Saturday, March 15, 2014

The John Hay Whitney House -- No. 163 East 63rd Street


As World War I approached, the widowed Mrs. Edward Kelly struggled to keep her teenage daughter, Eugenia, in check.  Their brownstone home at No. 163 East 63rd Street reflected the respectable lifestyle Victorians expected of their daughters.  But 1915 was not 1885 and girls like Eugenia were rebelling.

Trouble came when Eugenia met Al Davis, “a tango dancer” in 1914.   The much older Davis seduced Eugenia into a whirlwind of nightclubs, cocktails, cigarettes and unseemly music.  Helen Kelly cut Eugenia’s allowance—from $75 a week to $25 (about $550 today)—and took her to court where she made a promise to Magistrate House not to see Davis again.

“I did all that a mother could do to keep her from drink,” she told reporters on October 1915.  “I wanted her to remain simple and sweet and I would give my life now to see her married to a good man.”

Eugenia and Davis had other plans, though.  A year later Helen read in the newspapers “that her daughter had been seen at Murray’s with Davis and had been ordered from the place,” reported The Pittsburgh Press.

Helen threatened to have Davis arrested but Eugenia remained determined in her pursuit of romance.  On October 4, as she left the 63rd Street house “wearing furs and a dark green tailor-made suit, surmounted by a black hat, and laughing as if she did not have a care in the world,” she was asked if she were on the way to see Davis.

“You bet I am!” she replied.

When a reporter asked if it were difficult living in the same house with her mother, considering the conditions, she said “It is awful.  I don’t see how I am going to stand for it much longer.”  And apparently she did not.

While the drama was playing out Frederick Junius Sterner had begun updating the block of brownstones.  Nearly a decade earlier, in 1906, the British-born architect arrived in New York from Colorado.  Sterner saw architecture and interior design differently from most and he purchased a Victorian brownstone on an East 19th Street block lined with similar homes.  Before long he had transformed it into a Mediterranean-style villa with a stuccoed façade and red tile roof.    By 1911 the block was filled with Sterner’s fantastic renovations—Tudor and Gothic along with the Mediterranean-- earning it the nickname “The Block Beautiful.”

Now he turned his attention to the Upper East Side.  In April 1915 Architecture noted “Mr. Frederick Junius Sterner, architect, has started an ideal development of a group of old houses facing on East 63rd Street, New York.  Mr. Sterner’s intention here is to change the exteriors of these houses in East 63rd Street on the same principle that he followed in his development of East 19th Street…Mr. Sterner believes that the interior of a living place should be primarily the thing to be considered, the exterior coming about because of the interior requirements.”

The architect remodeled and combined two of the houses as his own residence; and sold the others to moneyed clients—Mrs. Barbara Rutherford Hatch, Leonard Thomas, Dr. George Draper, John Magee, Philip Gossler and Dr. Walton Martin.

With that project completed, he started on the row that included Helen Kelly’s brownstone.  On February 24, 1919 The Sun reported that “Frederick J. Sterner, an architect, has purchased the five dwellings at 159, 161, 163, 165 and 167 East Sixty-third street.”  The Sun said that on part of the property “Mr. Sterner will erect a 40 foot dwelling.  The remainder of the site will be modernized and improved.”

And sure enough, on August 2 the New-York Tribune announced that Sterner had sold Nos. 163 and 165 to “a prominent merchant” who “has commissioned Mr. Sterner to remodel them into a single dwelling for his own occupancy.”

The “prominent merchant” was Maurice Brill who, with his brothers Samuel and Max, operated the highly successful Brill Brothers clothing store at the northwest corner of Broadway and 49th Street.  The Sun reported that Sterner’s conversion of the two houses into one would be “of attractive design.”

The completed Brill mansion bore no resemblance to the original brownstone rowhouses; nor to much of anything else.  Slathered in rough stucco, its window openings were framed in red brick quoins.  A somewhat distracting parapet, nearly a story tall, featured a bold diamond pattern of red bricks against the lighter stucco.  The entrance was a few steps below the sidewalk and the areaway along the front of the house protected by a tall brick and iron fence.
A photograph of the remodeled house appeared in the Architectural Record, December 1921 (copyright expired)

Calling the exterior “ornate” and noting its “several unusual interior features,” The New York Times later noted “It has a ground floor library and dining room, both paneled with oak from floor to ceiling and opening on a forty-foot garden.  On the next floor, a one-and-a-half story living room runs the width of the building and overlooks the garden.”

Maurice had married Rhona Mayer on New Year’s Day 1906.  The Brill family would remain in their new home for over two decades while the fortunes of the three Brill brothers increased.  In 1929 wealthy real estate developer Abraham E. Lefcourt began negotiations with the men for the plot where their clothing store stood.  Lefcourt envisioned a $30 million skyscraper on the site that would exceed the Chrysler Building by four feet in height.

The stock market crash, which occurred three weeks after the building plans were announced, resulted in the Brill Building being just 11 stories and costing $1 million.  It was nevertheless a significant boost to the fortunes and renown of the brothers Brill.

Not long after Samuel Brill died in 1931, Maurice sold the East 63rd Street house.  It became home to the George Ruddle Kent family.  Kent, formerly of London, was a member of the insurance brokerage firm of Freeborn & Co.  On August 8, 1936 he married Mrs. Alicia du Pont Llewellyn, who The New York Times noted “was educated by private tutors in this country and later studied abroad.  She studied also for grand opera with Jean de Reszke.”

The wealthy Kents were conspicuous in Manhattan society, as well as in Palm Beach and Southampton.  On reporting on a dinner given in their honor by Mr. and Mrs. Harold FitzGerald on March 29, The Palm Beach Daily News remarked “Mr. and Mrs. Kent are members of the fashionable colony at Southampton, L. I., where they maintain a summer home.”

The Kents remained in the house until it was sold on August 1, 1941 to public relations counsel Edward L. Bernays and his wife and partner, Doris E. Fleischman.  The couple had been living in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and The New York Times reported that they “will occupy it after redecorating.”

At mid century Doris was one of the few women who dared to retain her maiden name after marriage.  She hosted meetings of the Lucy Stone League in the house after the group was reactivated in 1950.  The organization “sponsors the right of women to use their personal names on all legal documents and for other general purposes,” explained The New York Times on January 19, 1951.

Doris’s insistence on using Fleischman as her name extended only into her professional life.  When daughter Anne became engaged to Justin D. Kaplan, the newspapers wrote “Mr. and Mrs. Edward L. Bernays of 163 East Sixty-third Street have announced the engagement of their daughter.”

Nevertheless, Doris managed wedge her professional name in.  “The prospective bride is a grandniece of the late Dr. Sigmund Freud,” reported The Times.  “Her mother, a publicist, is known professionally as Doris E. Fleischman.”

The wedding was held in the house on July 29, 1954.  Anne was at the time the managing editor of Discovery magazine and her husband was an editor of art books.   Edward and Doris now looked for a new home and settled on an out-of-date Queen Anne-style brownstone at No. 26 East 64th Street.  Like Frederick J. Sterner had earlier done with their home, they excitedly envisioned a far-reaching make-over.

On May 2, 1955, the Bernays sold the house to millionaire John Hay Whitney.  An investment banker and owner of The New York Herald Tribune, “Jock” was perhaps best known as a polo player.   He had inherited $20 million upon the death of his father and approximately $80 million more when his mother died.  He had married Betsey Cushing Roosevelt, ex-wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son James, in 1942.  It was the second marriage for both.

If Whitney liked the location of the 40-foot wide mansion, he did not appreciate Sterner’s eccentric design.  He hired architect Ellery Husted to, once again, completely redo the residence.  What emerged was a prim brick-faced neo-Federal mansion that hid its opulence behind a reserved and dignified façade.


Electric service call buttons installed throughout the house summoned help.  There were reportedly 20 locations listed to which servants would respond, including  Betsey Whitney’s dressing room, the library and John Whitney’s bedroom.   A floor-to-ceiling paned window in the library was engineered to disappear into the basement with the push of a button.

On the parlor floor was a 35-foot ballroom with floor-to-ceiling leaded glass windows and terrace over the garden.  On the garden level, adjacent to the library was the 22-foot formal dining room with a wall of windows opening onto the garden.

Within three years of moving in, Whitney was appointed as Ambassador to the Court of St. James.  While the Whitneys lived in their English country house, they collected items for the 63rd Street house—including the wood paneled library which as dismantled and shipped to America.

Back home in the States after the assignment, the Whitneys took up their busy social lives.  In addition to the Manhattan mansion, they maintained an estate on Long Island; a summer home on Fishers Island in Connecticut; Greenwood Plantation in Georgia; a  house in Saratoga Springs (used during horse racing events); a sprawling estate in Aiken, South Carolina; a home in Surrey, England; and a cottage in Augusta, Georgia used for golfing trips.

Whitney was not above using his money and influence to his advantage; one instance of which was his fight against the public garage directly across from the 63rd Street house.  In 1959 he began a court battle that dragged on for years.  His lawyer, Samuel C. Park, Jr., argued on November 28, 1961 “For Mr. Whitney in particular, the continual clamor and commotion of a public garage entrance directly in front of his house, with the noise of cars and engines at all hours of day and night being started, stopped, idled, raced and moved would seriously affect the value of his property and the comfort of his household.”

Justice Makowitz agreed, saying the zoning laws had been violated.  He declared that unless the law is obeyed, “fine residential neighborhoods, zoned for local retail and residential use, will in no time lose the protection which the Zoning Resolution intended them to have.”

In November 1965 the house was host to royal guests—Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden.  On November 23 the royal couple spent “a quiet morning and afternoon at the 500-acred estate of Mr. Whitney in Manhasset, L.I.,” said The Times.  Afterward they went to the East 63rd Street house.

“A crowd of 100 waited behind police barricades to see them.  Margaret departed soon after for an unscheduled shopping trip to Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue.”  While Lord Snowden and John Whitney assumedly relaxed, Bonwit Teller rolled out its lavender carpet for the Princess who spent a few hundred dollars there.

“Margaret returned to the townhouse in her dark green Phantom 5 Rolls-Royce,” reported The Times, “and there joined Lord Snowdon for a 45-minute shopping trip at Hammacher Schlemmer’s.”

They were back in time for that evening's entertainment.  Thirty guests arrived at the Whitney mansion for a dinner party.  As the elegant affair played out inside, the Irish Publicity Committee began picketing outside.  The leader said the demonstration was to “free from British occupation the six countries of Northern Ireland.”

When The New York Times printed an editorial entitled “East 63d: Street Under Siege” on June 9, 1977, it unintentionally focused a spotlight on the privileged and arcane lifestyles of the millionaires who lived on the block.  The newspaper pointed out that the ongoing subway construction was causing inconvenience, dirt, noise, and rumblings to the well-appointed homes of people like the 73-year old John Whitney.  New Yorkers of more moderate means fired letters back to The Times.

Matthew Bernstein wrote “I am sure that the residents of East 63d Street enjoy all the nice things—restaurants and cultural activities—that the Upper East Side of Manhattan has to offer…Perhaps if the residents of East 63d Street lived in Queens, and worked on the West Side of Manhattan, they might see the reasons to build this subway.”

Lois Evans was even more pointed.  “The people in East Harlem have suffered and been mistreated by the building of the subway.  There are many brownstones in the area, inhabited by people who still sweep in front of their houses and care about the area.  We, too, had our lovely old trees on East 116 Street and all over East Harlem chopped down in the middle of the night.  We have had our basements flooded and pipes broken.  Our buildings were rattled by the pile drivers.  Our sidewalks are impossible to walk on.  Many elderly people have fallen and been injured due to the hazardous sidewalks and streets…I invite the people of East 63d Street to visit and maybe we will see who is better off.”

The residents of East 63rd Street remained decidedly quiet.

Following the Whitneys, No. 163 East 63rd Street was home to Disque D. Deane, a financier and real estate developer, and his family.  Deane reportedly embraced the rich history of his house, carefully preserving the antique paneling and parquet floors.

Deane died in 2010 and in 2012 his family listed the house for $20 million.  Vivian S. Toy of The New York Times reported on May 3 of that year “The house has eight bedrooms, eight baths, two half baths, seven fireplaces, an elevator, a landscaped garden, a large family room on the fourth floor with a 1950s-era kitchenette, and north- and south-facing terraces.”


Still a private home, the handsome mansion with its rich history sits quietly out of the mainstream and little noticed. 
photographs by the author

2 comments:

  1. I always enjoy your well-researched and insightful posts. Thank you! John Hay Whitney and his sister, Joan Whitney Payson, inherited a beautiful farm in The Bluegrass area of Kentucky: Greentree Stud, where they continued their mother's Thoroughbred breeding and racing operations and hosted members of the British royal family.

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  2. The Whitney residence also included the townhouse to the east (to the right, partially seen in the recent photos) which was remodeled to provide a garage and guest quarters.

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