Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Geo. Nichols House -- No. 108 E. 37th Street

photo by Alice Lum

At the 19th century dawned, the sprawling country estates of Manhattan were doomed.  The relentless northward expansion of the city spurred the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan which laid out the regimented grid of streets and avenues.  One by one the farms and estates were developed with houses, stores and churches.

What had been the country estate of Robert and Mary Murray held out until 1847 when their descendants created the Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement.  It ensured that development of the land would be limited to upscale brick or stone residences, churches and private stables.

Among the homes built in the Murray Hill area was the rowhouse at No. 108 East 37th Street erected for Jacob Voorhies, Jr. around 1866.  Voorhies was a “grader” of roadways and with the rapid development of Manhattan at the time of the Civil War, he was not only a busy man; he became a very wealthy one.  As a matter of fact, it was Voorhies himself who had graded the roads in the neighborhood.  In 1863 he petitioned the City Council “for extension of time to complete the grading of Twelfth-avenue from Thirty-seventh-street to Forty-second-street.”

Like the other homes on the block, the Voorhies home was four stories high over an English basement.  A broad brownstone stoop rose from the sidewalk.  The new, fashionable neighborhood was populated by some of the most respected names in Manhattan society.  Voorhies was well-known in yachting circles.  He was a member of the Brooklyn and the New York Yacht Clubs and owned “the celebrated Madeleine and other fast yachts,” according to The New York Times.

With the opening of the summer season of 1871, the Newport community was intrigued by the addition of the “Cliff Cottages”—an experiment in luxurious rental properties.  The New York Times said “These are nine in number, a little south of the bathing beach; adjoining is a hotel for the exclusive accommodation of those occupying the cottages.  The grounds are tastefully laid out, each family having separate grounds and flower-beds, and which are kept in order by the association.  Stables are provided also, with servants’ apartments at the hotel.  Surely it is a novel idea.”

Among the wealthy families to take one of the cottages that first season were Jacob Voorhies and his wife.  Their neighbors that summer included Livingstons, Lawrences, Stokes and equally moneyed families from Providence, Hartford and Philadelphia.

On the night of November 29, 1871 the jewels of New York’s wealthiest socialites glistened in the glow of the Academy of Music’s chandeliers as a grand ball was held in honor of the visiting grand Duke Alexis of Russia.  Leslie’s Illustrated Paper reported “At nine-o’clock, the guests began to arrive, and during the next hour carriages were continually driving up in front of the Academy.  At ten o’clock the interior of the building presented one of the most magnificent scenes that has ever been witnessed in the city.  The brilliantly illuminated decorations and elegantly dressed ladies combined to entrance and bewilder the spectator.”

The elaborate decorations were evidenced by the Grand Duke’s table.  “The table was tastefully arranged with a profusion of choice and natural flowers.  The ornamental confectionery and other designs on the table included two temples of the Czar Alexander; two monuments of Washington, with cupids and American flags on top; two imperior meringues, with American eagles and flags of both nations, and two ships of war, made of nougat and spun sugar.”

Jacob Voorhies and his wife were there that night, rubbing shoulders with the cream of New York society, including Caroline Astor, several Roosevelts, Livingstons, Schermerhorns, nine Morgans and no fewer than six Vanderbilts.

In January 1878 Jacob Voorhies, Jr. died in the house on East 37th Street.  It became home to Edward R. Carpentier, whose name was often spelled “Carpenter” in newspapers.  He died in the house on Sunday evening, June 10, 1883 at the age of 62.  Carpentier’s brother, Horace Walpole Carpentier, moved from California to New York and took up residency in No. 108 East 37th Street.

The colorful Horace W. Carpentier, had traveled to California during the Gold Rush.  He was a “Major General” of the California State Militia, became Oakland’s first mayor (he was ousted by angry citizens when it was discovered he had finagled complete control of the waterfront for his own profit), and was president of the California State Telegraph Company and the Overland Telegraph Company.  It was Carpentier who sent the first transcontinental telegraph message—addressed to President Abraham Lincoln.

Now in New York, Carpentier shared the 37th Street house with his young cousin and ward, Maud Alice Burke.  The attention of the press would be focused on the household when Prince Andre Poniatowski of Poland arrived in New York in 1892 and showed interest in young Maud.  The Prince’s brother, Prince Charles, had married Maud Ely Goddard of New York a decade earlier, and it appeared this prince was following his lead.

Although Prince Andre insisted to reporters that “he did not come to America to seek a rich wife and that he refrained from talking to rich girls,” he quickly proposed to Maud Burke in February 1893.  Maud accepted and The Evening World commented that “Prince Poniatowski came rather prominently before the public through his announcement.”

Royal titles did not impress Horace Carpentier, however, and he vehemently opposed the engagement.  Maud was no match for her guardian and The Evening World said “After many varying reports that the engagement was off, then that it was renewed, it was finally authoritatively declared to be broken, and Miss Burke returned to California.”

Maud may have realized that her guardian was correct in his assessment of the prince when, just a few months later newspapers reported “It is authoritatively announced that Prince Andre Poniatowski, of Poland, the former fiance of Maud Alice Burke, will marry Miss Sperry, daughter of the Stockton (Cal.) millionaire.  Miss Sperry’s father owns the Stockton Flour Mills and controls the California flour trade.”

In the end, Horace Carpentier got his way and Maud Alice Burke got her title.  At 4:00 in the afternoon of April 17, 1895 she married Sir Bache Cunard in the house on 37th Street.  The groom’s family was “largely interested in the Cunard Steamship Line” and by marrying a baronet, Maud became Lady Cunard.

Horace, at the time, was not well and on April 18 The New York Times mentioned that “When the engagement of the couple was announced about a week ago, it was understood that the wedding would take place in June.  Only two days ago, it is said, was it decided to hasten the wedding.  The wedding was a very quiet one, owing to the illness of Mr. Carpenter [sic].”

The newlyweds sailed off to England on the steamship Lucania, leaving Horace alone in the house until his aged niece, Maria Hall Williamson moved in.  Maria, who was the widow of General James A. Williamson, was ten years younger than her uncle.  She died in the house at the age of 80 in January 1916.

Two years later, on January 5, 1918, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that “General Horace W. Carpentier, who donated a chair of Chinese language and literature at Columbia University about sixteen years ago, plans to give his fine dwelling at 108 East 37th street to Barnard College, when he dies.”  Carpentier’s donation gave him use of the house until his death; and, oddly enough, “It is also stipulated that for six years after his death, it will continue in possession of one he will name at some future time.”

If newspapers thought that the pre-mortum bequeath meant that Carpentier’s health was failing, he vociferously denied it.  Two weeks after the announcement, The Sun reported “Gen. Horace M. Charpentier [sic], hale and hearty in his ninety-third year, was walking blithely about his home at 108 East Thirty-seventh street, expressing a militant opinion concerning newspapers that insisted upon visiting him with serious illness.  The General said his health was bully and that, after all, there was a touch of kindness in the references to his illness that gave to the error some mitigation.”

Despite his protests, Carpentier died in the house on January 31.  The strong-minded millionaire donated the bulk of his estate to colleges and universities and generally ignored family.  Saying that “in my well-considered opinion, I have heretofore been fairly liberal in their direction,” he explained that the fact that he did not give his next of kin more than $2,000 was “not through oversight or failure of memory.”

Most surprising was his ignoring Maud in the will.  She had broken her engagement to the Polish prince under threat of being disinherited.  Now, apparently, Carpentier felt she was faring well enough without his money.

Before the year was up, the house was purchased by J. P. Morgan, who lived nearby at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue.  The Sun reported on December 24, 1918 that Morgan purchased the house “to preserve the residential character of the section.”  Perhaps the best way to ensure that the character of the neighborhood was preserved would be to move his newly-married daughter into the house.

Jane N. Morgan was married to George Nichols on November 14, 1917.  Nichols was a partner in Minot, Hooper & Co., cotton goods dealers.  A clubman and yachtsman, he owned the yacht The Edythe and held memberships in several of the city’s exclusive clubs.

The title to No. 108 East 37th Street was transferred to Jane and in 1921 architect Charles A. Platt was commissioned to make over the outdated Victorian.  For two decades wealthy Murray Hill homeowners had been updating their expensive properties by stripping off the brownstone facades and recreating up-to-date homes.  No. 108 would soon join them.

Platt removed the stoop and moved the entrance to sidewalk level.  The old brownstone front was replaced by a neo-Federal façade of red brick and white stone trim.  The reserved, formal design featured splayed lintels, handsome paneled double doors below a leaded transom, and Flemish bond brickwork.  The renovations were completed, according to The New York Times, in 1922.
photo by Alice Lum
Five years later George Nichols brought Platt back to add an addition on the roof.  The family would stay in the house for three decades; during which time the newspapers followed George’s yachting activities, the daughters’ engagements and marriages, and the comings and goings from Newport and Long Island summer homes.  Then, on December 10, 1950, The New York Times reported that Jane had sold the house to the Murray Hill Management Corporation.

The new owner wasted no time in announcing its plans to convert the house “into luxury apartments.”  Completed in 1951, the conversion resulted in two apartments per floor and a doctor’s office on ground level.  Another renovation in 1987 left the doctor’s office intact; but resulted in two duplexes—on the second to third and sixth to penthouse floors—a single apartment on the fifth and two apartments on the fourth floor.

photo by Alice Lum
Charles Platt’s proper 1921 exterior, however, is little changed.