Friday, March 7, 2014

The Richard Hurd House -- No. 12 East 68th Street

photo by Alice Lum

As New York City recovered from the great financial depression known as the Panic of 1873, a boom in construction resulted.  In 1878 1,672 building were erected in Manhattan, followed by another 2,065 in 1879.  Among the developers taking advantage of the trend was Anthony Mowbray.

Mowbray had started building in New York in 1853 and, although he was a trained architect himself, by the 1870s more often relied on the talents of others.  The streets leading away from the completed Central Park presented alluring sites for rowhouses and in 1878 Mowbray began construction on a row of five brownstone-fronted homes from No. 12 to 20 East 68th Street.

Mowbray and his fellow developers were likely unaware that within a generation the East Side neighborhood they were creating would be overrun by the mansions of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  For now, they erected respectable upscale homes intended for the well-to-do merchant and upper-middle class.

Designed by architects Lamb & Wheeler, the homes were completed in 1879.  No. 12 became home to Oren Dennett and his wife.  Four stories tall over a high English basement, it boasted 12 rooms and two bathrooms.

Dennett was born in Maine in 1824 of what Refrigerating World called “sturdy New England stock.”  One of 13 children, he “surrendered the slow opportunities of farm life” at the age of 18.  Dennett traveled to New York where he took a job as a driver of an ice wagon for the Knickerbocker Ice Company.

The hard-working boy advanced (it was noted that he had “scarcely known a sick day”), becoming the foreman in charge of the company’s eight ice wagons located at the foot of Duane Street in 1850.  By the time he purchased the 68th Street house he was a director of the company.

In days before electric refrigeration, the ice business was a grave necessity to homes and businesses alike.  In 1884 Dennett secured a large commission by landing the Department of Charities and Corrections account.

photo Refrigerating World, December 1908 (copyright expired)

While Dennett was busy in the ice trade, his wife upheld the image expected of a moneyed housewife.  While she did not sip tea with the Astors or Vanderbilts, she immersed herself in the appropriate charities and clubs.  She served as Vice-President of the Euterpe Club, a group that described itself as “mainly musical in its aims and work.”  In addition to luncheons and card parties for its members, the club organized “concerts and musical mornings which are given during the season at the Waldorf-Astoria.”  Club Women of New York said these “are social events and are participated in by artists of high standing in the musical world.”

The no-nonsense New England upbringing of Dennett may have been responsible for his using public transportation.  On January 24, 1896 The Sun reported that the 72-year old “was severely bruised and shaken last evening by falling as he attempted to board a Fourth avenue car at Forty-third street and Vanderbilt avenue.  He was taken home after an ambulance surgeon had attended to his injuries.”

Later that year the Knickerbocker Ice Company was absorbed by the American Ice Securities Company, of which he was made a director.  Dennett was already highly invested in the New Jersey Ice Company and he turned much of his focus to that company, serving as President.

In 1908 the American Ice Company—which had been formed by the consolidation of several local ice firms—was under investigation and charged with price fixing.  Correspondence from executives of the American Ice Company revealed disdain for Oren Dennett, whose above-board business practices were deemed “inactive.”  A letter written earlier by president John D. Schoonmaker said in part:

“We will have to shake up old man Dennett.  We can’t stand any more nonsense from the Mountain Ice crowd.  Dennett will sit up, and it will tear the old man up pretty well if we start in there; but that don’t mean anything in dollars and cents to this company.  We will get ten to one when the time comes to throw up hands.”

The harassment may, in fact, have torn “the old man up pretty well,” and he died in the house on 68th Street on October 30, 1908 at the age of 84.  Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal called him “one of the best known ice men on the Hudson River” and with a possibly intended pun, Refrigerating World said “Mr. Dennett had many warm friends in the ice business.”  The trade paper added “He was a man of strong character, with a genial yet forceful disposition; was able to select men adapted to their respective avocations, was assiduous in attention to his duties, and exacted the same honest consideration from those in his charge.”

On Wednesday, November 30, 1910 the house was sold at auction.  The buyer held the house for three years, then it was again sold at auction on February 4, 1913.  By now the 34-year old brownstones were not merely out-of-style, they were decidedly unfashionable.  Old rowhouses were being razed or drastically remodeled as an even wealthier class of residents moved into the neighborhood.

The house at No. 12 East 68th Street was purchased by 46-year old Richard M. Hurd; but the family would not move in before substantial changes were made.  Hurd commissioned architect Andrew Jackson Thomas to completely renovate the Victorian residence.  A year later the transformation was complete—the brownstone duckling had become a neo-Federal swan.

photo by Alice Lum

Thomas removed the brownstone stoop and lowered the entrance to street level—creating the trendier “American basement plan.”  With the stoop gone, he was able to extend the fa├žade several feet forward to the property line.  A dignified rusticated stone base featured the centered entrance flanked by fluted, engaged Doric columns that supported a prim iron-railed balcony.  At the second floor three sets of French doors were surmounted by inset, arched marble panels.

The openwork borders of the doors mimic the Greek key design of the frieze above -- photo by Alice Lum

The architect suggested antiquity by using burned headers in the Flemish bond brickwork.  A charming marble Juliette balcony graced the third floor and above it all was a dormered mansard which provided an additional floor.


Richard Hurd was a man of many interests and vocations and in addition to being Chairman of the Board of the Lawyers Mortgage Company; he served as a State Prison Commissioner, wrote “Principles of City Land Values,” and was a member of the American Rights League. 

Hurd was vocally opinionated—an attribute which repeatedly landed his quotations in the newspapers.  In a vociferous denouncement of a prison inspector and simultaneous defense of a prison warden, he told reporters on November 16, 1915: “Dr. Diedling, as a self-appointed investigator, and representing himself only, has the effrontery to recommend the removal of Warden Osborne and his indictment on various grounds.  In condensed form, Dr. Diedling charges that Warden Osborne’s methods have demoralized the discipline of the prison.  If by this it is meant that the old sternly repressive methods under which men were treated worse than beasts, and under which men went insane in large numbers, and suicides and attempted suicides were common occurrences, then the more such discipline is demoralized the better.”

When President Woodrow Wilson appointed a war cabinet in 1918, the outspoken Hurd was quick to react.  Writing to the President from his role as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the America Defense Society, he stressed:

“A Cabinet of well-meaning, mediocre gentlemen, who can handle the routine duties of peace times, cannot in all fairness be expected to administer the enlarged departments which have to be created to carry on the war with Germany.  Every warring nation in Europe has seen the necessity of strengthening its Cabinet, and America will be no exception.  The time to begin is now…Many of the mistakes and failures have been due to incompetence, if not disloyalty, below the Cabinet, but a stream cannot rise higher than its source, and the only effective way to get competent subordinates is to have competent heads.”

Later that year, when Supreme Court Justice John H. Clarke suggested that “the German people shall be invited to share in a just, even in a generous peace,” and supported the establishment of the League of Nations; Richard Hurd ignited. 

“Are there no moral distinctions between Germany, the red handed aggressor, and the nations who are giving up their young men to defend themselves?  Are the highwaymen, the murderers, the rapists and the torturers to be invited in as members in good standing to any league of nations devoted to such idealistic concepts as the substitution of ‘conference for strife of justice and peace for cruelty and war’?”

“Germany cannot be trusted,” he went on.  “The safety of the world does not lie in trying to coax Germany to be good, but in taking away her navy and her army and in imposing economic limitations that will keep her from the materials without which she cannot go to war.”

photo by Alice Lum

A year later the League of Nations not only came into being; but Hurd’s own American Rights League endorsed it.  It was all too much for the dogmatic Richard M. Hurd to handle.  On September 13, 1919 he resigned from the American Rights League.  In stepping down, he got in one last blow. 

“I fail to understand how a League formed to uphold American Rights can approve the surrender of American independence and sovereignty urged by Mr. Wilson.  I do not believe the world will be benefited or the reign of peace advance by the formation of a superstate to which the various nations will bear a relation similar to that borne by the States of the Union to our Federal Government, this superstate to control the world and to be conducted by small oligarchy of representatives at Geneva.”

With the war ended and his involvement in the various national committees over; Richard Hurd and his wife focused on their six growing children.  With four girls in the house, there would be debutante teas and receptions and, later, engagement events and weddings to plan.

On May 20, 1922 the Hurds announced the engagement of daughter Mary to George Francklyn Lawrence, Jr.  It was a socially-advantageous match; although the Lawrence name consistently outshone the Hurd name in the newspaper reports.  The wedding took place in fashionable St. George’s Church on Stuyvesant Square on November 25, 1922; followed by a reception in the 68th Street house.

A year later in October it was Eleanor Hurd’s turn to be engaged and The New York Times noted that she had “made her debut in 1921 and is a member of the Junior League.”  Again it was not the Hurd name that drew the attention as the newspaper added “She is a sister of Mars George Francklyn Lawrence, Jr.”

In September 1934 the Hurds leased the house furnished to B. B. Howard.  They kept the house for two more years; leaving for good in 1936.  No. 12 became home to retired banker William Otis Gay and his family.  Like the Hurds, the Gay family was large—along with his wife, Annie M. Dumaresq Gay, there were seven grown children (William Gay was 70 at the time of the purchase).  Gay’s brother, Walter, was a noted artist living in France, whom The New York Times called the “dean of American artists in Paris.”

The stalwart banker had just retired the year before.  He had founded the firm of W. O. Gay & Co. in the 1890s and when the company dissolved in 1935 he was its senior partner.  An avid yachtsman, he served as vice commodore of the Eastern Yacht Club at Marblehead, Massachusetts and would become the first commodore of the Southampton Yacht Club upon its founding in 1937.

The Gay family summered at their estate on First Neck Lane in Southampton, Long Island; and it was here that William Otis Gay died at the age of 80 on June 13, 1946.

The handsome house became the Consul General of Lebanon.  It was the scene of high anxiety when a telephone call at 1:15 in the morning on July 13, 1948 warned of a bomb in the house.  The caller said he represented the Israeli fighting organization Haganah and said “Your house will be blown up in fifteen minutes.”

The threat, the fourth such call since November 1947, brought a crew of policemen who scoured the mansion.  “Finding nothing suspicious after a thorough search, the police departed but left a special detail to be on duty all night,” reported The New York Times.

Five years later on December 11, 1952, the Secretary to the Lebanese deligation to the United Nations was publically embarrassed when his 31-year old cousin, Akram Solh, was arrested at Idlewild Airport.  A Customs officer grew suspicious of the unusual depth of Solh’s suitcase and found a false compartment.  Inside were 35 packets of heroin, worth about $50,000 to $100,000 on the illegal market—more in the neighborhood of $850,000 today.

When his bail was set at $10,000, Sohl quickly mentioned that his cousin was the diplomat.  The Lebanese Secretary, Abdelrahman Sohl, was not so quick to claim close family ties.  “The secretary, who lives at 12 East Sixty-eighth Street…was not available for comment yesterday,” reported The New York Times.  “A representative of the Lebanese Delegation, admitted, however, that the men were distant relatives.”

A year later, in 1953, the Lebanese Government sold the house to Lester Woods who had been living at No. 130 East 65th Street.  Woods announced “plans for extensive alternations, including installation of an elevator.”  As it happened, Woods’ extensive alterations went far beyond an elevator.

The penthouse that replaced the mansard roof could be kindly described as "unsympathetic."  Or more accurately as "offensive."  photo by Alice Lum

The mansard roof was removed and a “conservatory” penthouse was added—resulting in a six-story structure.  The house was converted to a two-family residence with a doctor’s office in the basement.

Although the rooftop addition is unattractive at best, the lower four floors are intact.  The Hurds' dramatic 1914 transformation of the Victorian brownstone into a handsome neo-Federal home is virtually unchanged below the cornice.

photo by Alice Lum

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