Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The S. G. Etherington Mansion -- Nos. 152-156 East 81st Street

Originally three houses, Sandford G. Etherington melded them into one wide mansion -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel (www.salokin.com)

In the 1880s the block of East 81st Street between Lexington and Third Avenues was considered on the “wrong side” of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue).  While the brick and brownstone-fronted rowhouses here housed respectable families; the neighborhood was too far removed from Fifth and Madison Avenues to lure Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.

At Nos. 152, 154 and 156 were three brick-faced homes.  Slightly narrower than expected at just under 20 feet, they nevertheless boasted handsome mansard roofs and deep English basements below high stoops.  In 1889 George S. Block lived in the middle house.  He was listed as the “collector in Lauer’s brewery.”

At the turn of the century, the owners of No. 154 were experiencing financial difficulties and on July 2, 1903 the house was sold at auction “by order of the Sheriff.”   Before long the owner of No. 152 next door died and in 1906 the Hammel estate sold it to Dr. Julius Hoffman.

Dr. Hoffman was a well-respected physician who counted among his patients retired banker Henry Seligman (whom The New York Times was quick to clarify was “distantly related to the Seligman family of bankers).  In 1913 when Seligman was accidentally thrown from a street car he refused to have an ambulance called, and insisted that Dr. Hoffman be notified instead.

In the meantime a much wealthier young man was entering business life.  Sandford Garland Etherington graduated from Princeton University in 1906 and entered the family wholesale paper company, W. F. Etherton & Co.  In 1910 he married Dorothy McKinney in exclusive Greenwich, Connecticut and a year later their first daughter, Eleanor Grade was born.  The family lived in the enviable address of No. 527 Riverside Drive.

Etherington had mining interests in Mexico, was an avid athlete (he wrote of himself “Get hard exercise in summer, swimming, tennis, etc.  Confined in winter to squash, indoor tennis, gym, work.”), and a yachtsman. 

Yachting was Etherington’s favorite pastime and in 1911 the “Fifth Year Record, Class of 1906: Princeton University” said “S. G. E. is a boatman…He’s a splendid sailor.  Sometimes you have to dig his ship out of the mud to get it started.  That’s how the oyster men know him.  But truly if you ever want to bowl along in the merriest sort of a spanking breeze and a right smart pretty craft that dances over the Sound, persuade Sandy to ship you as crew.”

Although he deemed himself a “middler” in political beliefs; he did not waffle regarding his stance on women’s voting:  “Believe in woman suffrage?  No.  Does any male?  If so, who?”

On January 25, 1921 the three houses at Nos. 152 through 156 East 81st Street were sold.  The New-York Tribune reported that “The buyer, whose name is not divulged, plans an improvement for the site, but the character of it could not be learned from the brokers.”

At the time George and Eda Stookey were leasing No. 152 from Mrs. J. Hoffman.  Tragically, on the day following the sale their infant son, George Elwood Stookey, died.  The funeral for the baby was held in the house that Friday. 

Part of the mystery of who purchased the houses and what his intentions were came to light three months later.  On April 14 of that year the New-York Tribune reported that Nos. 154 and 156 East 81st Street had been sold to Dorothy M. Etherington and Eleanor B. McKinney, respectively.  It is doubtful that Eleanor McKinney, Dorothy’s sister, ever intended to live in the house.

That same month the American Contractor reported that plans were filed by architect George S. Chappell to alter the three houses into a single massive home 58 feet wide by 54 feet deep.  Chappell estimated that the alterations would cost the Etheringtons $50,000 – or about $610,000 today. 

Although a splattering of New York’s wealthy homeowners had spread further east than Park Avenue by now—Elisabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe had started the fashionable Sutton Place enclave a year earlier—the Etheringtons’ decision to consolidate three old Victorian houses here into a single mansion is still a bit surprising.  Nevertheless, the project commenced and was completed within the year.

The result was a lavish home of more than two dozen rooms and a sprawling rear garden.  The growing Etherington family divided their time between the 81st Street house and their Maine summer estate, “Fortunes Rocks” in Biddeford.

Highly visible in social circles, Dorothy Etherington was deeply involved with the Metropolitan Opera.  It would take second stage, however, in the 1932 when the string of entertainments for Eleanor’s debut commenced.  Eleanor had graduated from the exclusive Chandor School and was, of course, a member of the New York Junior League.  Two years later it was daughter Nancy’s turn and the house was the scene of a tea dance on December 1, 1934.  The New York Times noted that the debutante “is home from Vassar for the holiday.”

Debutante entertainments turned to wedding celebrations as Eleanor’s engagement was announced by the Etheringtons on July 24, 1936.  Dorothy Etherington managed to juggle wedding plans with her social obligations to the Opera, however.  On March 16 that year she hosted “an explanatory lecture on ‘Parsifal’ with piano accompaniment” in the house for the subscribers to a benefit production of the opera.

The whirlwind of entertainments for the Etherington girls continued and on New Year’s Day 1937 the family announced the engagement of Nancy to Richard Wallace Banfield, a recent Dartmouth graduate. 

Following Dorothy’s death, Sandford continued to live in the 81st Street house with daughter Dorothy and son Sandford, Jr.; eventually remarrying.  The last of the children to leave the mansion was Dorothy, whose engagement to Charles Beach Powell was announced on July 22, 1951.

Before long the mansion became home to Paul Saurel and his wife, the former Louise Ramsay Hoguet.  The couple would have five children—Paul, Marie-Noel, Louise, Ramsay and Christine; but as was expected social attention was lavished on the daughters.  The tradition of debutante fetes would continue as Marie-Noel was introduced to society in 1960.  On November 24 the Saurels hosted a “small dinner dance” for their daughter who was at the time attending Smith College.

Three years later it would be daughter Louise who was in the spotlight at a dinner dance in the house.  Like her sister she had been educated in the private Chapin School.  Now she was studying at Bryn Mawr College.

Paul Saurel died in 1994 and Louise lived on alone in the house with her staff.  On February 2008, at the age of 92, the active socialite died in the mansion after a brief illness.  Louise’s housekeeper remembered her saying “She was loving, giving, patient; she didn’t care if you were black, white; always smiling, positive.”
Multi-colored slate tiles cover the mansard roof--photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel (www.salokin.com)

Within a few months the house was put on the market for $45 million.

The New York Observer described it as a “57-foot wide, 26-room, 14-bathroom, 13-bedroom, nine-fireplace, four-story” house.  The 12,000 square foot house boasted a 3,000 square foot garden.  The listing included “a 38-foot-wide drawing room overlooking the garden; a formal dining room off the garden terrace; three pantries and two kitchens; two libraries and one sitting room; a parlor-floor dry bar and a ‘wine cellar/grotto’ in the basement; a gym; and a planned roof garden.”

Eight decades after the Etheringtons' surprising choice, the locality was still an issue.  The New York Observer still remarked “But [the buyer] won’t have super-prime location: the $45 million mansion is between Lexington and Third avenues.”

The listing included detailed floor plans -- Streeteasy.com

At the time that the house was put on the market, entertainer Madonna was reportedly having problems with her Upper West Side neighbors.  Residents below her 6,000-square foot apartment apparently complained about the loud noises and .music of rehearsals.

The solution:  a private house.

Madonna purchased the Etherington-Sauret mansion for $32 million in 2009 and set to work making some renovations before moving in.  The mansard was restored on what had been No. 154 (it had been modernized to accommodate a wall of windows) and a forbidding security gate that ran the length of the property was installed.  The rooftop terrace predicted by the realtor was completed and an indoor dance studio put in.

Curbed NY pointed out the exterior renovations done by Madonna -- http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2011/04/26/madonna_builds_gated_community_on_the_upper_east_side.php
Even with a highly-visible celebrity in residence, the understated mansion at Nos. 152-156 East 81st Street draws little notice.  And like the two wealthy families that preceded her, that is most likely just fine with her.


  1. George S, Chappell had another side to his life- under the pseudonym "Walter E. Traprock" he wrote parody travel adventure books such as "Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, a Fascinating Trip to the Interior" and "Sarah of the Sahara". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Shepard_Chappell

  2. Thank you so much! I'm in love with this house

  3. One of the trully great Townhouses in Manhattan.
    Understated. Stunning. Unique in its amnities. Gated, double garage and 50+ feet. Wow.