Thursday, November 7, 2013

The 1909 D. H. Morris House -- No. 19 East 70th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Young Alice Vanderbilt Shepard could claim one of the most enviable pedigrees of New York Society.  Her mother, Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt was the daughter of William Henry Vanderbilt and the brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt II.  Her father, ultra-conservative millionaire attorney Elliot Fitch Shepard, founded the New York State Bar Association and owned and edited the New York newspaper Mail and Express.

The girl had a sweet disposition and angelic face—yet she sometimes exhibited a spirit unbecoming to a well-bred society girl; especially a Vanderbilt.  While climbing a tree--the type of tom-boyish act strictly prohibited by her stern father--Alice fell and fractured her thoracic spine.  Reportedly Elliot F. Shepard refused to summon a doctor in order to punish the girl for her disobedience.

She would spend the rest of her life slightly deformed by scoliosis.  Her “delicate constitution” was forever after a consideration; she wore a brace for several hours a day; and spent hours reclining on a sofa.  As she entered her teen years, Alice’s beauty increased.   Having met the girl, Oscar Wilde supposedly asserted there were but three destinations worthy of a traveler’s attention in the United States:  Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Alice Shepard.

Sargent painted Margaret Shepard in 1888 -- San Antonio Museum of Art
 Near-life sized portraits of wealthy socialites were obligatory in the Victorian drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue.  In 1888 Shepard commissioned the famed John Singer Sargent to paint Margaret.  As the sittings progressed, Sargent was taken with the ethereal beauty of 14-year old Alice who sometimes appeared in the room.  He was met with resistance when he requested permission to paint her; and Margaret agreed only when she was assured that the sittings would be short and not taxing on Alice’s fragile condition.

Sargent's portrait of 14-year old Alice was completed the same year -- photo Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth Texas
The resulting portrait, also completed in 1888, is one of Sargent’s masterworks.

Society saw little of Alice after her debut.  The New York Times would latter mention that she had “not appeared much in society” and instead “devoted her attention, rather, to charitable and religious matters.”  That would change in the summer of 1894.

A year earlier, on March 24, 1893, Elliott F. Shepard was being prepared for a gall bladder operation.  As the doctors administered ether, the patient reacted badly.  “At the first inhalations dangerous symptoms were produced and the inhalations were immediately discontinued,” reported the Rock Island Daily Argus the following day.

Margaret and the two youngest Shepard girls had been nudged off to the summer estate at Scarboro-on-the-Hudson during the procedure.  They were now urgently called back home to the mansion at No. 2 West 52nd Street.  Elliot Shepard died around 4:20 p.m., well before they made it home.

Now, in 1894, Margaret and the stunningly beautiful 20-year old Alice were aboard the Majestic, heading to Europe.   Also aboard was Dave Morris (The Times would clarify for readers later, “he was christened Dave, not David”); a 23-year old medical student who ran a horse racing stable with his brother.   Morris was struck by Alice and readily brushed off her slight disability.

Morris was, however, not a fitting suitor for a Vanderbilt girl.   Bumping into one another aboard ship was not a proper social introduction; and the bulk of his not-insignificant fortune came from gambling.   The Times said “Mrs. Shepard did not view [the relationship] kindly.  She thought that her daughter should not marry Mr. Morris because he owned raced horses, and because his father had owned them.”

Nevertheless, despite the unconcealed and vocal disapproval of Margaret Louise Vanderbilt Shepard, the romance flowered.  On June 21, 1895 The New York Times printed the socially-shocking story of the Morris-Shepard wedding.  The headline read “Mrs. Shepard Not There.  She Opposed the Marriage of Her Daughter to a Horse Man.  None of the Vanderbilts Present.”

Headstrong Alice had, for all intents and purposes, eloped.  Her marriage was not in one of the fashionable society churches; but in The Church of the Transfiguration—known popularly as the Little Church Around the Corner where marriages of theater types often were conducted.

The article said “Mrs. Shepard knew that the wedding was to take place, but she refused to give her consent to it or to be present.

“No member of Miss Shepard’s family was a witness of the ceremony.  The Vanderbilts were all absent, although they knew of the engagement of the young people and the time of the wedding.”  Only six guests were present; one of which, a witness, was Rosina Kelly, the maid to Dave Hennen Morris’s sister.

The rift between mother and daughter would soon heal and by 1909 there was no discord among the family.  That year Dave, by now a distinguished attorney, purchased the lot at No. 19 East 70th Street; part of the newly-available land where the former Lenox Library had stood facing Fifth Avenue.   Dave and Alice once again tossed off social expectations.  Rather than hiring one of the prominent mansion architects, they went to the lesser-known Thornton Chard.

A captivating juliette balcony graces the understated facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Chard produced an elegant Italian Renaissance-style palazzo that was as charming as it was impressive.  A roomy 30-feet wide, it was distinguished by the deep, arcaded loggia at street level.  Above each arch was a sets of French doors, opening onto a wide stone balcony directly above.   Above the quietly simple façade a projecting roof cornice rested on foliate brackets.

Inside were 30 rooms, eight baths and two elevators.  Like the façade, the interior décor was understated and relatively simple.   The Times called it a “unique” residence.

The Morris dining room in 1915 was understated -- Architectural Record, January 1915 (copyright expired)

The Morrises’ disregard of the expectations of society would continue throughout their lives.  The couple would have five children—Dave, Lawrence, Noel, Emily and Alice—and would entrench themselves in pioneering works.   Alice had been for years interested in the concept of a neutral auxiliary language that could ease communication among diverse cultural groups.  In 1924 she and Dave would found the International Auxiliary Language Association.

Unlike the Victorian mansions in which she grew up, Alice Morris' reception room was cozy and welcoming -- Architectural Record, January 1915 (copyright expired)
But in the meantime, there were other less lofty issues to address.  In the spring of 1913 the high-toned neighbors on East 70th Street were suspicious of a group of “boys who find a fascination at night in loitering near the Frick home, now under construction,” said The New York Times.  Suspicions grew to anger when severe vandalism to the mansions erupted.

One of neighbors, William Truslow Hyde, awoke to find disturbing damage.   On May 7 The Times said “Mr. Hyde’s steps were enriched by railings of finely wrought bronze until these were ripped away the other night and pieces of stone coping with them.  The thief can realize little compared with the damage done by his work.  Other houses have been similarly treated.”  Among the houses “wronged” was the Morris mansion.

The house would be the scene of the debutante dances and dinners for the Morris daughters through the years; however entertainments would more often involve the International Auxiliary Language Associate, and the World Service Council of the Young Women’s Christian Association, of which Alice was Vice President.

The Morris’s youngest son Noel was a quiet, studious boy who immersed himself in books on philosophy.   At 24 years old, he had graduated from Antioch College in Ohio and was studying at the Russell Sage School of Social Research in 1928.  He enjoyed a private apartment in the mansion which he filled with his philosophy books.

On the night of October 31 that year, he left the house, had dinner alone at the exclusive Union Club, then attended the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “Tannhauser.”  The melancholy mood of the opera apparently affected the young man deeply.

He returned home, went to bed, but arose sometime deep in the night.  Noel Morris inserted a sheet of paper into his typewriter and wrote a note which he slipped into the last page of his diary.  Dated Oct. 31 it read “Tannhauser wasn’t brave enough to stick it out, but I have the courage to do it.  This is the closing entry.”

Noel locked the door to his suite, then locked the bathroom door behind him.  Standing before the mirror he put a gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Two weeks later the troubled youth’s will was read.  He bequeathed his estate of $10,000 to his parents.

The following year happier press would come to the mansion on East 70th Street when daughter Emily’s engagement to Hamilton Hadley was announced.  The restored social standing of Alice and Dave Morris was reflected in the society page.  While earlier the couple had been left off the lists of “prominent” guests to weddings and dinners; now The New York Times noted that Emily’s engagement “is of wide interesting owing to the prominence of both families.”

Dave was good friends with a local politician—Franklin Delano Roosevelt--and in 1931 was one of a small group who managed the campaign leading to his nomination for President.   The friendship resulted in Morris’s being named Ambassador to Belgium in May 1933.  A proficient violinist, Dave H. Morris stepped off the airplane in Belgium carrying his violin case—something that did not go unnoticed by the local press.

A Belgium newspaper wrote “We like diplomats who are artists, for we feel that artists will understand us better and act accordingly.”  Indeed Morris “understood” the Belgians and his four-year term was highly regarded.

After he stepped down from the post in 1937, he continued his interest in the country.  He was a director of the Belgium-American Educational Foundation, president of the Belgium War Relief Society and head of the Belgium American Associates.  It was a connection that would bring royalty to No. 19 East 70th Street in 1940.

The Nazis had overrun Luxembourg and its royal family arrived in New York on October 4 after being separated for months.  The following day the Grand Duchess Charlotte held a news conference from the parlor of the Morris mansion.  In part she told reporters “Under these circumstances, you will understand that although it is for me a great joy to see, after a long separation, my husband and my children, there is no happiness in my heart, nor will there be any wherever I may be, until my beloved people are free again.”

On May 4, 1944, at the age of 72, Dave Hennen Morris died in the house on East 70th Street after a long illness.  The man whom Margaret Vanderbilt Shepard had felt unsuited to marry her daughter had risen to political heights, held directorates in several corporations, and was a leader in educational organizations.  He had been president of the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women; Chairman of the executive committee of the New York Orthopedic Dispensary and Hospital; Vice President of New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital; Director of the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China; and a host of other positions and titles.

Four years later Alice Shepard Morris sold the mansion she and her husband had built four decades earlier.  The house was converted to offices in 1952 and one of them was leased by attorney Louis D. Frohlich.

Among Frohlich’s clients was underworld boss Thomas Luchese, known as Three Finger Brown.  On November 28 of that year Luchese sat in his lawyer’s office where he surrendered to F.B.I. agents.  In reporting the incident, The Times was not overly-sympathetic with the mobster.  “After the agents left, Mr. Frohlich issued over Luchese’s signature a lengthy legalistically worded statement that seemed quite out of character for the underworld boss who seldom tries more than one syllable at a time.”

The Morris music room in 1915 (top) and today. -- vintage photograph Architectural Record, January 1915 (copyright expired) contemporary view
In 1973 the mansion was converted to a “commercial gallery,” and for decades would be the home of the well-known Knoedler Art Gallery.    Then, in 2013, developer Christian Candy purchased the home for $35 million, with plans to reconvert it to a single family home.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. The Morris family's gambling wealth came from the Louisiana Lottery Company:

  2. Of all W.H. Vanderbilt's grandchildren who lived in NYC, the homes of the Shepards seem to have fared the best. Outside of NYC of course there are lots of others, particularly the homes of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan and her siblings. Any other Vanderbilt homes of this generation that you have highlighted here before?

    1. There are a few ... just put the various names in the "Search This Blog" field and they will pop up.