Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Carow-Martin House -- No. 114 East 36th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By the turn of the last century Murray Hill would be an enclave of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens—a block east of the more obvious Fifth Avenue.  But in the decade prior to the Civil War the neighborhood was just seeing the rise of handsome residences; comfortable brownstone rowhouses intended for the well-to-do merchant class.

Around 1856 builder George J. Hamilton constructed No. 114 East 36th Street—a four-story home nearly identical to its neighbors.   Two decades after its completion, in 1879, it became home to the Carow family, including young Edith Kermit Carow.  The charming and mannered teen was a life-long friend of one of the city’s most respected young citizens, Theodore Roosevelt. 

Edith was an avid reader and shortly after moving into the house, a copy of "Lucille," Owen Meredith’s lengthy poem, arrived at the door.  The inscription read “To Edith K. Carow on her eighteenth birthday, from her sincere friend Theodore Roosevelt.”

Almost exactly one year later Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee, another member of Edith’s circle of friends.  The following year, in 1881, at just 23 years old, Roosevelt was named Republican candidate for the New York State Assembly.  He won election on November 8, 1881 but assured friends not to expect him to go into politics after one-year term was up—“for I am not.”  

To celebrate his win, Edith threw a gala party a month later in the 36th Street house.  The rooms were filled with flowers and the well-dressed guests danced beneath the glow of gas chandeliers.  Theodore led the cotillion that evening in what would be one of the last entertainments the young couple would enjoy in New York for a year.  Three weeks later they left for Albany.

Alice, Theodore and Edith continued their deep friendship.  When Roosevelt was re-elected to another one-year term, Roosevelt purchased a house on West 57th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, to ease Alice’s boredom with Albany.  The friends would attend the opera and other social functions together .

Tragedy struck when Alice contracted Bright’s Disease—kidney failure—which was masked by her advanced pregnancy.  Two days after baby Alice Lee Roosevelt was born on February 12, 1884 Alice died.  Around eleven hours later Roosevelt’s mother, Martha, died of typhoid fever in the same house.  Theodore Roosevelt’s diary entry that night was a large X followed by “The light has gone out of my life.”

Following his mourning period, Theodore began visiting Edith in the 36th Street house.  The old friends now saw one another in a different light.  Their parlor meetings were discreet and few friends were aware.  Love blossomed and on November 17, 1885 Roosevelt secretly proposed.  Edith accepted.

There was now the problem of appearances.  Alice had been dead less than two years and a new engagement could seem unseemly.   Edith sailed off to Europe, as she had already planned to do, and polite society was kept in the dark.

First Lady Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt lived in the 36th Street house for about seven years -- photo Library of Congress
Upon her return, the couple married on December 2, 1886 and left for their European honeymoon.  Before leaving, the house at No. 114 East 36th Street was sold to William R. H. Martin.

As was often the case in upscale families, the deed was put in the name of his wife, Elizabeth B. F. Martin.  Martin headed one of the city’s most recognized men’s clothiers, Rogers, Peet & Co., founded by his father John T. Martin.  A pioneer in ready-to-wear apparel for the middle class man, the firm’s success was due in part to treating its customers as though they were the wealthy clients of the most exclusive haberdasheries.

As the turn of the century approached, Martin turned his attention real estate projects, as well.  In 1900 he opened his lavish hotel near Times Square which he named after himself, the Martinique.  Within a few years he would construct a far less fashionable hotel, the Trowmart Inn, for single working girls.

And as his Martinique Hotel was rising, Elizabeth and William also took a look at their aging brownstone.  By now the wealthy homeowners in the neighborhood were updating their architecturally-passe homes by replacing them with new mansions, or hiring noted architects to remodel them.  In 1899 architect Samuel Edson Gage was given the job of transforming the old house into a fashionable, up-to-date residence reflective of the status of its owners.

Completed in 1900, the renovation was remarkable.  The brownstone façade was stripped off and another story added.  Rather than the gushing Beaux Arts style so popular for many residential designs at the time, Gage turned to the restrained neo-Georgian.  It was an architectural trend just taking hold and would result in mansions like those of Andrew Carnegie and Willard D. Straight.

Now five stories tall with a mansard attic, the dignified home was a blend of red brick and white limestone.  Rather than climbing one or two steps to the entrance as might be expected, the guests would descent one step from the sidewalk.  Tall windows were lined in limestone quoins and capped by bracketed window hoods.   Above it all eye-catching circular dormers projected from the shingled mansard.

photo by Alice Lum
On December 2, 1905 the family had a scare when William, Elizabeth and their niece, Elsie Martin, left the house for the debutante reception of Catherine Hall nearby at No. 124 East 38th Street.   The trio climbed into Martin’s stylish brougham, no doubt covering themselves with piles of carriage blankets to ward off the cold, and headed off.  As the carriage driver, Frederick Dodge, was crossing Lexington Avenue at 37th Street, he saw the Lexington Avenue electric street car approaching.  Before he could clear the tracks, the car struck and overturned the carriage.

Dodge was thrown from the driver’s box and received a cut to the head.  Martin and the two women were uninjured.  Although Martin complained that the motorman, John Cunningham, had apparently lost control of the brakes, the police surmised that the tracks were so slippery that the car was carried down the avenue’s decline by its own momentum.  The Martins, no doubt, had an interesting story to tell at the reception.

The entrance was placed, somewhat surprisingly, below street level -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1906 son Lucius Trowbridge Martin was married to Amy Bowers.  The couple sailed off to Europe for their honeymoon, but a few weeks later there was trouble.  William R. H. Martin set sail and returned with a month of the wedding with his daughter-in-law.  She moved in with William and Elizabeth.  The New-York Tribune reported “Her husband remained abroad, and rumors were spread that there had been an estrangement.”

The following year Martin was struck with a severe attack of “indigestion” and was confined to bed for over a week.  The New York Times reported that “He is recovering and will probably be out again within a week.  His son, who is in England for the hunting season, has been kept informed of his father’s condition by cable.  He is expected home in a few weeks.”

The “hunting season” that was keeping young Martin from his wife had now extended over a year.  In January 1908 Amy obtained a divorce and two months later, on March 3, Lucius remarried.  The New-York Tribune ran the headline “L. T. Martin Married Again.”

On January 30, 1912 William R. H. Martin died in the house on East 36th Street.  The funeral was held there two days later.  Elizabeth stayed on in the house for a year and a half before leasing it in June 1914 to William H. Post. 

Post was the secretary and a director of the Post Mortgage and Land Company.  The family included daughters Fanny and Mary.  On November 1, 1915 Mary’s engagement to Philip B. Brewster was announced, and in January 1917 they were married.  The fashionable wedding took place in the Church of the Incarnation with the groom’s father officiating.  Assisting was the groom’s uncle, Bishop Brewster of Connecticut.

The Posts remained in the house until Elizabeth Martin’s death, after which it was sold to Charles E. Warren in September 1919.  Warren was President of the Lincoln National Bank and a member of the ultra-exclusive Union League Club.  In reporting the sale the New-York Tribune said “This house is considered one of the best built houses in the Murray Hill section and is cabinet trimmed throughout.”  Unlike so many wealthy Manhattanites who were migrating northward, Warren moved south.  His former residence was at No. 326 West 89th Street.

When the Warrens purchased the 36th Street house in September they were still at Brae, their country estate in Lawrence, Long Island.  The Sun notified society on September 23 that the family, including daughter Margaret, would close the summer house “in the autumn and will occupy their new house.”

Along with the Warrens came Bridgeport, Connecticut socialite Mrs. Thomas Hood Macdonald.  On announcing the engagement of her daughter on December 7, 1919, The Sun mentioned that she “is passing the winter at 114 East Thirty-sixth street.”

Margaret Warren would not be far behind in becoming engaged.  The debutante had attended the prestigious Spence School and was a member of the Junior League and the Daughters of the Cincinnati.  She had, in other words, all the credentials of a well-bred young woman of polite society.   In October 1920 the Warrens announced her engagement to Shannon Lord Meany. 

A Princeton graduate, the groom had served as a captain in the war and came from a wealthy New Jersey family.  The family home, Alnwick Hall, was located in the town of Convent and The Times noted “His clubs are the Morris County Golf and Whippany River.”  Following the wedding on January 22, 1921 the reception was held in the house on 36th Street.
Warren sold the house in 1924 to Dr. Van Horne Norrie.  A bachelor, he was among the most respected of New York physicians.  For years he was a member of the faculty of Columbia University as Professor of Clinical Medical and had risen to the position of Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Medical Board of Bellevue Hospital.  The New York Times called him “one of the leading diagnosticians in the city.”

Norrie lived quietly in the house for nine years.   He filled the house with a valuable art collection.  Unlike many millionaires of the period, Norrie turned away from collecting old oils; preferring instead etchings, sketches and prints.  Among the works that decorated his walls was Whistler’s etching “The Kitchen.” 

Whistler's evocative "The Kitchen" was among Dr. Norrie's extensive collection -- http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/james-mcneill-whistler/the-kitchen

Just after New Year's Day in 1933 Dr. Norrie was confined to the house with heart trouble.  He died here four weeks later, on January 31, at the age of 71.  His $2.5 million estate was divided among charities such as the New York Public Library, and his four relatives; a sister, two nieces and a nephew.

No. 114 was valued at $80,000 (around $1.5 million today) and was left to the doctor’s nephew, Lanfear Barbey Norrie.  A mining engineer and minerals prospector he followed in the footsteps of his father, A. Lanfear Norrie.  The senior Norrie had famously discovered the iron ore of the Gogebic range of upper Michigan.  The Norrie mine was considered, around the turn of the century, to be the greatest iron mine in the world.

Like his uncle, Lanfear Norrie lived on inconspicuously in the grand home.  Unlike the residents before the Norries, he hosted no spectacular parties with guests lists plastered throughout the social pages of the newspapers.   He lived here for four decades, leaving in the mid 1970s.

In 2005 the house where a future United States President courted a future First Lady was converted to apartments—two each on the first three floors and an expansive duplex engulfing the upper two.  The luxurious duplex was purchased in 2007 by The Morgan Library & Museum for its incoming Director.  The New York Observer reported that the $3.25 million apartment boasted two bedrooms, three and a half baths, three marble fireplaces, and a wet bar.

photo by Alice Lum

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