Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The D. S. Hess Bldg - Nos. 35-37 W. 23rd Street

In 1878 the residential nature of West 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was doomed.  The block was lined with refined mansions erected only 10 or 20 years earlier.  But the shopping district called the Ladies’ Mile between 14th and 23rd Streets on Sixth Avenue was about to turn the corner.

Stern Brothers demolished three brownstone houses that year to erect its large department store.  At the time New York's furniture dealers and manufacturers were mostly congregated around 13th and 16th Streets near Sixth Avenue.  A year later decorators and “manufacturers of artistic furniture,” D. S. Hess & Co. broke ranks, deciding to move from its store at No. 56 West 16th Street to the West 23rd Street block.

The firm commissioned David and John Jardine to design its new offices and showrooms.  The brothers, who had gone into partnership in 1865, had designed the imposing  B. Altman Department Store on Sixth Avenue at 19th Street just four years earlier.

The move by D. S. Hess & Co. would spark a migration of furniture dealers onto the West 23rd Street block.  Before the turn of the century respected manufacturers R. J. Horner and George C. Flint would arrive; turning the north side of West 23rd Street into a furniture district.

In the meantime, however, the house at No. 35 West 23rd Street had been converted for business as early as 1868.  It was home to S. Goldberg’s artists’ materials shop.  He advertised that year, offering “All kinds of paints, brushes, canvas and materials required by artists at the lowest prices.”

No. 35 and its neighbor at 37 West 23rd Street were demolished in 1879 and plans for the new building were filed in January 1880.  The Real Estate Record reported that they called for a “five-story brick store…with one-story extension on rear.”  The cornice, it was noted, would be galvanized iron.  The anticipated cost of the structure was $30,000—more in the neighborhood of $705,000 today.

D. & J. Jardine freely dipped into several styles to produce the Hess building.  Fundamentally neo-Grec, it was splashed with touches of Queen Anne and Eastlake.  The showrooms of the first and second floor, where furniture and decorative household objects were shown, had vast expanses of glass. The openings of the second floor were separated by reed-thin engaged cast iron columns.  Separating this level from the upper floors was a decorative cast iron cornice of palmetto leaves.

The exquisite cornice incorporated full-relief sunflowers along with the date the project began.
Grouped openings of the upper floors visually formed two three-story, slightly recessed arches capped by toothy-brick eyebrows.  Incised decoration of the pilasters, so popular in Eastlake-style decoration, provided would-be capitals.  Between the two sections was a single vertical row of windows.  The visual climax was reserved for the cornice.  The date the project began, 1879, was boldly centered between rows of cast iron sunflowers—iconic of the Aesthetic Movement—in full relief and bending towards the sidewalk, separated by palmetto leaves.

Now painted, the brick facade was originally a warm red color.
D. S. Hess & Co. would not remain in its new store for long.  Although it retained possession; in 1884 it moved northward and offered a five-year lease to another furniture manufacturer and dealer, Freeman, Gillies & Co.  Established in 1874 at No. 20 West 14th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the firm had outgrown its relatively small store.

On March 2, 1884 Freeman, Gillies & Co. advertised its removal sale.  The ad in the New-York Tribune said the “Manufacturers of Fine Furniture, offer their entire stock of First-Class Furniture at greatly reduced prices on account of removal to our new buildings, Nos. 35 and 37 West 23d-st., on or before May 1.”

A year later on June 7, when the firm was well settled in, its name had slightly changed to Freeman & Gillies.  The New York Times noted “The furniture trade is an extensive one, and a goodly number of firms are engaged in it.  Standing out most prominently before the public, however, is that of Mssrs. Freeman & Gillies, of Nos. 35 and 37 West Twenty-third-street…The growing needs of their business recently necessitated a change, and they accordingly recently removed to their present more commodious and spacious stores.”  Like many furniture dealers, Freeman & Gillies offered a full line of items for home décor.  The newspaper mentioned “They have always on hand a complete stock of foreign and American wall papers, curtains, hard-wood mantels, and interior decorations.”

The firm not only sold, but designed its furniture.  On December 1, 1888 a Freeman & Gillies advertisement in The Evening Post promised “In fine upholstered Parlor Furniture we show many styles which cannot be seen elsewhere.  Purchasers desiring stylish and durable furniture can save time and money by calling on us.”

The five-year lease signed by Freeman & Gillies was, unfortunately, short-sighted.  Customers were barely becoming aware of the new store before the lease ran out.  In June 1889 an advertisement appeared in Life magazine announcing a liquidation sale.  “Freeman & Gillies, furniture makers…on account of expiring lease, are offering their entire stock of furniture at a genuine reduction from former prices.”  The ad called special attention to the furniture “especially made for summer residences.”

Rather than attempting to relocate, Freeman & Gillies dissolved in 1890.  D. S. Hess & Co. immediately got out of the real estate business by selling the building on February 22, 1890 to Josiah Belden for $200,000.  By now the West 23rd Street block was as well-known for its china and glass shops as for its furniture dealers.  Belden would lease to a variety of smaller tenants, including, ironically, S. Goldberg, who was now selling “china for decorating of the latest designs.”

Among the furniture stores on the block in 1895 was George C. Flint's at No. 43.  The Hess building is seen at far right.  King's Photographic Views of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)
Also in the building in 1897 was the bookstore of publisher G. W. Gillingham Company.  Among the modern volumes the firm offered that year was a translation of Guy de Maupassant’s Mme. Tellier’s Girls.  When self-proclaimed arbiter of public decency, Anthony Comstock, walked into the shop on April 9, bad things were about to happen.

Comstock had founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873.  His obsession with stamping out what he defined as immoral led George Bernard Shaw to coin the term “comstockery” in reference to arbitrary censorship due to perceived obscenity.

Comstock asked for a copy of Mme. Tellier’s Girls and when he had paid for it, demanded to see John H. Cook, president of the company.  Cook was flabbergasted when Comstock demanded all the plates and copies of the work; accusing the publisher of “printing an immoral book.”  The Sun, the following morning, reported “Comstock produced no warrant, nor legal paper of any kind, and apparently acted only on the authority which he assumes on these occasions.”

Despite his protests that the book was, indeed, not immoral, Cook recognized the power Comstock wielded.  He surrendered 400 copies of the book and all his printing plates.  He nevertheless railed against Comstock to the press.  “I think Comstock’s action was entirely unwarranted in law or fact,” he told reporters.  “His past actions show, I think, that he is incompetent to be a censor of literature.”

The building was not totally without a furniture-related concern during this period.  Upstairs C. T. Vetter & Sons ran an upholstery business at least until 1903.  At the time, at 13th Street and Sixth Avenue, the “big house-furnishing store of Sheppard Knapp,” as described by The Times, was doing business.  While the other furniture dealers had moved northward, Sheppard Knapp had stayed put.

Founded by Sheppard Knapp in 1862, it was well known for its furniture and carpeting.  In 1907 a devastating fire raged through the store.  Although repairs were made; in March 1910 the company signed a lease on Nos. 35 and 37 West 23rd Street.  Moving northward was a good decision; but sadly for Sheppard Knapp & Co. it did not go far enough.  By now the grand emporiums of the Ladies’ Mile were essentially abandoned as were the furniture stores of West 23rd Street.

On June 29, 1912 an article titled “Exaggeration Costly” in Dry Goods Economist hinted at panic among the Sheppard Knapp & Co. officers.  A few weeks earlier the company had advertised a sale on expensive carpets.  “Wilton, Brussels and Axminster” carpets were offered at “$15.00 and $20.00 each.”  The magazine recognized the offer to be “extraordinary.  Twenty dollars is a low price for anything that looks like a Wilton rug, at wholesale, let alone at retail, therefore an Economist man was sent to see the goods and learn the facts.”

What the reporter found was that, indeed, Sheppard Knapp & Co. offered a few Wilton rugs at the bargain basement price.  But they were quickly sold out.  The sneaky ad resulted in its intended goal—to lure shoppers into the store.  But they left disappointed and angry at the subterfuge.  The Dry Goods Economist summed it up, “It is not a question of forgiving, but of forgetting, and the public memory is sometimes remarkably long.”

On December 2, 1913 Sheppard Knapp & Co. filed for bankruptcy.  The New York Times explained that the company’s problems were directly related to the movement of other stores to the Herald Square neighborhood.  “The misfortunes of the concern are attributed to the extension of the Jersey tunnels to the Thirty-fourth Street shopping district, and the diversion of trade uptown.”

Even before the Sheppard Knapp & Co. stock could be moved out of the building, the upscale S. Herbert Cut Glass Co. signed a long term lease.  “After the improvements are made they will occupy it as their salesrooms,” reported The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide on November 1, 1913.

The store’s relocation from No. 48 West Broadway was partially responsible for an article in The New York Times on March 1, 1914 entitled “Twenty-Third Street’s Busy Retail Block Destined for Great Wholesale Centre.”  The newspaper commented that the block, “which for years was one of the busiest and most popular shopping centres in New York, has been virtually deserted in so far as its former commercial interests are concerned.”  But now, it said, “No block in the city has shown so rapid a revival of trade activity after the desertion of its old interests.”

Furniture no longer played a part in the 23rd Street block; but it had become the undisputed center of the wholesale glass and china trade.  Along with S. Herbert Cut Glass Co. in the building was the Pittsburgh Lamp Brass and Glass Company.  The firm would remain here into the 1920s, selling art glass lamps.

Edward Boote took space in the building by 1918, offering tableware like “Cauldon china, Wood & Sons’ earthenware, and Gibson & Sons’ teapots.”  Villeroy & Boch china and glass merchants moved in, as did E. Torlotting, dealers in “Gouda Art Pottery and Bohemian glassware.”

John B. Salterini, designers and manufacturers of ornamental ironwork opened its showroom here.  The firm’s foundry and offices were located in the still-gritty East 44th Street neighborhood near the East River.

In 1921 Crockery and Glass Journal commented on the Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass & Glass Co.’s new items in the 23rd Street showroom.  In addition to the company’s “new Astra glass portables, an achievement in glass manufacture of which the concern has reason to feel proud,” the magazine noted “they are showing a complete line of popular priced lamps with metal bases and hand painted shades, which promise to outrival all past productions.”

For awhile it appeared that garment shops would take over the building.  In 1919 S. Herbert Cut Glass had leased the entire top floor to the Victory Shirt Co., and in 1928 the Gibraltar Shirt Corporation was operating here.  Instead, the garment district established itself north of 34th Street and little by little, as the middle of the century approached, the West 23rd Street block again was abandoned as a high-end shopping district.

By 1950 the glass and decorative ironworks showrooms were gone.  In their places small novelty operations like World Trading Corp. moved in.  Throughout the 1940s it advertised wholesale items like “Fur dogs, First quality, assorted colors” for $3 each.

On August 6, 1953 The New York Times reported that “Changing hands for the first time since 1935, the five-story store and loft building at 35-37 West Twenty-third Street was sold.”  Jack Speigler and Harry Pilchman purchased the old structure and immediately hired architects Wechsler & Schimenti to replace the first floor with a modern storefront.

The building continued to house novelty companies, like Paris & Co. which offered a dozen iridescent pearl sets for $10.80.  “This is the hottest number in the industry today!” promised an ad in Billboard on April 7, 1956.  Mastercraft Inc., an “importing concern,” would remain in the building until 1965.

For a while the ground floor returned to its original purpose of selling furniture; albeit not so high class anymore.  Roberts Furniture Clearance Center offered second-hand office and home furniture “one-of-a-kind below wholesale” in the 1970s.

Then in 1982 No. 35-37 was converted to a commercial store at ground level and one sprawling apartment per floor above.  The little building with the not-so-illustrious past was about to get an memorable resident.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had created ripples in the artistic world with his sometimes controversial black-and-white images that ranged from celebrity portraits to nudes and sadomasochistic depictions.  Often homoerotic, his work sparked a nationwide debate over the appropriateness of public funding for his art.

Mapplethorpe’s lifetime companion, art curator Sam Wagstaff, purchased the top floor of No. 35-37 for a reported half million dollars and presented it to him as a gift.  The space where young women sewed garments for the Victory Shirt Co. suddenly warranted a layout in House & Garden magazine.  Patricia Morrisroe in her 1995 Mapplethorpe: A Biography, wrote “The photographer’s creation of ‘little altars,’ which merged religious and occult items, had been part of his decorating scheme since Pratt, but now that he had more money to invest in his props, glowing Jesus statues and plastic devils had been replaced by ivory crucifixes, marble satyrs, a bust of Mussolini, and an Ed Ruscha screen printing consisting of the word ‘EVIL’ in black and red.”

Sadly, Robert Mapplethorpe’s stay here would be short-lived.  He died on the morning of March 9, 1989 at the age of 42 from complications of AIDS.  In 2000 a penthouse was added above the former Mapplethorpe loft, creating a sumptuous duplex apartment. 

The second floor, once a showroom for turn-of-the-century furniture, is a luxurious loft apartment --photograph
Today an urgent care clinic operates out of the ground floor space where D. S. Hess & Co. showed off its “artistic furniture.”  Above, the full-floor apartments sell in the neighborhood of $4.5 million; evidence that the West 23rd Street block has turned the corner once again.

 non-credited photographs taken by the author
many thanks to reader Tom Jessell for suggesting this post 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Gardiner-Saks Mansion -- 14 West 86th Street

In the spring of 1910 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that architect Alexander M. Welch had designed “a row of 3 five-story American basement dwellings for W.W. & T. M. Hall on south side of West 86th street.”  Completed the same year, the mansions, Nos. 12, 14 and 16, were distinctively different in style.  It was a somewhat unusual move.  Architects designing rows of speculative rowhouses on the Upper West Side tended to create a harmonious flow--a sort of unit.  Welch opted instead for architectural individuality.

The architect had been hired by brothers William and Thomas Hall, known for erecting lavish, speculative homes targeted for Manhattan’s wealthy upper class.  The 86th Street mansions were the last word in modern conveniences, like elevators, but the Financial Panic of 1907 made selling the homes a challenge.  Neither 14 nor No. 16 was not sold until 1913.

Nos. 14 and 16, the survivors of the row, were distinctly different in design.

No 14, a handsome Neo-Renaissance home, sat on a rusticated limestone base with the entrance a few steps off the sidewalk.  Three stories of muddy-red brick were highlighted by heavy limestone window surrounds and bandcourses; and capped by a steep tiled mansard and two dormers joined by a single roof.

While the house rose, the family of Alfred P. Gardiner was living at No. 272 West 90th Street.  Gardiner was President of the Radway Chemical Company.  Mrs. Gardiner was the former Adele Troup, whose uncle had founded the firm.  The Gardiners would move into the West 86th Street house, but the purchase was, perhaps, delayed because of the embarrassing legal problems that filled the newspapers.

Adele and her only sister, Kate Barnes, had inherited $250,000 each from the estate of their aunt, Mary Jane Radway.  Ignorant in business and finance, Kate turned over her money to Alfred Gardiner to invest, agreeing to pay him $1,000 a year for his services.  But in 1912 she sued, charging him with “fraudulent dealings” and saying that he had sold off some of her investments at cheap prices to his wife, or even to himself; and that he purchased other investments as prices she felt were “excessive.”

The Gardiners, possibly, felt that the purchase of a new mansion at this sensitive time would be unseemly.

But by late 1913 they had moved into the 86th Street house and on January 4, 1914 were ready to entertain.   That day both The New York Times and The Sun reported that invitations had been sent out for a reception and dance the following Saturday “at their new home.” 

Adele, like all moneyed socialites, was involved with charities; but a few days after Christmas the following year, she went beyond the norm.  The New York Times noted on December 26 that “Mrs. A. P. Gardiner will entertain fifty children with private theatricals at her home…on Wednesday.”

Burglars found the mansions of Manhattan tempting targets during the summer months, when they knew the residents were off at country estates or resorts, and the city houses were thinly staffed.  But in 1917 thieves chose the cold winter months to hit.  On February 5 The Sun reported “Thieves skillful and petty, who have flocked to New York and given police the hardest work in years to keep down the rising tide of burglaries from homes to stores, made a large cleanup in January…Entrance to the homes has been obtained by posing as servants.  Others have used the dumbwaiters and the elevators, and in many instances on the Upper West Side the burglars have simply gone up the fire escapes and rifled the apartments at their leisure, often several at a time in the same house.”

Among the names of mansion owners who were struck in January was that of Adele R. Gardiner.

The Gardiners maintained a large summer estate, Hessian Hill, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.   Then in November 1919 they began work on what The Sun described as “a large mountain home in the Adirondacks.”  The newspaper added, “The tract of land includes Pine Tree Lodge on the face of Big Crow Mountain, celebrated for its extensive view.”

Alfred and Adele Gardiner would remain on West 86th Street until March of 1921, when, as reported by the New-York Tribune, they “will join the east side colony.”  The house was sold to Joseph Isadore Saks of the department store family.  Joseph’s father, Isadore, had founded Saks & Co. with his brother Andrew. 

With Joseph and his wife, Elsa, were their two daughters, Phyllis and Anne.  Among the staff was Helen Ness who had been with the family for three decades.  Helen’s many years of devoted service had earned her near-family member status.

Two years after Joseph and his family took over No. 14 West 86th Street, following Andrew Saks’s death, Joseph’s cousin, Horace, merged Saks & Co. with Gimbels Brothers.  It would be the first step towards the end of the involvement of Joseph’s branch of the family in the department store.  In the spring of 1926, Isadore and his two sons Joseph and Walter “withdrew from the business bearing their family name,” according to The New York Times.

Within a year Joseph Saks was admitted to the New York Stock Exchange.  Elsa chose as one of her favorite charities the Josephine Home for Anemic and Undernourished Children.  She headed the ticket sales of a benefit performance of “Private Lives” in January 1931.  Noel Coward, who not only wrote the play but starred in it, offered his services as a benefit to the fund.

Rather than summering in Newport, Bar Harbor and Tuxedo Park; many of Manhattan’s wealthy Jewish families traveled to the Adirondacks or the Jersey Shore.  Isadore Saks’s summer estate, White Lodge, was in Elberon, New Jersey, for instance, and Joseph Saks’s country place was in nearby Long Branch.  It was at White Lodge that Isadore Saks died on September 13, 1933.

Joseph inherited one-third of his father’s substantial estate, along with his personal jewelry.  Elsa received $25,000—a significant $450,000 by today’s standards—and the couple’s two daughters, Anne and Phyllis each received $20,000.

Three months later tragedy would strike the household again.  The family left West 86th Street for a weekend in Long Branch on Friday December 1, 1933.  Helen Ness, of course, traveled with them.  Now 60 years old, the servant had undergone surgery and was despondent over her failing health.

On Sunday morning she left the Saks home and “waded into the sea,” as reported by The New York Times later that day.  “The body was recovered several hours later by the Coast Guard after it had been discovered by fishermen.”  After 40 years of serving the Saks family, Helen Ness had committed suicide, no longer able to bear her ill health.

The Saks family continued to live on at No. 14 West 86th street for several more years; until moving to No. 111 Park Avenue not long before Joseph I. Saks’s death at the age of 62 on October 25, 1939.

In 1948, like so many of the handsome mansions of the day, No. 14 was converted to apartments.  A doctor’s office took up the ground floor.  Today apartments still fill the former Gardiner-Saks mansion, and the doctor’s office has been eliminated.  Rather surprisingly, some of Welch’s period interior details survive.  But the exterior of the imposing house remains essentially unchanged.

non-credited photographs by the author

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Lost Stanford White House -- No. 121 East 21st Street

Stanford White did little to the main house, other than removing the entrance to the lower level and creating a glass-enclosed window seat.  The fanciful former stable behind housed the Music Room and the Picture Gallery.  photo by McKim, Mead & White, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Shortly after Gramercy Square, later renamed Gramercy Park, was landscaped and fenced in 1844, brownstone mansions began encircling it.  In 1850 the row of identical Greek Revival homes on the north side of the park, terminating at the corner of Lexington Avenue, was completed.

Henry A. Taylor owned the corner house, No. 121 East 21st Street, and the one next door at No. 119 by the middle of the 1880s.  Taylor was a close friend of Charles McKim and a co-member of the Metropolitan Club with Stanford White.  In October 1887 he extended the corner house by converting the stable to the rear as an addition.

Stanford White and his family, including his mother, were leasing a home on Sixth Avenue in January 1892 when they were given notice that it would be razed in four months.  White frantically searched for a home; finally leasing No. 119 East 21st Street from Henry Taylor.

The designer and architect in 1892 - photograph by George Cox
The more desirable corner house was being leased by railroad financier Hugh J. Jewett.  Born in Maryland in 1817, one of nine children, he rose from a simple frontier lawyer to the General Counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad and eventually President of the Erie Railroad.  When he retired he was earning the astonishing yearly salary of $50,000—more than $1 million today.

On April 15, 1888 at noon No. 121 had been the scene of daughter Helen Jewett’s wedding.  The New York Times remarked “The ceremony took place in the parlor, which was decorated with roses and lilies.  The bridal couple stood in front of a curtain of roses, smilax, and lilies.”  Among the society names witnessing the wedding that day were Flagler, Blanchard, Butler and Atterbury.

That same year Stanford White redecorated The Players club on the opposite side of the park, for Edwin Booth.  While Manhattan’s millionaires tended to move northward, Gramercy Park retained its exclusive station and refined reputation.  Elsie de Wolfe called it “a spot hollowed in history, closed in from the outside world, and where the oldest and most interesting American families had their houses.”

By the time the Stanford White family moved into No. 119, McKim, Mead & White was planning a handsome new mansion for Henry A. Taylor at No. 3 East 72nd Street.  It was completed in 1897 and White soon convinced Taylor to rent him No. 121.  It was no doubt a relief for the neighbors.  Taylor was leasing the corner house to “Mrs. Briggs” who operated it as a high-end boarding house.

In January 1897 it was the scene of a commotion quite alien to the cultured Gramercy residents.  Using a skeleton key, Otto Gunther entered the house and snatched Mrs. Briggs’s sealskin sacque.  He had not gone far when he was discovered by the landlady who screamed for help.  Otto Gunther had not expected to encounter his feisty female opponent.  When she came upon him, the burglar was standing near the basement door.  She slammed the door on him, holding it closed with her back as boarders rushed to help.

In the Yorkville Police Court Gunther pleaded innocent, saying that the door of the house was open and he merely walked in to get something to eat.  “Mrs. Briggs wanted to know if he intended to eat her sacque,” commented The New York Times.

Once White had the keys to No. 121 in 1898 he sent his wife, Bessie, and son Lawrence to their summer estate, Box Hill, in St. James, Long Island; and the redesigning and redecorating the old house began.  A wooden passage was installed between No. 119 and 121 to enable White to pass back and forth between his project and his home.

The architect did little to the outward appearance of the mansion.  He lowered the doorway to a few steps below street level and converted the former entrance to a handsome, roomy window seat in the drawing room.  Inside, however, the changes were monumental.

The lower, former basement, level was reserved for receiving.  Here were just two rooms—the entrance hall and the sweeping reception area.  The second story became the main floor, with four large rooms that flowed into one another.  The entire front of the house was taken over by the Drawing Room, followed by the staircase hall, the Dining Room and finally the Music Room.

The Dining Room ceiling (above) was removed from a 16th century chapel in Florence.  The doorway of the Dining Room opens into the Music Room.  photographs from the Illustrated Catalogue of the Artistic Furnishings and Interior Decorations of the Residence at No. 121 East Twenty-first Street, New York City, April 1907 (copyright expired)
Stanford White was known for scouring the world’s antiques auctions and art galleries for architectural elements and furnishings for his wealthy clients.  Now he did the same for himself.  To the modern eye, White’s completed interiors were a confusing mish-mash of too many things, too many styles, and, simply, too much.  To the late Victorians it was the acme of good taste and interior décor.

The Dining Room featured a carved Renaissance polychrome ceiling which White removed from a Florentine chapel; a 16th century Italian Renaissance marble fountain; and a carved wood Italian Renaissance doorway later described as “composed of richly ornamented columns with Corinthian capitals, surmounted by entablature, with central panel decorated with cherub’s head.”

Even the columns of the staircase were antique—imported from Spain.  And nearly crammed into the ornate rooms were what The New York Times called “beautiful things—furniture and wall decorations of many kinds, as well as paintings” and “bric-a-brac and articles of virtu.”  The bric-a-brac included Flemish and Italian tapestries, three from cartoons by Raphael, French and Italian furniture and countless artworks.

The second floor staircase hall.  photograph from the Illustrated Catalogue of the Artistic Furnishings and Interior Decorations of the Residence at No. 121 East Twenty-first Street, New York City, April 1907 (copyright expired)
In the Picture Gallery, lit by a long skylight, portraits of European royalty—Mary Tudor, Henry VIII, Johanna of Spain, and Edward VI, for instance—hung side-by-side with portraits of White’s parents.  An abundance of costly furniture was then packed into the room, fighting the paintings for attention.

Antique furnishings crush against the portraits in the Picture Gallery (above).  A rather unexpected moose head adorns a Henry VII fireplace in the same room.  photographs from the Illustrated Catalogue of the Artistic Furnishings and Interior Decorations of the Residence at No. 121 East Twenty-first Street, New York City, April 1907 (copyright expired)
While newspapers extolled the remodeled home (The New York Times called it “one of the most magnificently decorated in the city); American Architect and Architecture was a bit disappointed.  The magazine felt White’s genius as an architect was subjugated by the collection.  “It is to an architect’s own home that one looks to find embodied there the artistic aspirations that have shaped themselves during musings before his own hearthstone.  But here there is no indication of what Stanford White the artist-architect could do, though the rooms are filled with proofs of the manner in which Stanford White the collector sought and cherished the works of earlier kindred spirits.”

The Music Room was as much museum as entertaining space.  photograph from the Illustrated Catalogue of the Artistic Furnishings and Interior Decorations of the Residence at No. 121 East Twenty-first Street, New York City, April 1907 (copyright expired)
Bessie White entertained handsomely in the completed mansion.  Stanford White not only catered to society, he and his wife were part of it.  On February 15, 1900 Bessie gave an interesting entertainment for the Thursday Evening Club, described by The New York Times as “somewhat in the nature of a vaudeville of a quiet and subdued character, the principal features of which were cinematograph pictures and some songs rendered by Miss Alison Horton.”

In the middle of July the following year the Whites fired one of the landscape gardeners at Box Hill, Carl Overgaard.  The 21-year old, knowing the family was absent from the Gramercy Park house, showed up at the door on Tuesday, July 23.  Unaware that he no longer worked for the family, the housekeeper let him in. 

With Overgaard when he left were five scarf pins belonging to Stanford White.  One by one they turned up at various places.  One, found in a pawnshop on Third Avenue, contained pearls and sapphires and was valued at $1,000.  While that amount alone sounds rather pricey for a stickpin today; the relative value is more in the neighborhood of $23,000.

The wronged architect was not pleased.  Although he was out of town when Carl Overgaard was arrested, newspapers promised “Mr. White is expected to appear against him.”  As it turned out, it was not Stanford White who rebuked the thief, but the judge.

“It seems to be a hard thing nowadays to get honest servants,” Magistrate Brann told White.   “Shakespeare in his works says, somewhere: ‘There is one honest man in a thousand.’  Since I have been on the bench I have found that to be a fact.’”

He then turned his attention to Overgaard.  “I have no use for a thief.  I will hold you in $5,000 bail for trial.”

White's velvet-walled Drawing Room overlooked Gramercy Park and spanned the width of the mansion -- photograph from the Illustrated Catalogue of the Artistic Furnishings and Interior Decorations of the Residence at No. 121 East Twenty-first Street, New York City, April 1907 (copyright expired)

On February 11, 1904 Bessie White hosted a musicale.  While wealthy guests were served supper at midnight in the Dining Room, a Hungarian orchestra played in the adjoining Music Room “and Miss Haughton sang,” noted The Times the following day.  But what Mrs. White may not have known as she gave dinners and receptions, was that her husband was essentially broke.

Stanford White had seriously overspent and had not paid Henry A. Taylor rent on the Gramercy Park house in years.  Taylor continued to pressure the architect for back rent; while White scurried to find funds.  He tried to convince his landlord that the costly improvements he made on No. 121 were worth much more than rent.  Taylor was only tepidly convinced. 

To make matters worse, White had crammed a warehouse full of antiques, imported architectural elements and artwork which he planned to sell to pay off some of the more than $500,000 in bills he had accrued.  In 1905 the warehouse burned to the ground; a devastating loss for White.

On June 25, 1906 Bessie White and her mother-in-law were at Box Hill.  Larry White had come to the Gramercy Park house a few days earlier from Harvard, and that night he and his father dressed for dinner at the Café Martin with Larry’s friend, Leroy King.  “After the dinner the party entered an electric automobile and went up to the New Amsterdam roof garden,” reported The Times.  “There the two boys asked the elder White to stay and see the performance.  He said: ‘No, I thank you,’ adding that he was going elsewhere.”

Stanford White had been carrying on an affair with the very young actress Evelyn Nesbitt since 1900.  She was now the wife of Pennsylvania millionaire Henry Kendall Thaw.  After leaving his son, White went to Madison Square Garden’s Roof Garden to enjoy the premiere of the musical Mam’zelle Champagne. While the chorus sang “I Could Love a Million Girls,” Harry Thaw walked to White’s table and fired a gun three times into White’s temple. According to one witness Thaw uttered, “You’ll never go out with that woman again.”

Stanford White died on the floor of what some considered to be his masterpiece.

Lawrence White was found and rushed to the scene.  Around 1:30 in the morning Charles McKim drove him to White’s garage on West 31st Street.  “He immediately had his father’s touring automobile brought out and was driven to St. James, L. I. where his mother was.  It was about 3:30 o’clock when he arrived at St. James, and as soon as his mother awoke he told her what had happened, and an hour later he left with her for New York, making the run to the city in about three hours.”

Bessie White received the news with little reaction.  The Times used the word “calmly.”  Mrs. Grant White, however, was devastated.   The condition of the elderly woman was described as “serious” and she was unable to make the trip into the city.

When Bessie arrived at the Gramercy Park house, she was attired entirely in black and heavily veiled.  Her sisters, who had left their summer estates, were already there.  Throughout the day she was visited by people like Charles McKim, Peter Cooper Hewitt and William M. Evarts who offered their condolences.  White’s coffin was delivered to the house by an undertaker, Mr. Aldrich.

Later that evening a plaster cast was made of White’s face.  The following morning just past 8:00 the body was taken by special train to St. James where the funeral was held in St. James’s Church.  Bessie had allowed Charles McKim and Peter Cooper Hewitt to make all the arrangements.

Bessie White was now faced with paying off her husband’s enormous debts.  That required dismantling and selling everything White had done in the Gramercy Park mansion.  On March 24, 1907 The New York Times published a full-page article describing the contents of the upcoming auction.  “With the exception of certain mantelpieces every object of art in the house is to go.”

“Every object of art” included the ceilings, the Renaissance doorways and columns, the Delft tiles that decorated the entrance to the Picture Gallery, the antique furniture, marble fountains, sculptures and the paintings.

On April 4 the doors to No. 121 were opened for the first day of the auction.  “A large attendance of fashionable people and high prices were the principal features,” remarked The New York Times.  The fashionable people included Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs. George P. Bliss, Cass Gilbert, Grant La Farge, Thomas Clarke, Elsie De Wolfe and I. N. Phelps Stokes.  Only those with tickets were allowed access.

The newspaper took exception to the Edwardian women’s millinery.  “Theatre rules did not obtain in regard to hats, and the most pronounced styles in Spring millinery were out in full force.  Ornamental pillars were nothing compared to hats three-quarters of a yard in diameter.  Big plumes were added to these and when they were not branching out to the right, left, or standing high on top of a hat, there was a bird whose long wings and tail extending out at the back tickled the noses and threatened the eyes of the unfortunates in seats behind.”

The first day’s sales brought $20,525.50.

Even before the first gavel fell, the house had been sold.  In February the Princeton Club purchased both No. 119 and 121 and made plans to combine them into its clubhouse.  “The Stanford White house and the house at 119 East Twenty-first street will be united by the removal of the walls on the second and third stories,” reported The Sun on February 16, 1907.  “The smaller of the two residences will be devoted to suites of rooms for the use of club members, while the White residence will house the club proper.”

The club proposed to convert the fanciful addition to the rear into bowling alleys.  The Music Room “will be the billiard and card room,” said The Sun.  The one room that would be preserved after the Princeton Club’s renovations and the removal of the auctioned details was White’s studio.  “This room at the present time is magnificently finished in Flemish oak with a great fireplace filling nearly all one end of it.  The decoration which the dead architect put on this studio will be left practically untouched by the clubmen save only in so far as the exigencies of converting it into a grill room demand.”

The Princeton Club operated out of the combined houses until 1918, when World War I prompted it to donate the building to the New York War Camp Community Service.  “The house will be fitted out at once as a club for officers, either on duty or on leave in the city,” explained the New-York Tribune on April 13, 1918.  “There are twenty bedrooms, large reading rooms and a well appointed kitchen.”
The Princeton Club removed White's shutters; but essentially left the exterior intact.  Old Buildings of New York City, 1907 (copyright expired)

With the war ended, the building was sold in November 1919, prompting the New-York Tribune to speculate on its demolition.  “It is understood that the site will be improved,” it reported on November 22.  The newspaper added “The old White house was later used as the home of the Princeton Club, and has undergone several alterations since it was looked upon as one of the best examples of dwelling constructions in Gramercy Park.”

But the joined houses survived.  At least for a while.  They became home to the Y. W. C. A.’s International Institute.  Here lectures, discussions and international events were held—like the independence celebration for the Republic of Latvia in November 1910.  The Tribune anticipated that “all the local Lettish societies will participate” in the festivities, the principal celebration of which was at No. 121 West 21st.

The Institute was continually the scene of debates, discussions and lectures.  On February 18, 1921 Mrs. Edith Terry Bremer led a discussion of “Racial Migrations in Relation to America’s Responsibility;” and on December 16 that year Dr. P. P. Nicholas lectured on “Plato’s Republic.”

But the nearly 75-year history of the houses was about to come to an end.  In the spring of 1924 Mauyde R. Ingersoll Probasco sold No. 117 to Alexander M. Bing, a principal in the real estate development firm of Bing & Bing.  Then, on May 17 the sale of Nos. 119 and 121 by the Young Women’s Christian Association was announced.  The Times surmised that Bing’s accumulated real estate “may result in the erection of a tall apartment house or an apartment hotel, for which the property is adapted.”

The newspaper was right.

Construction on the 16-story Gramercy Park Hotel, designed by Robert T. Lyons, began that year.  Completed in 1925, the massive structure erased the public’s memory of the house where one of America’s foremost architects and designers showcased his talents.

photo by the author