Thursday, September 19, 2013

The 1911 Lissberger Mansion -- No. 16 East 71st Street

photo by Alice Lum

On January 9, 1910 The New York Times wrote “The finest residential block in Manhattan is now in process of development from Fifth to Madison Avenue, between Seventieth and Seventy-First Streets.  This is the Lenox Library block, which in less than three years has undergone a complete transformation.”  The newspaper reported on the coming demolition of James Lenox’s magnificent library building and said that if Lenox were alive at the time “he would see the great open field in the rear that has been a familiar sight for many years to every passenger traveling on the Madison Avenue cars being filled up with a number of the most elegant types of private dwellings to be found in this country.”

Among the "elegant private dwellings" were two speculative mansions commissioned by developer Cornelius W. Lyster, Jr. at Nos. 16 and 18 East 71st Street.  Lyster had purchased the plots the year prior to the Times article and hired architect John H. Duncan to design the residences.  Each six stories tall they were completed in 1911; the architectural equivalent of fraternal twins.
Duncan designed subtle differences in the two residences -- photo by Alice Lum

Duncan individualized the houses with slightly differing elements – No. 16 sported elegant carved garlands dripping off the second story window frames, No. 18 had more reserved arched tympanums.  The balcony of No. 16 featured a cast iron railing; the balustrade of No. 18 was limestone.  But inside, the mansions were similar.  Each had an electric elevator, nearly 30 rooms and seven baths.

No. 18 was quickly snatched up by wealthy glove merchant Julius Kayser, but No. 16 was not so quick to move.   Finally on May 18, 1915 The Times reported that Luyster had leased the house “to a tenant for occupancy” for four years.  The tenant was Benjamin Lissberger, chairman of the board of B. Lissberger & Co., a smelting and refining firm.
Although covered in grime, the stone is intricately and elegantly carved -- photo by Alice Lum

Lissberger had formed the company around 1898 with his brother, Max.   By now he was a recognized authority on the subject of smelting and refining.   Benjamin moved into the house with his wife, Juliet, and their two daughters.  Interestingly, two years later it was Max who purchased the house from Cornelius Luyster.

Max Lissberger, a bachelor, served as president of the firm and it would seem that the extended family lived together at No. 16.  In 1924 B. Lissberger & Co was succeeded by the Federated Metals Corporation, a division of the American Smelting and Refining Company.  Max became a Director and Treasurer while Benjamin took the position as Chairman of the Board.   

Max was apparently the more socially reserved of the two—he was a member of the National Republic Club, while Benjamin held memberships in the Bankers, Manhattan, Criterion, Wall Street Luncheon, Whist and Republican Clubs, the United Hunts Association and the Inwood Country Club.  Another brother, William, was also a partner in the firm.  One suspects there was bitterness among the brothers because at one point he changed his name from William Lissberger to Walter Lester.

By the early 1930s Max had moved on to No. 295 Madison Avenue; and Benjamin and Juliet were living at No. 270 Park Avenue.   The house on East 71st Street remained home to their sister, Jane (known as Jennie) and brother Edmund.    Perhaps another hint of stress in the family and business is reflected in Walter Lester’s will.   When he died on March 12, 1930 he left part of his over $3 million estate to Jennie and Edmund.   Neither Benjamin nor Max was mentioned.
While Max Lissberger may not have been socially prominent, his love life did not seem to suffer.  After his death on March 7, 1933 the family was shocked when Mrs. Lydia Spiegelberg filed suit against his $1 million estate.  She told the court that she entered an agreement not to marry Max during his lifetime and “to act as companion and take care of him in his declining years.”

Her complaint said that Max Lissberger agreed to maintain her “as long as she lived, and to leave her a bequest sufficient to provide for her for the rest of her life.”  Lydia felt that the $10,000 Max left her was insufficient; saying he had spent that much every year for her expenses until his death.  She wanted $200,000.

Supreme Court Justice William T. Collins dismissed her complaint on March 22, 1934, advising her on morality at the same time.  “Marriage is the basis of civilized society and of sound morals, and is favored by the laws,” he said.  “Any unreasonable restraint upon the custom is contrary to public policy.”

Shortly after Max’s death, the last of the Lissberger family moved out of No. 16 East 71st Street.  The Depression coupled with changing attitudes in luxury living resulted in many of the lavish mansions in the neighborhood being razed for apartment buildings, or converted to multi-family dwellings.  In 1935 a renovation was completed that resulted in the Lissberger house being converted to three spacious apartments per floors one through five, and two on the sixth.
photo by Alice Lum
Two more renovations would follow; the last, in 1980, dividing the mansion into 17 apartments, with a commercial art gallery on the first floor.    Despite the make-over, the Lissberger house and its near-twin next door are little changed on the exterior.  Although the "AIA Guide to New York City" finds them unimpressive (it called them “early 20th century plain Jane whitestones"), they survive as virtually-intact reminders of the time when the last chunk of the Lenox Farm was developed as millionaire housing.

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