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


  1. Terrific story.
    You may not get a lot of comments overall, but at least one person is reading your posts! Great work.

  2. To me a day without Daytonian is no day at all. Keep up the great work.

    Stanford White's great grand daughter wrote a riveting book about him and the wider White family entitled, Architect of Desire. I highly recommend it to your readers.

    It would be interesting to know how much of Stanford White's collection was "the real McCoy", and how much was reproduction or "pastiche" pieces. I remember reading somewhere that curitorial standards were considerably lower in that era, and that White, who bought in prodigious quantities, guided primarily by what appealed to him visually, was regularly "taken for a ride" by unscrupulous dealers.

    1. As always, I enjoy your comments about as much as I do researching the pieces! You always have one more little tidbit!

  3. Wonderful comprehensive article, Tom Miller. Thanks for your amazing research, and enjoyable read.

  4. Excellent piece... NYC architecture and history have delighted me for years. Your story adds the human drama needed to fill in the background of this site and what makes it so interesting...and makes my walks thru Manhattan so much more enjoyable.
    Thank you Mr. Miller.

  5. I once read the exhaustive biography called "Stanny" at Morgan State and he was such an amazing man. Love this house.