Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Helena Flint House -- No. 109 East 39th Street

In 1879 the East 39th Street block between Park and Lexington Avenues was lined with brownstone-fronted homes erected within the past 15 years.   The Cuyler family lived in No. 109 and that year young Charles Vanderpool Cuyler was attending the New York City College.  While the Cuyler house was not especially old, it would not survive many more years.

In 1886 the wealthy and unmarried Helena Flint purchased the commodious 25-foot wide property and had the brownstone razed.  The Italianate style that had essentially defined residential New York City architecture for years was quickly falling from favor.  Helena Flint commissioned Henry F. Kilburn to design a modern residence on the cutting edge of fashion.

The fanciful Queen Anne style had made its appearance in New York only a few years earlier.  Its asymmetry, mixed materials, and playful toying with historically-inspired elements were in stark contrast to the formality of previous residential designs.  Seen more often in suburban homes—with cone-capped, wrap-around porches and whimsical balconies—the style presented a challenge to urban architects.

Kilburn presented Helena Flint with a four-story brick and brownstone house above an English basement.  Directly above the entrance, a carved stone oriel gently curved away from the fa├žade.  Handsome carvings like the frightening stone lions heads with gaping mouths that flanked the third floor cornice; the Aesthetic-style floral panels separating the grouped fourth-floor openings; and the frightening face that made up the gable medallion added to the visual interest.  On either side of the steep gable were charming miniature dormers with copper conical caps.

Whimsical carvings and pointed fairy-land type dormers add to the charm.

Exactly why Helena Flint decided to erect her New York City mansion is unclear.  Her father, Thomas J. S. Flint, was a prominent Chicago grain merchant.  The enterprising millionaire then founded the Larchmont Manor Company, the purpose of which was “developing the [Manor Park and Larchmont Village, New York area] into a suburban community.”   The result was Manor Park, a charming planned community along the Long Island Sound.  Thomas Flint died in 1881 and Helena would be a generous contributor to the parks and upkeep of Manor Park for the rest of her life.

Possibly Eleanor Ruthrauff was instrumental in Helena’s decision.  A year before purchasing No. 109, Helena had employed Eleanor as a private tutor for her young cousins.  The employee-employer relationship quickly changed and Eleanor moved in with the 35-year old Helena that same year.  According to Helena later, she “made a will in 1885, leaving everything to Miss Flint.”

The 39th Street house was completed in 1887 at a cost of $30,000—in the neighborhood of $725,000 today.   The two women moved into what was without a doubt the most eye-catching home on the block; in one of the most fashionable areas of the city.

Newspapers essentially treated Helena and Eleanor as a couple.  The pair traveled together and social columnists reported on their comings and goings with no distinction between the wealthy Helena and the one-time employee, Eleanor.   After they spent a year and a half in Europe, the New-York Tribune reported on October 15, 1893, “Miss Helena Flint and Miss Eleanor Ruthrauff have returned to No. 109 East Thirty-ninth-st. after an eighteen months’ stay abroad.  They arrived on the Touraine.”

Helena’s brother Edward E. Flint was, like their father, prominent in the Chicago grain business.   In 1895 his family visited New York, staying with Helena.   On Tuesday, December 17 the trip took a tragic turn when the 52-year old died in the house.  The funeral was held in Helena’s home on the morning of December 19.

The relationship between Helena Flint and Eleanor Ruthrauff came to an abrupt end in 1897.   Earlier, Helena sailed alone for Europe, leaving $25,000 in bonds with Eleanor.   Upon Helena's return, Eleanor refused to return the bonds.   An infuriated Helena Flint took Eleanor to court to recover the funds which nearly equaled the cost of her home.

On May 29, 1897 the New-York Tribune commented on the about-face in their relationship.  “Miss Ruthrauff was formerly Miss Flint’s companion, and the two women were fast friends.”  The newspaper summed up the battle: “The $25,000 in dispute is declared by the complainant to have been only a loan, but by the defendant to have been an absolute gift.”

Presumably heartbroken (she told the court “we went everywhere together”), Helena Flint left New York for good.  She leased the house to the President of Fidelity Bank, Edward H. Peaslee until 1902.  Then on April 13 that year the New-York Tribune reported that “Miss Flint” had sold the house to Don H. Bacon “on private terms.”  In fact, Donald and Mary Bacon paid Helena Flint $70,000 for the house making her a tidy profit.

In 1914 the Bacons were considering a permanent move to St. Augustine, Florida.   They commissioned New York architect E. F. Strassle to design a sumptuous home at No. 29 Valencia Street there.  In the meantime, the Plaza Hotel had become home to the Princess Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy—one of the most colorful residents the hotel would ever host.

Born in Hungary, she had been schooled as a portrait painter in Budapest and Munich.  She received much notice for her exhibition of portraits in the Salon de Paris in the early 1890s.  Her marriage to the Russian Prince Lwoff in 1899 was short-lived, ending in divorce; but she was allowed to use the royal title and continued to receive an annual allowance from the Prince.

Now ensconced in a Plaza suite (one which included a private chapel), she kept a menagerie of animals including a lion, named Goldfleck, and maintained a staff of servants.  In 1910 she raised social eyebrows when, according to The New York Times, she “slammed the door of her private elevator at the hotel in the face of the Duchess of Manchester.”

In 1913 she staged an exhibition of her society portraits in the hotel.  A year later The Times said “the Princess, who has painted the portraits of many famous persons in this country and Europe, has an apartment of twelve rooms furnished in regal style, and fronting on Central Park.” 

On March 26 that year detectives arrived at the Princess’s suite to arrest her dinner guest, Edmund Gallauner, on fraud charges.  The Times said that when they had pushed their way past the butler, they “started through rooms carpeted with costly rugs and hung with valuable paintings and tapestries to the dining room of the Princess.  They found her at the far end of the room, wearing a coronet and ermine robes and sitting under a gold-embroidered canopy which covered a dais.”

The Bacon home in Florida was completed in 1915 and their move coincided with Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy’s unceremonious 1916 removal from the Plaza for failure to pay her rent.  She moved into the 39th Street house, still owned by Donald and Mary Bacon.

Perhaps the first luminary the Princess pursued for a portrait sitting in her new studio was inventor Nikola Tesla.   Somewhat superstitious, he had never posed for a portrait before, feeling that to do so was unlucky.  The charismatic Princess persevered; but when he arrived at her top floor studio Tesla was discouraged.  The New York Times explained “The room which she had chosen did not have a skylight in it and the much desired north exposure was missing.”

Tesla solved the problem by erecting a cluster of powerful electric lights in a high corner, then filtering the light through blue glass.  The inventor deemed the resultant light “just of the right quality.”

On March 1, 1916 Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy hosted a reception specifically to unveil the Tesla portrait.   The Times reported “Mr. Tesla, having solved the problem of the artificial sun fell to thinking about other parts of the universe, and there he sat oblivious to his surroundings.  So it was that the painter was able to produce a likeness in which there is no evidence that the subject was conscious that anybody was even watching him, much less studying his features from the other side of an easel.”

The Princess's portrait of Tesla was the only one for which he ever sat.  NordseeMuseum, Husum, Northern Germany

On October 2, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported that Don H. Bacon had sold his “fine house in 39th Street.”  Interestingly, the newspaper got just about all the historical facts wrong.  “The house was erected from plans by Hoggson Bros. about nine years ago and represented an investment of over $110,000, including the land.”  If Hoggson Bros. had any hand in the house, it may have been renovations ordered by the Bacons when they first purchased it.

While the Princess went on living in the residence, it went through a rapid-fire succession of owners.  Bacon had sold it to C. Grayton Martin who resold it in June 1920 to Bacon.  Then on September 11 that year, The Times reported that Donald H. Bacon had sold it to Agnes C. O’Neill.   In July the following year the New-York Tribune reported that Agnes O’Neill had sold it to the Princess Elizabeth Livoff [sic] “for her residence.”

Although she reportedly received thousands of dollars for her portraits, the Princess’s lavish lifestyle outweighed her income.   Jeweler Ludwig Nissen filed a claim of $200,000 against her in 1923.  Presumably he had lent her the money to purchase the house.   On August 27 Sheriff Joseph A. Lenman arrived at the house which was reportedly filled with $1 million in art and furnishings.

The Princess’s doctor asked for compassion, saying that she was on the verge of death.  Pleading illness or imminent death was a common ploy for those seeking to escape the clutches of the law; and the Sheriff planted himself on the stoop of the mansion in what The Philadelphia Inquirer called a “death watch.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer published a grainy photograph of Sheriff Joseph A. Lenman "waiting for Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy to die at her home, 109 East Thirty-ninth street, New York, before seizing her famous art treasures for debt."  August 31, 1923

Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy died in the house on Tuesday, August 28, 1923.  Saying that she “died destitute,” The Times noted that “When the Princess died and a Deputy Sheriff and his aides waited in the house with writ of attachment against the luxurious furnishings to satisfy debts, no friends called.  They were barred by the Princess’s wishes.”   But on September 1 more than 100 mourners pushed into the house for her funeral.

“The services were impressive, the archpriest wearing his robes of silver cloth as he intoned the full ritual of the Greek Orthodox Church.  After the services, Edwin Markham, poet, delivered an eulogy in which he paid tribute to the Princess’s genius,” reported the newspaper.

The Times wrote “The Princess was buried in her court robes of blue and gold and she wore a crown of silver and her twenty-two royal decorations.  During the services Deputy Sheriff Lanman and an assistant were in the house, and later when friends asked for keepsakes, which they said had been promised to them, the officer refused to allow them to be taken away.”

When the house was sold the following year, the New York Post repeated the story that it had been designed by Hoggson Bros. in 1911.  It was resold in 1926 to Emily Hepburn who renovated it to nine apartments on the upper floors.  She removed the brownstone stoop and installed a commercial space at sidewalk level.

That ground floor area became the Merchant’s Club and while it had the name of a private men’s organization; it was in reality a high-end speak-easy.    On December 22, 1931 a series of raids by Federal prohibition agents targeted “an area between Thirty-ninth and Fifty-eighth Streets, and included resorts in the ‘speakeasy Fifties,” reported The New York Times the following morning.

Along with other well-known nightclubs like the Stork Club, the Mona Lisa and Casa Bella, the Merchant’s Club was raided.   The newspaper inaccurately described the club as being “in an old brownstone fronted house.”  In the foyer was a “brilliantly decorated Christmas tree, and beyond the foyer was an expensively furnished dining room and a bar.”  The agents seized $20,000 in “liquors and rare wines” and arrested the cashier, a dozen waiters, two bartenders, four cooks, a busboy, one porter, a clerk, dishwasher and the hat-check boy.  A month later, on January 20, 1932, Prohibition administrator Andrew McCampbell announced his intentions of stripping the Merchant’s Club of its elaborate furnishings.

When Henry Payson purchased the property from Jacob Perlow in 1944, it was assessed at $57,000 (around $710,000 today).   In 1950 a fourth floor apartment was being rented for $55 per month.

Nine years later Helena Flint’s New York mansion became the Kittredge Club for Girls and included the Kittredge Club Theater where the infamous Merchant’s Club had been.   The house provided safe lodging for women within a social environment.

The club remained in the house until 1994 when it was purchased by the Society of Jewish Science.  The religious organization hired the architectural firm Fox & Fowle to convert the interiors for semi-institutional use.  The results were less than sympathetic.

Although some interior demolition was necessary due to degradation of the structure with age; other changes were little short of vandalism.  Original mantels, paneling and leaded glass were discarded.  The Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy’s top floor studio that had risen to a peak was given a flat-dropped ceiling.

The curved glass that followed the contours of the oriel were replaced with flat panes in 1994.

Henry Kilburn’s delightful Queen Anne house survives on a much-changed block.  But as was the case in 1887, it remains a scene-stealer.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible for this small structure to have survived on busy East 39th St in Manhattan long after it's residential neighborhood disappeared however it is a real pity that original or unique interiors are still treated so poorly during renovations and historic fabric is discarded like yesterdays trash in favor of drywall and dropped ceilings.