Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Emanuel Libman House -- No. 180 East 64th Street

Jonas Langfeld’s brownstone clad house at No. 180 East 64th Street was different from the rest of the homes on the block.  His, like the others, was three stories tall over an English basement and featured a tall stone stoop.  But Langfeld’s, completed in 1879, broke the flat-faced mold.  The architect had increased the living space of the somewhat narrow home by jutting two of the three bays out to the property line.  The result was a crooked and charming footprint and interiors awash with sunlight.

Langfeld, like his neighbors, was financially comfortable; the owner of a pocketbook factory.  The New York Times described him on February 27, 1886 as he was considered for jury duty in a murder trial.  “Mr. Langfeld has a high, bald forehead, small, dark side whiskers, and a small mustache.  He said he was a Pennsylvania German, was in the pocketbook trade, had a factory in Philadelphia, an office at No. 336 Broadway, and a residence at No. 180 East Sixty-fourth-street.”

Three years after Langfeld served his jury duty the house was sold to Fajbush Libman, a successful picture framer who had emigrated from Poland in 1865.  Libman and his wife, Hulda Spivak Libman, had 11 children, two of which died in childhood.  He was determined that his children would be raised in intellectual atmosphere.  According to a relative later, each night after dinner they were required to take a role in a classic work like a Shakespearean play.

Among those reciting Shakespeare in the dining room was Emanuel Libman—somewhere in the middle of his siblings age-wise.  The boy would study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and do post-graduate work in Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Munich.  Back in New York he became Professor of Clinical Medical at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1900.

Hulda Libman died in 1904 and the following year Fajbush retired and moved to an apartment in the Hotel Breakers in Atlantic City.  Emanuel kept the family home which included his father’s classical library; sharing it with his unmarried sister, Esther, who kept house.  Around the time that their father left, another man appeared on the scene. 

Esther had attended Hunter College and held a teaching degree.  Now, at the age of 27, she was wooed by a 37-year old successful businessman of Austro-Hungarian descent.  When he applied to the family to marry Esther, he was flatly told that he could do so only if they would remain in the 64th Street house.  They did.

Now a household of three, they maintained a staff of three most of the time.  There was a cook, a maid and a chauffeur.  Life in the house with Dr. Libman was apparently not normal.  Highly esteemed and remarkably adept at his medical practice, he was reclusive in his own home.  One of Esther’s twin sons who grew up in the house later reported that Libman took his meals in his bedroom and never socialized with the family.  Guests of the doctor would be taken to his office or his bedroom—never the living room.  Libman played the piano, but according to his nephew would do so only when no one was around.

Despite his idiosyncrasies at home, Libman was tremendously successful professionally.  His patients included Dr. Albert Einstein, Lord Northcliffe, Dr. Hideyo Noguchi, Sarah Bernhardt, and Dr. Chaim Weixmann.  His motivation was medical rather than financial and he never garnered the fortune his fame and reputation could have afforded.  The Canadian Jewish Review would remark “Dr. Libman did much charity work particularly in hospital clinics, and his charge to his wealthy patients were moderate, so that it was reported that he never earned more than $50,000 in a single year, although he could have amassed much more money had he so desired.”

Dr. Libman made the cover of Time magazine on June 10, 1935
Libman had an uncanny—some said “sixth sense”—ability to diagnose disease.  He often said he could “smell” certain diseases.  While watching a motion picture he might lean to his companion to say that the movie star was “working up to pernicious anemia;” and once while looking at an old master painting of a mother and child in the mansion of a friend he muttered, “rickets.”

Perhaps his most famous off-the-cuff diagnosis happened in 1923 when he was invited to the Harding White House for dinner.  The following morning he called a protege and said “Who is the Vice-President?  Because whoever he is, within six months he will be President.  The President has a disease of the coronary arteries.”  On August 2, 1923 Warren G. Harding suddenly collapsed and died.   His Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge became President as Libman had predicted.

Emanuel Libman never married.  According to his prominent psychiatrist nephew George L. Engel in a 1985 interview, Libman was doubtlessly a homosexual, as was the chauffeur.  In the first half of the 20th century the discovery of a prominent physician’s homosexuality would have devastated his career.  It is possibly this strain of needing to repress his natural inclinations that resulted in the doctor’s reclusive and authoritarian behavior at home.

Esther Engel’s husband died in 1928.  She and her famous brother continued to live in the East 64th Street house together.  Libman sloughed off any acclaim for his continuous philanthropies saying “Most people do nothing and so when one does something, most people think he is doing a great deal.”

His charitable work did not always involve merely money.  When Hitler rose to power he threw himself into helping expatriated German physicians.  In 1939 he worked arduously to find positions for exiled German doctors throughout the world. 

Within four years Emanuel Libman’s glorious career would begin unraveling.  In 1943 he suffered a stroke while attending a cardiology conference in Mexico City.  When he was met by family members in St. Louis the formerly fastidious and brilliant man was suddenly confused, disheveled and unable to see on the left side.  Back in New York he attempted to continue his practice, but understandably it fell off.

In the spring of 1946, in typical fashion, Libman diagnosed himself.  “In about six or seven weeks, I will be dead of a coronary thrombosis, a cerebral thrombosis, or a mesenteric thrombosis.”  Doctors dismissed his prediction.

A few weeks later he was operated on for appendicitis, after which Libman complained “These damn fools!  They operated on an old man for appendicitis.  They should know that it was mesenteric thrombosis.”  The doctors—some of whom had been students of Libman—humored him and went on with the post-surgery regime.  Five days later Libman was dying.  Dr. Robert Loeb, Chairman of Medicine at Columbia arrived and examined him.  He diagnosed mesenteric thrombosis.  Libman died the following day.

Emanuel Libman’s will stipulated that the house on East 64th Street be sold within two years of his death.  The house with the quirky angles became apartments in the second half of the 20th century.  Then, in 1997, the new owner, Austrian developer Peter Cervinka commissioned Scarano Architects to do what the firm called “the gut renovation of 180 East 64th street” that “converted a four-family brownstone into a single-family ‘mini-mansion.’”

A three-year renovation resulted in a 6,000 square foot residence attempting on the outside to be a miniature royal palace and on the inside a Parisian maison.  Behind the somewhat self-important gates the stuccoed façade is ornamented with pseudo-royal symbols and over-the-top decoration.  The New York Observer called it “Viennese elegance.”

It was the sort of house—with its 8-person Jacuzzi--that attracted Mike Tyson to put a bid on it in 2002.  At the time the newly-renovated property was listed at $10.75 million.  But not everyone was as enthusiastic.  One real estate broker remarked to the New York Observer “It is not in the New York spirit.  Of course, if somebody wants to have a little Versailles in New York, you might go for that.”

The formerly-unpretentious home now has its own set of palace gates.

There is no trace left of Dr. Emanuel Libman’s brownstone that prompted The New Yorker’s S. N. Behrman to say on April 8, 1939, “The Doctor is proud of the antiquity of his house; he will seize you by the arm, take you to the front windows on the fourth floor, and make you look back through the hall and his study to the windows facing on the garden.  The line is not true.  The house curves somewhere along its middle, and this architectural eccentricity Dr. Libman cherishes.”  

It remains, however, an architectural eccentricity, sure to catch the eye of the casual passerby on East 64th Street.

Royal symbols surmount a third floor window.

photographs taken by the author

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