Thursday, August 15, 2013

The 1899 Moses Allen Starr Mansion -- No. 5 West 54th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Until 1896 the block facing John D. Rockefeller’s West 54th Street mansion off Fifth Avenue was dominated by St. Luke’s Hospital.  Since 1858 the massive edifice had faced the avenue, built at a time when only a few structures—including the mansion that would become Rockefeller’s—stood this far north.

St. Luke's Hospital spanned the Fifth Avenue block from 54th to 55th Street -- NYPL Collection

Now, as the facility laid plans to move to Amsterdam Avenue, its old building sat amidst the most exclusive residential neighborhood in Manhattan.   Demolition of St. Luke’s made available the choicest building plots in the city.

That same year, as the hospital building was being demolished, Dr. Moses Allen Starr was elected President of the American Neurological Association.  Already Professor of Neurology at Columbia University and President of the New York Neurological Society, he had been educated at Princeton University, Columbia University, and in Heidelberg and Vienna.

By now Starr was recognized as an authority on the brain and nervous diseases.  He had written medical texts such as “Brain Surgery,” “Familiar Forms of Nervous Disease,” and “Brain Surgery with Illustrations.”   The doctor was living at No. 22 West 48th Street; but with his marriage to Alice Dunning planned for June 7, 1898 he made plans for a new home.

Starr purchased the plot at No. 5 West 54th Street and commissioned Robert Henderson Robertson to design the new mansion.   Robertson was at the pinnacle of his career having designed the Union Theological Seminary, the masterful St. Paul’s Methodist Church on West End Avenue and the McIntyre Building on Broadway among many other Manhattan structures.  It was perhaps the architect’s work on the Academy of Medicine, completed in 1890, that earned him this commission.

For the Starr residence Robertson married reserved neo-Renaissance with the widely-popular Beaux Arts style to create a dignified and restrained home.   Reflecting the doctor’s serious profession and reputation, the mansion lacked the festoons and garlands of other neighborhood homes.  Instead the buff-brick and limestone residence spoke quiet elegance.

photo by Alice Lum
The Starrs were married in the Brick Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue at 37th Street in a sociably-notable ceremony.  The New York Times remarked that “the church was crowded with guests and profusely decorated with palms and roses.”  Afterward more than 200 guests filed into the bride’s parents’ home at No. 37 West 38th Street for the wedding breakfast and reception.

The following year the mansion was completed and the newlyweds moved in.    By 1907 the north side of the block where the hospital had stood would be lined with mansions of millionaires like that of Dr. Allan M. Thomas at No. 35, Dr. W. B. James at No. 17, Senator Chauncey M. Depew, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and General Anson G. McCook.  The houses were filled with valuable artwork, silver and jewelry—tempting loot for sneak thieves. 
The American Architect published a photograph of the Starr residence along with the new Philip Lehman mansion next door in August 1901 --copyright expired
In April of that year the block was plagued with a rash of attempted break-ins.  Police reported six attempts on the block within only a few days.  On April 14 at around 2:00 in the morning two of Dr. Thomas’s maids down the street from the Starr residence were sleeping.  One of them, Christina Gustavson, was awakened by the sound of her window being opened.  “She saw a main swing himself in from a rope ladder hung from the roof,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “The man held a small electric lamp in his hand.  When he saw that she was awake, she said, he whispered to her: ‘If you make the slightest noise I’ll kill you.’”

When the burglar heard movement below the stairs, he went out the window and up the ladder.  The terrified maid shrieked for help.

“Detectives Beeron and Baer went to the doctor’s house,” said the newspaper.  “They found Dr. Thomas and his butler, both armed with revolvers, in a very angry state of mind.”

Dr. Starr and his wife had been less fortunate.  Residents, including Dr. Thomas, were on heightened alert already, due to the burglar’s more successful entry through the skylight into the Starr residence a few days earlier

“Several days ago a thief carried off $7,000 worth of jewelry from the bedroom of Prof. M. Allen Starr of Columbia University, at 5 West Fifty-fourth Street,” said The Times.  “The fellow left behind a casket containing $20,000 worth of Mrs. Starr’s jewelry.”   The jewelry that the burglar left behind would amount to more than $350,000 today.

photo by Alice Lum
That same year Dr. Starr and his wife traveled to Europe, returning on the steamship Kronprinzessin Cecilie.  When Customs Inspector Nimmo examined the Starr luggage the doctor was assessed $375 duty.  Later Starr remembered “I found I had only $350, and the Inspector kindly volunteered to lend me the needed $25.  He did not know me as an acquaintance, but he knew me as Dr. Starr, and I am well enough known in this city, I think, to be good for $25 anywhere.”

Starr was especially grateful because the Government did not take checks.  The following day the inspector arrived at the Starr mansion and the doctor paid him back.  It was an act of kindness that would end in Inspector Nimmo losing his job.

Two years later in September 1909 Dr. Starr, Alice and their daughter returned from Europe on the Adriatic from Southampton.  Coincidentally Nimmo was again their inspector; although none of the parties remembered one another.  The detailed inspection delayed the Starr family and annoyed the doctor.

A reporter later said “He went through every piece of the Starr baggage in the most thorough way.  Other officials gathered about and watched the proceedings, to the annoyance of Dr. Starr.  Even the empty milk bottles, which had contained the milk used on the voyage by the Starr children [sic], were inspected.”  The writer was quick to say “He had no feelings against Nimmo...for he had done this duty.  He was angry with the system which had made such a humiliating examination necessary.”

The influential Starr lodged a written complaint with James B. Reynolds, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.  Unexpectedly, the investigation turned away from the incident at hand and to the loan made two years before.   Investigators arrived at the Starr house to interrogate the doctor regarding the loan.   The New York Times reported that “He repeated that he had no complaint to make against the Inspector, but against the system.”

The investigators pressed on.

“The investigation, Dr. Starr said, was more an investigation of the Inspector than the complaint.  In the end the customs men found out about an act of kindness done by Nimmo two years before, and his dismissal followed.”

Collector Loeb issued a statement saying “Charles Nimmo, Customs Inspector, has been dismissed from the service by Collector Loeb for violation of the rules, particularly for visiting the house of a passenger whose baggage he had examined.”

Starr was indignant, calling the matter “a shame.”  He told reporters “It was a simple act of kindness on his part and helped me out of a difficulty…I did not give him a cent more than the sum he advanced me.”

Despite the doctor’s protests to Washington, Loeb stood by his decision saying “There is nothing to say regarding this case.  Inspector Nimmo broke the rules, and for this he was dismissed.  I am going to stop that sort of thing.”

The eminent Moses Allen Starr shocked the medical world when he questioned the theories of a perhaps more eminent doctor.  The Princeton Alumni Weekly reported “On April 4, 1912, at a crowded meeting of the neurological section of the Academy of Medicine, Dr. Starr caused a sensation by attacking the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, with whom he worked as a student in a Vienna laboratory.” 

The “stir” passed and both doctors went about their work.

December 1921 was an important month in the Starr household.  It was time for young Katherine’s coming-out.  On December 3 Alice hosted a day-long event starting with a tea.  The girls-only entertainment was followed by a dinner attended by eligible young society men.  Afterward the group attended the theater; then moved on to the Saturday evening dance at the Plaza.

Dr. Starr followed in his father’s philanthropic footsteps.  Egbert Starr had donated the library to Middlebury College in Vermont.  In June 1926 Dr. Starr added a wing to the library and a year later gave Columbia University $2,500 to initiate the Starr Fund in the Department of Neurology.

By 1932 the aging professor was experiencing heart trouble and that year he traveled to the baths of Norheim, Germany to seek relief.  On September 4 he died in Marienbad at the age of 78.  Alice received the bulk of his nearly $1 million estate, staying on in the house he had built for her more than three decades earlier.

By now the neighborhood had greatly changed.   While many of the mansions on the block—including the houses of John D. Rockefeller and his son, John Junior—still stood as private homes, commerce had engulfed Fifth Avenue and most of the side streets.  Nonetheless, Alice stayed on.  She remained active in her charitable work and was on the board of managers of the West Side Day Nursery for more than forty years.

On December 18, 1942 the 72-year old dowager died in her country home in Mount Kisco.  The following year the house was purchased by Robert Lehman whose father owned the impressive mansion next door at No. 7.   With the country’s entry into World War II a year earlier, Lehman donated the mansion to the United States Government to be used as a rest home for returning veterans.

poster from the National Archives and Records Administration
Now called Freedom House, the mansion also served as headquarters for the Victory Clothing Collection.   The project gathered used clothes for war victims.  An advertisement in January 1946 boasted that about 25,000,000 people had received clothing from Americans the spring before.  In frank language the ad said “Your spare clothing will be distributed free, without discrimination, to victims of Nazi and Jap oppression in Europe, the Philippines, and the Far East.”

In 1948 the house was purchased by Faberge, Inc. and converted to offices on all floors.  The firm would remain in the house until 1970.  John S. Lastis, Inc. bought the property in 1974 and initiated a careful restoration of the interiors.  The mansion was renamed the Petrola House.

The magnificent bronze-grilled entrance doors survive -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the Starr mansion is incredibly intact in the bustling Midtown business neighborhood.  It is one of a string of remarkably-surviving mansions built by many of New York’s wealthiest bankers and physicians within only a few years of one another.

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