Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The 1892 Richard M. Hoe House -- No. 11 East 71st Street

photo by Alice Lum

The Gay ‘Nineties in New York City were gayer if one was a millionaire.  The dour brownstone houses on the streets branching off Fifth Avenue along Central Park were being replaced with white limestone or marble mansions.  Inside, pearl-draped socialites and gentlemen in evening dress politely chatted at glittering dances and dinners.

Although his family was entrenched in the publishing business, Richard Marsh Hoe was a banker and grain merchant whose office was in the Produce Exchange Building.   The family’s fortune stemmed from the printing business, R. Hoe & Co., founded by his grandfather.

In 1891 Hoe and his wife, the former Annie Dows, commissioned Carrere & Hastings to design their mansion at No. 11 East 71st Street.   The house, completed a year later, stood in stark contrast to the neighboring brownstones.

Three stories of ebullient limestone sat upon a rusticated base just above the sidewalk level.  Here a shallow flight of steps led to a portico upheld by columns and pilasters of swirling veined stone.  A petite balcony with French doors and ornate metal railing topped the portico.
photo by Alice Lum

Annie was wealthy in her own right.  She was the daughter of millionaire David Dows who was an associate of Jay Gould in Civil War Union Army contracts.  Annie grew up in the family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 69th Street, and their summer estate, Charlton Hall, at Irvington.   Among her many personal philanthropies would be the gift of a new school building to the Westchester Temporary Home at White Plains in 1902.

In 1897 a daughter, Margaret, was born to the Hoes.  While the little girl enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, she suffered from a weak heart.   In 1916, as the date for her debut into society neared, the 19-year old went off to summer at The Emergency Service Corps, a camp for girls on the country estate of Edward R. Hewitt.

With the war in Europe threatening to involve Americans, the encampment trained young women in nursing, camping and other preparation for women’s auxiliary service.   On June 3 Margaret was standing waist deep in the lake, preparing to take a swim with her friends when her heart gave out.

Despite the immediate attention of the other girls and Miss Baelen, the war nurse in charge of the hospital tent on the grounds, Margaret died.  Richard Hoe arrived at the camp the following day and, although deeply grieving, was rational regarding the cause of his daughter’s death.

He told reporters that he was aware of his daughter’s heart trouble “and assumed the excitement of the camp had occasioned the attack.  He realized, as did all the other parents, that his daughter’s death could not be attributed to any lack of care on the part of those having the welfare of the girls in charge,” said The Times.

Nine years later, on December 22, 1925, Richard Marsh Hoe died suddenly in the mansion he had built over three decades earlier.   Annie stayed on in the house, giving generously to her various charities.  The year following Richard's death she gave $100,000 to Columbia University’s Teachers College to establish the Richard Marsh Hoe Professorship.  In 1929 she gave $25,000 to Mount Holyoke College.

As the years passed, Annie developed arterial sclerosis.   She became ill in May 1940 and two weeks later, on June 11 the 87-year old died in the house on East 71st Street where she had lived for nearly half a century.

In 1945 the mansion was divided into apartments, two per floor.   The lavish accommodations drew upscale tenants.  Among the first were Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth H. Sheldon who also maintained a summer estate in Old Brookville, Long Island.  Society received engagement and wedding announcements mailed from this address, and debutante receptions were a common event.

Little out of the ordinary occurred at No. 11 East 71st Street--at least not until just before midnight on Thursday, September 27, 1951.  That was when 28-year old Charles Clingenpeel answered his doorbell.  As he opened his door, three men pounced on him.  After “pummeling” him, as The New York Times reported, two of the men held him down while the other ransacked the apartment, taking silverware, suitcases, a record player and coats.  Clingenpeel valued the stolen articles at $1,000—about seven times that much by today’s standards.

A sharp-eyed neighbor furnished police with a description of the getaway car.  Exactly a week later 18-year old Joseph Marsala pulled up to a stop light in the vehicle and was quickly arrested.  “The police said they found the loot in the basement of his home,” reported The Times.

Before long Edward Alonzo, 20 years old, Richard Egan, 19, and 18-year old William Rosello were also behind bars.  “The police described the first two as soldiers absent without leave,” said the newspaper.

Neighbors and tenants were no doubt shocked and scandalized when a photograph of the building was published in The New York Times on March 26, 1979 with the caption “An illegal gambling casino allegedly operates in apartment 2A in town house at 11 East 71st Street and has a particularly affluent group of patrons.”  The make-shift casino, called the V.I.P., was “one of the more richly appointed clubs,” said The Times.

“The club, decorated to look like an elegant library—with books, antique furniture, bronze Grecian busts, formal oil portraits, and fresh-cut flowers in every room—attracts a particularly affluent group of faithful patrons.  On a recent night women glittering with diamond jewelry filled the seats at the V.I.P.’s three blackjack tables, while men gambled away thousands of dollars at the crowded craps table beneath a candle-laden chandelier.”

Harry, a blackjack dealer at the club told the reporter “On a good night, it’s not hard to get 50 customers losing $5,000 to $10,000 each.”  Harry also spilled the beans regarding how the management of the four-year old operation guaranteed that it was paid.

The V.I.P. employed ten “collectors” to pick up money owed the house.  The Times reported “Thugs recruited from the ranks of organized crime—to which the house must pay ‘protection’ money, he said—visit gamblers’ homes and dole out ‘punishment.’”

Harry explained “If someone has no money, they take whatever they can find—jewelry, stereo, furs.  And they come every weekend.  People get beat up.  They are given time to get the money, but if they don’t, they die, they die.”

How long the V.I.P. club remained in business after The Times’ expose is uncertain.

The beautifully-veined columns draw the eye's attention -- photo by Alice Lum

In May of 2001 Howard Lutnick was busy renovating the Hoe mansion.  Chairman of the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, Lutnick told a reporter that nothing of the original interiors had survived and he was “starting from scratch.”

Four months later Lutnick’s world would be shattered when terrorists slammed two airliners into the World Trade Center buildings where Canter Fitzgerald was headquartered.  The firm suffered the greatest loss of life of any other tenant—658 of its 960 workers were murdered that morning.

Today the Hoe mansion is once again a single-family home.   Other than the replacement windows, the spotlessly-clean stone façade is unchanged since Robert and Annie Hoe walked in the door in 1892—a time when being a millionaire made the Gay Nineties just a little gayer.

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