As Manhattan’s workforce returned home following the Civil War development of the Upper East Side exploded—as did John Sexton’s architectural business. Sexton became busy designing stretches of identical rowhouses for speculative developers as the blocks east of Park Avenue (then known as Fourth Avenue) changed from open land to residential neighborhoods.
Three years before John Sexton would design the 11 homes on north side of the 69th Street block between Fourth and Lexington Avenues, he focused on the south side of East 70th. In 1869 he produced five homes here for operators R. & J. Cunningham; Nos. 128 through 136.
The completed Italianate-style brownstones were up to date. Three bays wide, Sexton added a mansard roof, the latest in architectural fashion recently imported from Paris. The arched doorways were echoed in the arched openings at the English basement level.
By the last decades of the century, the formerly middle-class neighborhood became increasingly fashionable after the offensive train tracks of Park Avenue moved below ground. In the late 1880s the house at No. 134 was home to the Marks Lissberger family. Lissberger was called by The Sun the “dean of the white metal business.”
Born in Germany, he arrived in New York City in 1844 and founded the smelting firm of Marks Lissberger & Son when he was still a young man. Lissberger and his wife had two children, Jennie and Milton. By the time we purchased the 70th Street house Lissberger had garnered a sizable fortune. His refinery was located at No. 506 West Street (before long he would erect a new facility in Long Island City). A Freemason and member of several clubs, he had a reputation for his affiliation with charitable causes.
It was his passion for billiards, however, for which Lissberger was best known. For decades he had been a charter member of the Amateur Billiard Club and played in dozens of tournaments.
Around 5:00 on the afternoon of June 12, 1891 Jennie Lissberger was walking home along Madison Avenue. She became aware of a young man, later described by The Evening World as “a fine-looking young Brooklyn plumber,” who seemed to be following her for some time.
Then, according to The New York Times the following day, he “started forward and suddenly snatched her pocketbook from her hand and then dashed down the avenue.” The Evening World reported “She screamed and bystanders put chase.” The mob of citizens running after the thief, later identified as John Taylor, attracted policemen who joined in the chase.
The Evening World said “Taylor finally ran plump into the arms of Policeman Schein in Sixty-first street.” At the 67th Street station house, the 25-year old explained his crime. “Taylor said he took the pocket book because he had long been unsuccessfully searching for work and needed money,” reported The World.
Unfortunately for Taylor, the snatching of Jennie Lissberger’s pocketbook—which contained only twenty-five cents—earned him the charge of highway robbery.
Jennie did not go unnoticed among fashionable society. In 1897 Joseph Aubin Smith, while commenting on the summer season at Saratoga, said “Miss Jennie Lissberger, Miss Belle Hermann and Miss Bertha Mayer are a trinity of beauties who are showered with admiration; and all three will inherit wealth as well as beauty.”
|The well-dressed Marks Lissberger was President of the successful smelting firm -- Melting Industry magazine December 1917 (copyright expired)|
By now, however, the Lissberger family had moved away from East 70th Street. The house was home to Dr. J. Baran. But by the turn of the century owner Susan A. Brooks seems to have leased space in the house to other tenants affiliated with the medical field. In 1902 Emily Elliott lived here. She was a member of the Nurses’ Associated Alumnae of the United States. Also in the house was Dr. Edwin Brown Jenks who practiced here, advertising “anesthetizing a specialty.”
It would be a short-term arrangement. When Susan Brooks sold the house in 1905 the block was radically changing. Wealthy New Yorkers were purchasing the outdated Victorians and either razing them or drastically remodeling them into modern mansions.
This transaction would be slightly different. On May 5, 1905 The New York Times reported that Brooks had sold the “four-story brownstone dwelling” to John L. Martin. Martin was a contractor, not a banker or attorney; and his intentions to remodel the old house had nothing to do with his living in it.
He apparently quickly resold the property to A. S. Leo Everett with the condition that he would handle the renovations. A month later, on June 10, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that “John L. Martin, 314 Madison av., has received the contract for alterations to No. 134 East 70th st., a 4-sty brick and stone dwelling owned by A. S. Leo Everett.” Already the architects had been chosen—“Freeman & Hasselman, 566 Fifth av. are the architects.”
At the time many architects were serving up the trendy neo-Federal or neo-Georgian styles to their wealthy clients. Brownstone facades gave way to red brick trimmed in white stone that mimicked the prim 18th century homes of London and Boston. But architect George A. Freeman went in a different direction.
For Everett he produced a five-story Tudor Revival fantasy of red brick and stone-mullioned openings. By hiding the top two floors behind a hefty brick and stone parapet, the architect preserved the proportions of the house which pretended to be three stories tall.
The Everetts lived in the remodeled house for over a decade. In 1914 Caroline Everett no doubt impressed the neighbors with her new Hudson automobile. But in 1917 they were leasing the residence. That year Karl Etzold, President and Director of the Bow River Valley Development Co., lived here. In 1918 the family of Elbridge L. Adams was in the house. Son William H. Adams was an ensign in the United States Navy and married Mary Miner that year in a fashionable Greenwich, Connecticut ceremony.
On September 23, 1919 the Everetts leased the furnished house to R. Penn Smith Jr. and his wife. Mrs. Smith was the former Carol Harriman, daughter of the immensely wealthy railroad tycoon and financier E. Henry Harriman. Four months after signing the lease the couple had their second child, a daughter, who was born in the house on December 15.
At the end of the Smiths’ lease in 1920, the Everetts sold the house to W. Woods Plankington. Like the Everetts, he rented the furnished house. Later that year Henry De Forest Manice moved in.
As the 1920s drew to a close and the Great Depression loomed unseen on the horizon, No. 134 East 70th Street was the home of J. H. Wright, President of the Home Pattern Company, and his family. Wright lived here with his second wife and two children. Although his business had exceeded $1 million in 1926, in 1928 he complained that profits had fallen off. Therefore, in March 1927 he stopped paying the $1,000 per month alimony to his first wife, Mrs. J. Howie Wright, who was now living in Ireland.
The decision would cause serious repercussions. In April 1928, in an effort to secure the $8,275 in back alimony (a considerable $105,000 today), Mrs. Wright sued to have her former husband’s property sequestered.
Before long the Tudor house would cease being a single-family home—at least for 80 years. On October 31, 1930 The New York Times reported that the Italian Government had purchased the property “for its consulate offices in this city.” The newspaper added that “Alterations to the building costing about $50,000 will be made from plans by Rosario Candela, architect.”
The Italian-American architect had already made a name for himself through the upscale apartment buildings he designed throughout the previous decade. Among his renovations to the former Everett house for the Italian Government was a store window broken through the façade on the first floor for the consulate’s tourism office.
Among the first events held in the renovated building was the conferring of awards on two Manhattan businessmen. The Order of the Crown of Italy was presented to Philip Le Boutillier, President of Best & Co., and to Jerome S. Hess of the legal firm of Hardin, Hess and Eder on December 12, 1931. The New York Times noted “It was conferred by the King of Italy, through the Italian Consul General, Emanuele Grazzi.”
Things in the new consulate would quickly take a turn for the worse, however. Two weeks later, on December 30, two postal workers were killed by mail bombs in a post office in Easton, Pennsylvania. Two of six bombs, “apparently designed by anti-Fascists to kill prominent Italians and others in New York,” exploded at the facility. Four other postal clerks were injured. One of the packages was addressed to Consul General Grazzi at the East 70th Street Consulate.
For the next few years East 70th Street would be mobbed with anti-Fascist protestors as one demonstration after another rallied in front of the building. On September 9, 1935, a hearing on disorderly conduct charged against protestors began in Yorkville court. The Times reported that the three members of the American League Against War and Fascism “were arrested…when they refused to obey a police order to move their place of meeting opposite the consulate.”
As the hearing commenced, a unidentified man telephoned police headquarters “and reported that he had overheard four men in a Brooklyn restaurant plotting to put a bomb in the court room and throw dynamite into the consulate.” Court was adjourned and a police detail was assigned to the consulate on East 70th Street.
It was not the end of anti-Italian protestors in The Yorkville Court. Eight days later Magistrate August Dreyer heard the testimonies regarding an ink-stained suit. Along with protest against the Fascist regime in Italy, many Americans were upset with “the Italian attitude toward Ethiopia.”
Prince Guido Colonna, whom The Times said was “a member of one of the oldest Roman families,” took the stand. He testified that two black women--25-year old Jane Speed and her aunt, 57-year old Julia Church Kolar--had entered the consulate on September 7 and asked for tourism information. Then, he said, the conversation turned to Ethiopia. Suddenly Jane Speed shouted “We are here to protest against war and fascism. I wish I could go to Italy and tear the black shirt from Mussolini.”
The prince testified that when he asked the women to leave and took Jane Speed by the arm, she shouted “Don’t you touch me,” and grabbed a bottle of ink. In the scuffle the ink was spilled on the prince’s suit. He brought it along to court as evidence.
The New York Times made a great deal of the racial aspects of the hearing. “Most of the court room spectators were Negroes, many of whom wore green, red and black buttons inscribed ‘Defend Ethiopia.’ The defendants are white. Twenty patrolmen, including several Negroes, were stationed in court.”
The upscale neighbors no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when the following March the Italian Government sold the house to the Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street Corporation. At the time protests were still clogging the sidewalks and upsetting the peace of the otherwise tranquil neighborhood. On reporting the sale, The Times noted that the building “will be remodeled by the new owners into small apartments.”
And within the year the conversation was completed. There were now eight apartments—one on the ground floor, one on the top floor and two each on the floors between. The spacious apartments attracted upscale tenants for decades; then in the 1960s the Nordness Art Galleries took over the street level. It would stay on in the building for years.
Change came in 2006 when Mark and Judy Goodman planned a reconversion to a single family house. The problem was, of course, that unseemly store window. Their architect, Oliver Cope, designed a neo-Tudor window in keeping with the overall design. His use of matching materials won approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (the house sits within the Upper East Side Historic District).
Almost all of the 1860s and ‘70s rowhouses along the block were updated in the first decades of the 20th century; but the wonderful restored Tudor at No. 134 stands out among them.
photos by the author
photos by the author