Monday, December 30, 2013

The Lost H. Bramhall Gilbert House -- No. 40 West 57th Street

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1902 the West 57th Street block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues had changed.  The regimented rows of brownstone homes constructed a generation earlier were being replaced or remodeled into extravagant mansions as the city’s wealthiest citizens moved northward up the avenue.  Among the millionaires on the block were Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs. Elizabeth Roosevelt, Mr. and Mrs. O. H. Harriman, Mrs. Robert B. Maclay, Mr. and Mrs. M. C. Borden.

As the year drew to a close at least one stealthy burglar found the block to be a lucrative hunting ground.  Within two months between November and January no fewer than ten homes had been broken into and jewelry, silverware and other valuables taken.  Terrifying to the residents was that the thief always ransacked the upper rooms while the family was at dinner.  The intruder would enter from the roof; but police were baffled as to how he managed to reach the roof and escape with his bag of loot.

Among the residents victimized was Charles F. Schmitt who lived at No. 40 West 57th Street.  The President of Charles F. Schmidt & Peters, a wine importing firm, Schmitt was comfortable with the house as it was built—a four-story brownstone that served his family’s wants. 

Also in the house were Schmitt’s wife, their four daughters and one son.  The Sun called him “one of New York’s prominent German merchants.”  He had been doing business in the city for more than half a century since his arrival in 1852 at the age of 20.  Schmitt’s no-nonsense German approach to his home seeped into his social life as well.  While his neighbors held memberships in several of the exclusive Fifth Avenue men’s clubs; Charles Schmitt had time for only one social club—the Deutsche Verein.

At the time of the Schmitt burglary attorney H. Bramhall Gilbert lived in a fine mansion at No. 826 Fifth Avenue at 64th Street.  With him were his wife Lilla, their son, Harry, and daughters Florence, Elizabeth and Lilla.  Next door lived Mrs. Gilbert’s brother, William Gould Brokaw, in an equally-lavish home.  Lilla Gilbert was born into the massively wealthy Brokaw family.  Many believe her playboy brother, fascinated with fast cars, would become, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby character.

Lilla Brokaw Gilbert in 1899 -- Cosmopolitan Magazine, (copyright expired)

In 1903 the Gilberts sold the mansion and, going against the northward flow of Manhattan millionaires, purchased a house one block to the south at No. 17 East 63rd Street.

Toward the end of 1905 Charles F. Schmitt became ill.  His condition worsened and he died in the 57th Street house on January 26, 1906.  Within a matter of weeks the house was sold. The buyer was John F. Carroll, a prominent Tammany leader and influential factor in New York politics.  Carroll had decided to give up politics that same year.  He had made a reported $2 million in 1904 on Wall Street and now turned his attentions to “dealing in ice stock,” according to The New York Times.

While John Carroll was apparently pleased with the fashionable location, unlike Charles Schmitt, he was not content with the outmoded brownstone.  On Wednesday, February 20, 1907 the New York Evening Telegram reported on his plans to replace the old house with an up-to-date mansion.

The newspaper described the proposed six-story home.  “It will have a central vestibule entrance paved with white granite and an entrance hall in the centre of the building.  The first floor will contain a reception hall and the billiard room, the second floor the drawing and dining rooms and the third story the library.”  The estimated cost for the new house was $75,000—about $1.5 million today.

The house, completed nearly three years later, was a stark departure from the dour brownstone it replaced.  The French Gothic mansion pulled out all the architectural stops.  A prominent three story oriel of small-paned leaded windows was encrusted with exuberant carvings.  It supported a commodious balcony protected by an intricately carved stone railing, above which dormers and spiky finials exploded upward.

Surprisingly, the Carroll family never moved into their new mansion.  Instead, on July 13, 1910, it was reported that Carroll leased the house to H. Bramhall Gilbert for five years at an aggregate rent of $100,000.  The Gilberts continued move against the current of the residential flow.

Lilla Gilbert's French parlor exuded wealth -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Lilla Brokaw Gilbert threw open the doors to the mansion soon after the family moved in.  The Gilbert home would appear in the society pages regularly as dinners, receptions and teas were hosted here.  Especially notable were the entertainments given for young Lilla who was introduced to society late in the fall that year. 

The Gilbert dining room turned to England for inspiration -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Gilberts’ lavish lifestyle in their city mansion carried over to their summer home “Sunshine” at Great Neck.  The sprawling estate was a Long Island showplace and the family’s steam yacht, the Sunbeam, was moored nearby in the Long Island Sound.  The Evening World mentioned that “The Gilbert houses at Great Neck and No. 40 West Fifty-seventh street, New York, are among the handsomest maintained by society people.”

The surprisingly-modern bathroom included a walk-in shower -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The following summer H. Bramhall Gilbert died in Aix-les-Bains leaving an estate of approximately $15 million.  A few months later, on November 17, 1911, John Carroll died.  Lilla and her daughter continued with their lease of the 57th Street house. 

Before the appropriate mourning period had passed, Lilla Gilbert announced the engagement of her daughter.  The Evening World, on July 5, 1912, ran the headline “Society Surprised by the Betrothal of Miss Gilbert.”  The newspaper described the heiress as “a beautiful young woman, a linguist, a musician, an athlete and with a turn toward charitable pursuits.”  It added “At Palm Beach she is reckoned one of the best swimmers of her set.”

The entrance foyer featured a highly-unusual ceiling fixture -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Lilla’s fiance was the 25-year old Howard Price Renshaw, the son of a wealthy Troy, New York, inventor and manufacturer.  Social page readers were more interested in his British pedigree, however.  The Evening World mentioned “Mrs. Lily Hamersley, who afterward became the Duchess of Marlborough, and whose son married Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, is his aunt.”

Gothic shared space with Moorish in the Gilbert library -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The wedding was celebrated in the 57th Street mansion on the afternoon of April 15, 1913, followed by a reception.  If society had been surprised a year earlier, it would be staggered six months later when the New-York Tribune reported “Announcement has been made of the engagement of Mrs. H. Bramhall Gilbert, daughter of the late William V. Brokaw, of this city, to Captain Cyril Patrick William Francis Radclyffe Dugmore, late of the British Army Service Corps and now on the reserve of officers.”

The recently widowed Lilla had just returned from Europe where she and daughter Florence had spent the summer; perhaps getting to know Captain Dugmore better.  Immediately upon their return Lilla left the 57th Street mansion for good and took an apartment at No. 903 Park Avenue.

A month before Lilla’s wedding in the Gilbert mansion, William Ziegler had purchased a building lot from Otto Kahn on 71st Street on the Lenox Library Block.  His new property abutted the Henry C. Frick mansion currently under construction and was reported to be the largest plot, with the exception of Frick’s, on the block.  With construction of his planned mansion expected to last at least two years, Ziegler needed a place to stay.  On September 2, 1913 he leased the 57th Street mansion from Teresa R. Carroll for two years at $20,000 a year (a substantial rent of about $400,000 a month today).

Ziegler, had recently come into possession of the multimillion dollar estate of his father, William Ziegler, a manufacturer and patron of Arctic expeditions.   Ten months before signing the lease, he had married Gladys Virginia Watson in the St. Regis Hotel on December 11.

The Ziegler family expanded three weeks after taking the 57th Street house when a daughter was born in their country house in Noroton, Connecticut.

When the Zieglers moved into their completed mansion on East 71st Street, Teresa Carroll briefly leased the 57th Street house to Wendell C. Phillips in 1916.  But by now the neighborhood had drastically changed.  Wealthy residents had nearly all fled up Fifth Avenue along Central Park and their former mansions had either been converted for commercial purposes or razed. 

A year later, on February 13, 1917, Mrs. Carroll leased the house to Hagop K. Kevorkian who converted the mansion to “The Studios.”  An artist himself, Kevorkian ran an art gallery called “Kevorkian” and rented studios.  On May 19, 1918 he showed his patriotism by hosting an “Entertainment Intime” for the benefit of the smoke and canteen fund of the Dewey Navy Recreation Committee of the Woman’s Naval Service, Inc.  Among the celebrated entertainers were Marion Davis, the Dolly Sisters, Ann Pennington, Kay Laurel, Ina Claire, and a troupe from the Ziegfeld Follies who did a number.

Kevorkian’s star-studded benefit was patronized by some of society’s most elite, including Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, George Jay Gould, John Wanamaker, Jr., Reginald Vanderbilt and Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr.

Lilla Gilbert's stunning interiors were stripped bare to showcase Kevorkian's sculptures -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Kevorkian made an unfortunate choice in tenants in 1921.  Already in the building was Adeline D. Cummings who ran an upscale art and antiques shop upstairs.  She was highly upset when a new tenant moved in—Dr. Berthold Baer who ran an undertaking establishment.  Hagop Kevorkian was equally upset when she began moving her inventory out of the building.  The dispute ended up in Supreme Court.

She complained in court that “the injury her business suffered from the all-pervading, though suave, gloom virtually constituted eviction proceedings.”  She told the judge “Funeral services were held in the building and there were coffins everywhere.”  The New-York Tribune reported “When prospective customers, seeking antiques, sought to take the elevator to Mrs. Cummings’s shop they were likely to find the car piled high with coffins, she said, and redolent tuberoses and resignation.”

The newspaper said lightly, “The coffins were undeniably modern and utilitarian and did not appeal in the slightest to Mrs. Cummings’s customers.  One or two encounters with coffins, she said, was enough for the hardiest and her business began to languish alarmingly.”

Kevorkian converted the street level to retail space -- photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The dispute was worked out, the funerary business left, and on May 6, 1922 the Real Estate Record and Guide reported that “An antique dealer who for some time had leased the former fine residence of the late John F. Carroll at 40 West 57th street, recently bought it.”

Kevorkian would retain possession of the house for years and in the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to the studios, apartments were leased in the upper floors to well-to-do tenants.  In 1937 one of these was Andy Sannella, a locally well-known radio and dance orchestra leader.  On June 22, 1940 Walter Winchell hinted at a debutante’s identity without exposing her name.  “The pretty gal who tried to wreck the Stork Club last night while cold sober (she bumped over tables, chairs and crockery) dwells at 40 West Fifty-seventh street.  She was released in the station house after signing a promise never to go there again.”

Not long after the pretty girl knocked over tables at the Stork Club, the 57th Street house became home to the American Friends of Norway.  Then, in the late 1950s to 1961 photographer Ray Shorr operated his studio and classroom here.  Students learned the art of photography from the celebrated Shorr.  A lingerie store, the Corsetorium, was on the ground floor.

August 1961 was the end of the line for Ray Shorr’s photography class here, the Corsetorium, and the French Gothic mansion itself.  Alfred Lawrence purchased No. 40 and No. 38 as part of a redevelopment project that replaced the old homes with a modern business building.


  1. Wow you can certainly fill a narrow facade with an abundance of French Gothic tracery. Beautiful roofline and multi-storey bay Unfortunately that up ended glass box is quite the eyesore as the replacement of such elegance.

  2. Another cool home that is now an eyesore. Why can't people leave beautiful things alone? Just because it's modern, does not make something good. The craftsmanship that went into the lost mansion won't soon be repeated.

    On a side note, did they ever find out who was breaking into all of those buildings, or did I miss that part in the story?

    1. I did not come across any follow up reports that the burglar was ever caught. Gutsy guy, too!

  3. What a magnificent residence this was............inside and out.


  4. What an exquisite structure - interior as well as exterior. I don't see the name of the architect who indeed "pulled out all the architectural stops". Do you know the designer?

    1. The architectural firm was Kirby, Petit & Green. Sorry for that oversight!