Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Moncure Robinson Mansion -- No. 16 East 76th Street



With the completion of Central Park the blocks off Fifth Avenue saw rapid development.  In 1881 William Noble began construction on 10 speculative rowhouses stretching from No. 10 through 28 East 76th Street.  Completed a year later they were designed by John G. Prague and were described by The New York Times as “four-story brownstone-front” dwellings.

When M. L. Sire purchased No. 16 with “the similar dwelling 28 East Seventy-sixth Street" in 1897, the three wealthy Robinson siblings were living in their family mansion at No. 23 North Washington Square.  Their father, Edmund Randolph Robinson had died the year before and their mother had died earlier.  The young adults were wealthy, prominent, and on their own. 

After the expected period of mourning, they Robinsons resumed their upscale social lives.  Eleanor hosted a reception for the introduction of her sister, Augusta, into society on December 10, 1898 in the home.  And their attorney brother, Moncure Robinson, would be well-known in the highest social circles.

The Robinson children had not only large personal fortunes, but an outstanding pedigree.  Their mother was the daughter of John Jay and was related to the Chapmans and McVickars.  The Times would later note “The Robinson family is one of the old families of Virginia.”

Their social standing was glaringly obvious on April 4, 1900 when Augusta was married in the parlor of the Washington Square house, given away by her brother.  Among those assembled were Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., the Schieffelin family, the Abraham Hewitts, Mrs. William Morgan and her daughter, the W. Bayard Cuttings and other high-ranking society figures.

A month later Moncure would earn attention at the “artists’ revel” in Boston when he “personated a Doge of Venice.”  Later he and Eleanor took a cottage in fashionable Bar Harbor. 

By the time they returned for the winter season, things had drastically changed in the East 76th Street neighborhood.  The neighborhood had increasingly lured Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens and the addresses of the brownstone residences of a generation earlier were suddenly highly valued.  On September 29, 1901 The New York Times remarked that “The good demand for dwellings of moderate value has continued to be the mainstay of the market…This demand has been principally for houses near Fifth Avenue, north of Fiftieth Street.”  Among the houses sold that week was No. 16 East 76th Street.

The rapidly increasing value of the property was noted by the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on March 15, 1902.  The house was purchased by the City Real Property Investing Co.  “The house changed hands twice last year; the first time at $60,000, the present sellers paying $67,000.”

Within a few weeks it would be sold again—this time to Moncure Robinson.  The purchase was made public on May 3 and was possibly sparked by Augusta’s impending engagement to Commander Louis Wentworth Packington Chetwynd of the Royal Navy.  As preparations for the wedding in Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas’s Church were laid out; Moncure set architects Hoppin & Koen to work remodeling the old brownstone uptown into a fashionable, modern mansion.

Augusta’s January 17, 1903 wedding was a star-studded event in terms of society names.  The church was filled with names like Fish, Vanderbilt, Belmont, Harrison, Beekman and Townsend.  But The New York Times was careful to print at the top of the list “Mrs. Astor.”

The following week Moncure was a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Collier in the mansion on Gramercy Park.  It was in honor of Mrs. Collier’s grandmother, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and his inclusion on the guest list of only 16 was a social coup.  But Robinson was eager to begin entertaining on his own in his new house.

The East 76th Street project was finished by now.  Hoppin & Koen had produced a striking five-story neo-Georgian home of red brick with limestone trim.  The entrance in the rusticated stone base was a few steps below the sidewalk; and the architects drew on a variety of 18th century elements to produce the refined and elegant home—fanlights above the second story French doors; radiating stone lintels over the upper openings, and finely detailed dormers behind a stone balustrade.

On February 23, 1903 Moncure Robinson formally opened his new house with a “Colonial dinner.”  It would be the first of many elaborate entertainments in the house.  A week later, on March 1, The New York Times society page gossiped about the young attorney.  Calling him “a member of several of the fashionable clubs,” the newspaper said “He is simply a young man who has a good fortune and who is fond of entertaining.  He has, like so many of the young bachelors of to-day, moved into a house of his own, and he is an excellent host.  In appearance he is quite youthful, and is about thirty years of age.  He is a member of the Knickerbocker, and was graduated from Harvard in 1896.”


The Times called Robinson’s new home “a bijou of a house, which is charmingly furnished, where he will entertain a great deal next Winter.”  The newspaper may have predicted extensive entertainment because it was about time for the wealthy 30-year old to marry.  On May 10 the newspaper hinted at romance.

“Moncure Robinson, who will sail shortly for Europe, has put the finishing touches to his new home in East Seventy-sixth Street.  He has taken such pains in furnishing this house that rumors are again started as to his matrimonial intentions.  Both he and Mrs. Moses Taylor Campbell have denied these reports several times.”  The denials were undeniably true.

By now Robinson had given up Bar Harbor for Tuxedo Park and Newport.  It was in Newport on September 2, 1906 that he was the unwilling party in an episode that enraged Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish.  Mamie Fish invited Moncure along for an automobile ride with her and her daughter, Marion.  As the car cruised along the country road about four miles outside of Newport, chauffeur George Effyeara was pulled over for exceeding the speed limit of 18 miles per hour.

Effyeara insisted he was traveling at 14 miles per hour; but the constable climbed into the limousine and ordered it driven back to Newport.  After a heated exchanged between Mrs. Fish and Judge Franklin, the socialite begrudgingly paid the $23.60 fine.  “Mrs. Fish paid it,” reported The Times, “but she was not in a very pleasant mood, remarking as she paid the money, ‘This is highway robbery.’”

Another well-to-do bachelor who often appeared on the same guest lists with Moncure Robinson was Francis Otis.  Although both men had ample fortunes, The New York Times noted in 1908 that the two would be sharing an apartment in Paris for the summer season.

Back in New York, Moncure’s lavish entertainments were sometimes too large for his 76th Street house to handle.  On these occasions he turned to the St. Regis Hotel.  On December 13, 1911 he hosted a dinner here in honor of Princess di San Faustino and Comtesse De Gontaut-Biron.  “The guests, numbering sixty, were asked for dinner at 8 o’clock, following which specialties and tableaux vivants were given on a miniature stage erected at one end of the marble ballroom,” recounted The Times.  An evening of entertainments included performances by some of the socially-elite guests.

The newspapers routinely reported on Moncure’s entertainments at home and at the St. Regis.  On February 3, 1914 his dinner required the entire second floor of the hotel, “including the marble ballroom,” said The Times the following day.

The following year, in August 1915, Robinson leased the 76th Street house "to a client for occupancy," according to The New York Times.  It became home to Edward N. Breitung and his socially prominent wife.  Breitung was a banker, mining engineer and ship owner.  During the war she had donated an x-ray ambulance to General Pershing and their daughter, Juliet, had been active in war work as well.

Delicate carved panels are set into the brick facade.
In July 1918 Mrs. Breitung arranged “a big athletic carnival” for the Sailors and Marines Club which she founded.  The details of the event were finalized in a meeting in the 76th Street house on July 12 and they included 50-men teams for tug-of-war, running events, tennis, baseball, swmming races and other events.  Professional athletes signed up to appear.

But the Breitungs tended to attract negative attention despite their philanthropic deeds and good intentions.  Juliet eloped with Max F. Kleist, the gardener of the mansion adjoining the Breitung’s country estate in Marquette, Michigan.  “Owing to the prominence of the Breitung family, the marriage and its subsequent developments attracted considerable attention,” said The New York Times later.

The “subsequent developments” were that Juliet soon realized the Kleist had married here only for the money and after she left him, he sued her father for $250,000 “for alienation of affections.”  The suit was eventually dismissed and in December 1918 Juliet became engaged again.  The Times ran the headline “Juliet Breitung to Marry Again” and rehashed the ugly affair, including the Reno divorce.

A year later the household was terrified by a series of letters that arrived threatening to blow up Breitung’s office at No. 11 Pine Street.  Then, on September 6, a letter arrived “containing a threat to blow up his home at 16 East Seventy-sixth street.”  Investigators were able to track down the extortionist, John N. Redmond.  The 38-year old was committed to the psychopathic ward of Bellevue Hospital for observation.  He explained that he believed to have been “defrauded of millions” by the banker.

Mrs. Breitung continued on with her social calendar of dinners and charitable events.  On March 25, 1921 she entertained her guests at dinner in the house, then took them to the opera.  A similar affair two weeks earlier had ended most uncomfortably for the socialite.  Society had been rocked by a series of burglaries during supper and card parties.  In each case it was the expensive belongings of guests that were stolen.

On March 25, 1921 The New York Times reported that Mrs. Charles M. MacNeill, “after attending the opera about two weeks ago…drove in her car to the home of Mrs. Breitung, where there was a supper party.  The next day she missed her [opera] glasses, which were worth $3,000, and telephoned to Mrs. Breitung.  Search was made, but the glasses could not be found, and Mrs. Breitung believed that Mrs. MacNeill had lost them before or after leaving the party.”

But the awkward theft of a guest’s valuable opera glasses was nothing compared to the embarrassing press the Breitung’s got later that year.  On September 7, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported that Edward had been arrested in a raid on a brothel.

Mrs. Nellie Kift, of No. 640 Madison Avenue, was charged “with having let two rooms to women for questionable purposes” and Breitung was arrested for vagrancy.  As the trial neared, Breitung proclaimed his innocence and told reporters “My wife knows all about this case and has absolute confidence in me.  She and my family are sticking by me.”

Testimony by detectives was lurid.  The New-York Tribune reported that Detectives Raihl and Massie said they found “the banker in one of the rooms of her apartment with Edna Clark and Jean Whitney.”  Edward Breitung had an excuse to be at the brothel, however.  He said he “had called at the apartment to discuss a mining project.”

In 1923 Moncure Robinson sold the house.  It was owned by Maurice Goodman on September 29, 1927 when John Packwood Tilden died in his house near by.  Tilden was President of John P. Tilden, Inc., a liability insurance firm, and a proud member of the Society of Mayfower Descendents.  He  had lived with his wife, Mabel Simmons Tilden, at No. 58 East 73rd Street.

Mabel quickly sold the 73rd Street house and purchased the mansion at No. 16 East 76th Street in July 1928.  Like the previous residents of the house, she would lavishly entertain.  Summers were spent at the Briarcliff Lodge and winters were given over to musicales, dinners and receptions.  Society pages routinely reported on her entertainments, as was the case on February 12, 1937 when The Times reported “Mrs. John Packwood Tilden will give another in a series of luncheons today at her home, 16 East Seventy-sixth Street, for Mrs. Robert A. C. Smith.”

The following month, just before Mabel left for the Briarwood, she received a most unexpected delivery.  “A healthy seven-pound baby girl only six hours old was found abandoned at 10 o’clock last night wrapped in a brown blanket and sheltered in an opened black suitcase on the doorstep of the townhouse of Mrs. John P. Tilden,” reported The New York Times on March 28.  The little girl was discovered by a private patrolman, Horace Victor, and was in good health despite her exposure to the March air.

If the infant’s mother thought that, perhaps, Mrs. Tilden would take the baby in, she was mistaken.  “Later she was taken to the New York Foundling Hospital.”

Mabel Simmons Tilden’s routine of Summers at Briarcliff Lodge and winters on East 76th Street would continue into the 1950s.  The house became home to Calvin Klein in 1988.  Having paid $6.8 million for it; the fashion designer sold the 10,000 square foot mansion to the Italian Government for just $4.8 million in1991 during a depressed real estate market.  The house was purchased as the home to the Italian Consul General.

The handsome residence has survived as a private home for over 130 years.  Little has changed since its remarkable makeover in 1903 when the it became the renovated bachelor pad of the socially-visible Moncure Robinson.

photographs by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment