Friday, January 3, 2014

The 1904 Robt. McCurdy Mansion -- No. 39 East 51st Street

photo by Alice Lum

Jennie S. Parker was no stay-at-home housewife at the turn of the last century.  The wife of John H. Parker, a major real estate developer, she held a directorship in the John H. Parker Co. and was responsible for the erection of her own buildings.

In 1902 she began the project of constructing three handsome abutting mansions along the north side of East 51st Street between Madison and Park Avenues.  The speculative homes would sit  within Manhattan’s most prestigious neighborhood—just over a block east of Fifth Avenue.

Over a century later the Historic Districts Council would attribute the three houses to the architectural firm of York & Sawyer; while the City’s East Midtown Rezoning and Related actions committee would confidently declare them “designed by the architectural firm of Clinton & Russell.”  But at the time the plans were announced, the New-York Tribune had a third opinion.

On January 9, 1902 the newspaper ran the headline “Woman Architect Files Plans” and announced “Plans were filed yesterday by Jennie S. Parker, an architect, who designed the Parker Building, for three six story brick dwelling houses to be built on the north side of Fifty-first st…at a cost of $225,000.”

A mention in American Architect and Architecture a month later supports the York & Sawyer commission; and perhaps any aspirations Jennie Parker had for designing the residences herself were put aside.

The three mansions were completed in 1904; including No. 39 a strikingly dignified six-story home of red brick, limestone and marble.  A short stone stoop led to the parlor floor of rusticated white marble.  The Italian Renaissance-inspired design featured a handsome entablature surrounding the doorway, with fluted Doric pilasters.  The arched parlor windows were embellished with scrolled keystones among carved festoons.  Above it all a mansard roof with three projecting dormers sat behind the bracketed cornice.
The builder, Richard L. Walsh Co., used the mansion to advertise its abilities -- Architecture, December 1907 (copyright expired)
James A. Robinson purchased the house and quickly leased it in August 1904 to Frank A. Vanderlip, the Vice President of the National City Bank.  The banker’s move was no doubt precipitated by his recent marriage to Mabel Narcissa Cox on May 9 the year before.
Exuberant carvings embellished the openings -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years earlier Vanderlip had stepped down from the position of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury under President William McKinley.  While in that office he negotiated a $200 million loan with National City Bank to finance the Spanish American War.  Perhaps as a sort of commission, he landed the job as the bank’s vice-president upon leaving office.
photo by Alice Lum

The Vanderlips lived in the house for two years; then on March 7, 1906 James Robinson sold No. 39 East 51st to his tenant.   Real estate operators were most likely stunned two days later when The New York Times reported on what it called it a “quick turn for F. A. Vanderlip.”  The banker sold the house nearly before the ink on the bill of sale was dry.

The mansion became home to Robert Henry McCurdy, a trustee of the Mutual Life Insurance Company (founded in part by his father, Richard A. McCurdy) and a trustee of the Continental Insurance Company.  He held directorships in the Merchants’ Exchange Bank, and the American Exchange National Bank, and was a prominent member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Photograph from "History of the City of New York 1609-1909" (copyright expired)

McCurdy, whom historian John William Leonard in 1909 said “enjoyed the advantage of an excellent education,” married Mary Suckley in 1898.  As was most often the case with wealthy homeowners, the deed to the 51st Street mansion was put in Mary’s name.  The couple by now had a country home in Morris Plains, New Jersey which was deemed by The New York Times to be a “palatial” dwelling” where they lived “in the luxury of the very rich.”

Two years after moving in Robert McCurdy partnered with Norman Henderson and Lewis H. Hatzfeld to establish the banking and brokerage firm of McCurdy, Henderson & Company; becoming its principal.  Within a year he would hold additional directorships with the First National Bank of Morristown, New Jersey; the International Bell Telephone Company, Limited; the Windsor Trust Company of New York and at least two other large firms.

Robert McCurdy’s mother died in 1910 and his retired father lived in seclusion in his Morris Plains mansion.  The Times said that “Richard A. McCurdy, in the opinion of many, for years was more powerful in the business world than any other figure.”  But by 1912 the physical condition of the 76-year old “has caused some worry to his family from time to time.”
Around the holidays in 1911 the McCurdy patriarch came to New York City to visit in the 51st Street house.  The former insurance magnate left on the train back to New Jersey late in January; and it was on the trip home that he was stricken with a serious gout attack.  For the tycoon who was accustomed to the extremes of luxury, this trip would be somewhat humiliating.

“Mr. McCurdy made the last stage of the trip, from Hoboken to Morristown, on a stretcher in the baggage car of the Lackawanna Railroad train,” reported The Times.  “He was accompanied by his physician, Dr. George H. Willis of Morristown.”

The elderly man recovered and lived another four years.  Upon his death The New York Times said “he was recognized as one of the most masterful men who ever entered the life insurance field.”  Robert McCurdy had large shoes to fill.

Along with Mary and Robert in the house was a staff of eight.  The McCurdys relied mostly on Irish immigrants—six of the servants were from Ireland—although Mary McCurdy’s “lady’s maid” was French and her laundress was Swedish.
photo by Alice Lum

By May 24, 1925 when Mary McCurdy died the midtown neighborhood had noticeably changed since the house was built two decades earlier.   Business buildings were replacing the refined mansions and wealthy citizens were moving further north along the Park.  The 51st Street house, which she left to Robert, was assessed at $150,000 at the time of her death—about $1.5 million today.

A fortunate fluke of timing was most likely responsible for the McCurdy mansion’s survival.   At the time of Mary’s death, the St. Nicholas Club, “one of the oldest and most exclusive clubs in New York,” according to The Times on January 16, 1926, was considering a move from its clubhouse at No. 7 West 44th Street.

When it sold the old building in January 1926, the newspaper said “Heavy tax assessments and the rapid advance of land values in the Grand Central zone made it impossible for the club to hold its present site.”

The club hinted at the time that the McCurdy mansion “is being seriously considered as the most favorable location.”  Negotiations with Robert McCurdy apparently moved quickly and within days the deal was sealed.  By August that year the directors announced an $80,000 improvement budget that would pay for “equipment and the construction of an additional floor for bedrooms and a roof garden.”

The bedrooms upstairs would be used by wealthy members throughout the next decade.  Among them was 28-year old Augustus Phelps Dunham.  Formerly a Chicago resident, he had been employed by the Lawrence Stern & Co. investment securities firm there.  His father was president of the Chicago Park District.

Now, in 1937, young broker was living in the St. Nicholas Club.  On March 12, his father’s 61st birthday, he was on Wahackme Road in New Canaan, Connecticut alone in his automobile.  “Witnesses said that the car was traveling downhill at high speed, with the horn pealing,” reported The Times.  The car skidded out of control and into an embankment.  The promising young man died shortly after the crash.

Two years after Dunham’s tragic car accident, on March 23, 1939, the St. Nicholas Club sold the house to “an investor,” who quickly leased it to the French art firm of DeMotte, Inc.  At the time, two of Jennie B. Parker’s original three houses still survived—next door was the town house of Mrs. Charles D. Dickey.

The DeMotte firm had been leasing the former mansion of the late Stuyvesant Fish at No. 25 East 78th Street.  The move into the McCurdy mansion would bring the art dealer closer to other similar high-end art houses like Jacques Seligmann and Rosenbach galleries.

Throughout the 1940s DeMotte staged repeated exhibitions of Czechoslovak art; often for the benefit of Czechoslovak War Relief.  Among other fascinating exhibits here was one of reproductions of ancient Irish art hosted by the Irish Academy in America in 1948 and another of twenty-five sculptures by fifteen American artists executed for Catholic churches and promoted by the Liturgical Arts Society a year later.

In 1946 the art advertising firm of Frank A. Lavaty moved into the building, sharing space with the art dealer. 

Finally, in 1952 plans were announced by the new owner, Talon, Inc. “for altering the six story building into offices.”  In 1954 the conversion to Talon’s headquarters was completed, resulting in offices on five floors with a lounge in the penthouse. 
Even the bronze-and-glass entrance doors survive intact -- photo by Alice Lum

Today the handsome townhouse is the last vestige of a time when millionaires came and went from their luxurious mansions along East 51st Street.  Amazingly, little has changed to the outward appearance of the striking brick-and-stone survivor.

1 comment:

  1. This house was in fact a Clinton & Russell design. Parker did not build this house, she built the houses to the right in the Walsh advertisement. The three directly east of the McCurdy house were the ones designed by York & Sawyer. Both firms designed houses here, the addresses have simply been mixed up over the years.

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