76 was destroyed. The three facades were restored and became part of the $8.6 apartment tower project.
James E. Ware’s wonderful Queen Anne houses stand sadly abused. Although, it retains its stoop and basement level of rough-cut stone, unlike No. 76, nothing remains of No. 78 behind the façade. Yet what remains of the pair reminds the passerby of a genteel era when wealthy physicians resided in these fashionable homes.
many thanks to reader R. Stueber for requesting this post
|photo by Alice Lum|