Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Henry H. Sprague House - No. 4 Sutton Square

The side garden allows for an unexpected wall of additional windows.

Early in 1920 a group of intrepid—and wealthy—urban pioneers turned their backs on Madison and Fifth Avenues and struck out on a social experiment many thought preposterous.  The distasteful neighborhood in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge was filled with near derelict brownstones of the 1870s; it included a brewery and tenement buildings.  But the mansion district in the center of the Manhattan could not compete with its river views and refreshing breezes.

Millionaires including W. Seward Webb, Jr. (whose mother was Lila Osgood Vanderbilt) and architect Eliot Cross formed Sutton Square, Inc. and, for $100,000, purchased the 18 homes enbracing a common garden—the east side of Sutton Place from 57th to 58th Street, and the southern side of 58th Street from Sutton Place to the river.

While most moneyed New Yorkers thought the idea absurd and The New York Times deemed the neighborhood “a slum,” Sutton Square, Inc. included buyers like Anne Vanderbilt, widow of William K. Vanderbilt; Anne Morgan, daughter, of J. P. Morgan; and conductor Walter Damrosch.  The group intended the enclave to be called Sutton Square, as it was for a short time.  Eventually only the one-block section of 58th Street would retain the name.

The property owners were given strict restraints in remodeling the Victorian buildings.  “The group is not to be razed, but entirely rebuilt,” reported the New-York-Tribune on December 26, 1920.  “The brownstone stoops, the window ledges and other protrusions are to be cleaved off, leaving a straight front to the outside world.”

Anne Morgan’s architect, Mott Schmidt, hired general contractor Carl A. Vollmer, Inc. to handle the reconstruction of her mansion that encompassed Nos. 3 and 5 Sutton Place.   Within the year The American Architect announced “The building at 502 East 58th St. will be turned into a 4-story dwelling for H. H. Sprague.”  The publication listed as the architect Carl A. Vollmer, Inc.

If, indeed, the general contracting firm acted as architect, it would be surprising.  However the listing appeared in other announcements as well.  The cost of transforming Sprague’s acquisition into an up-to-date residence would be about $20,000—in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars today.

The 63-year old Henry H. Sprague was the inventor of the Sprague gas meter and President of the Sprague Meter Co.   The device had garnered him a fortune.   His remodeled house, renumbered No. 4 Sutton Square, drew on early American architecture—as did nearly all of the Sutton Place mansions.

The colonial design of the unassuming red brick façade featured a six-paneled entrance door topped by a broken pediment.  The service entrance, on the opposite of the center window, was unadorned (so as not to confuse guests).  Directly above, a modified Palladian-style window was accentuated by a graceful and unique leaded overlight.  Stone urns perched above the brick posts outside the shallow areaway.

As was most often the case with high-end dwellings, the title was put in the name of Sprague’s wife, Rose.  She would not enjoy her fashionable new home very long.  She died on July 30, 1929, leaving Henry a life interest in the residence.

The elderly Henry Sprague wasted no time in moving on.  On May 18, 1930, less than a year after Rose’s death, the 72-year old millionaire married his nurse-companion, 33-year old Hattie Magness.

While society whispered of the goings on in Sprague’s life; upheaval was taking place in the home of Henry Huttleston Rogers, Jr.  The millionaire son of the Standard Oil founder mogul, was married to Mary Benjamin.  She was the daughter of New York journalist and poet Park Benjamin, and was a close friend of Samuel Clemens.

An affair on Henry’s part resulted in their 1929 divorce.  Mary restyled her name to avoid confusion with Henry’s intended second wife and found a new home.  On February 8, 1930 The New York Times reported “Mrs. M. Benjamin Rogers has left the Ritz Towers for her new home at 4 Sutton Square.” 

Later that year the newspaper updated its readers on the changes in the Social Register.  “The first Mrs. H. H. Rogers is listed as Mrs. Benjamin Rogers, with residence at 4 Sutton Square.  The address of Mr. Rogers who was married to Mrs. Basil Miles shortly after his divorce, is still given as ‘Port of Missing Men,’ Southampton, L.I.”

Mary’s entertainments in the house included a society wedding on January 10, 1931.  Frances Seymour married George Tuttle Brokaw that afternoon, surprising wealthy socialites who read about the ceremony the following day.

“The marriage will come as a surprise to society, as there had been no announcement of the engagement,” noted The New York Times.  In reporting on the wedding, the newspaper noted the pedigrees of the bride and groom.  Frances was related to “many old families of this city, including the Pells, Howlands, Stoutenburghs, Stuyvesants, Anthons, Fishes, and Costers; also the Biddles of Philadelphia.”  George Brokaw, “a son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Vail Brokaw, is a member of an old Hugenot family, being a descendant of Bourgon Broucard, who settled in this city in 1673.”  Both families were counted among the wealthiest in the city.

In May 1936 Mary Benjamin Rogers leased her house, furnished, to theatrical producer Eric Charell.  She would not return.  The following year it was owned by cosmetics mogul Florence M. Lewis, who was known professionally as Elizabeth Arden.   She apparently purchased the mansion for investment purposes, for she immediately leased it to Pierpont M. Hamilton, grandson of J. P. Morgan.

Hamilton had married Marie Louise Blair, daughter of C. Ledyard Blair, on September 11, 1919 following his return Europe where he was an aviator during World War I.  The couple divorced and he married Rebecca Stickney on January 3, 1930.

Rebecca Hamilton threw herself headlong into upscale entertainments in the Sutton Square home—often making full use of the shared garden.  On June 11, 1940, for instance, she gave a “garden party and tea” for Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Rodzinski.  Rodzinski was the musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra.  The New York Times mentioned “The guests yesterday included persons prominent in society and musical circles.”

That garden party would be among the last events Rebecca Hamilton hosted on Sutton Square.  On August 9, 1940 The Times reported that Florence M. Lewis had leased the house “for a long term with purchase option” to Mrs. Aquila Giles.   Exactly two weeks later the newspaper noted “Mr. and Mrs. Pierpont M. Hamilton will leave their home at 4 Sutton Square in the Autumn and will be at Carlton House.”

Elizabeth Arden retained ownership of the house for several more years, eventually selling to Charles E. Gilbert around 1949.  He quickly resold the house to a “well-known New Yorker” for occupancy.  The well-known New Yorker was Ward Cheney and his wife.

Cheney was prominent in the silk business and his wife, Frances, was the daughter of banker Henry P. Davison.   In addition to the Sutton Square mansion, they maintained a magnificent estate, Peacock Point, on the shore of Locust Valley, Long Island.

The house later became home to Robert I Goldman, chief executive officer of the Congress Financial Corporation, and his wife, the former Vira Hladun.   The New York Times writer Robin Finn would later describe No. 4 as “museum quality.”  Finn wrote in 2003 that Mrs. Goldmann’s “Queen Anne-style dining room replicates Winterthur’s.  Her dressing room copies Colonial Williamsburg’s.  She can afford to be a purist.” 

After more than three decades together, the Goldmans divorced in 1998 and Vira (in her words) “kicked her husband out.”  The court gave her half of his $84 million fortune and she continued to live at No. 4 Sutton Square (and an 18th century London townhouse) until 2003.  That year the 63-year old, who had added an “n” and hyphenated her last name to Hladun-Goldmann, put the Sutton Square house on the market for $16 million.  Robin Finn explained “She is selling this place not just to downsize to a Park Avenue pied-a-terra, but to build an estate in Virginia for her ‘last hurrah.’”

A scar in the brickwork testifies to the loss of the exquisite fanlight that once adorned the Palladian window. 
The dignified house at No. 4 Sutton Square was purchased by Michael Jeffries, President of Abercrombie & Fitch.  At some point the marvelous overlight above the Palladian window was removed and bricked up.  Otherwise the distinguished home remains essentially unchanged since a group of fearless millionaires transformed a slum into one of Manhattan’s most enviable addresses.

photos by the author

1 comment:

  1. An unfortunate design choice and repair. You would of thought the masons could of matched the mortar a little better, IMHO.