In the first years of the 20th century the block of East 70th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue was undergoing dramatic change. It started when, according to the Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide in 1906, “an owner whose family suffered from mental derangement undertook to erect a private sanitary at 154 and 156 East 70th st., being on the south side, but when only partly completed was stricken down, the construction ceasing where it was.”
The family was that of wealthy real estate developer Joseph L. Buttenweiser. At the time of the Guide’s article, the iron framework of the sanitarium had been completed. Now moneyed families were purchasing old brownstones on the block and erecting upscale residences. In October 1906 Howard Conklin purchased No. 157, and the journal noted that “Nos. 158, 160, and 162 were also bought up and modeled from flats into private dwellings.”
Stephen Howland Brown had already set his sights on the abandoned sanitarium project. He purchased the property and in July 1906 his architect, Edward P. Casey, filed plans for a “3-story brick and stone dwelling” to cost $50,000. Brown and Casey would amend those plans to something vastly more impressive.
A member of the ship brokerage firm Vernon C. Brown & Co., Brown had been for many years the governor of the New York Stock Exchange. His father, Vernon H. Brown, was head of the Cunard Steamship Company. His wife, the former Grace V. Quartley, was the daughter of renowned marine seascape painter Arthur Quartley.
The choice of Edward Pearce Casey was somewhat surprising. Unlike society architects like McKim, Mead & White, Delano & Aldrich, or C. P. H. Gilbert; Casey was known for his institutional designs. In 1892 he took over as architect of the Library of Congress, he had won a prize for his proposal for New York City Hall, and in 1901 he won the competition to design the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on Washington D.C.’s National Mall.
But perhaps it was best that the Brown’s architect was more familiar with monumental structures than residences. The house that had started out on paper as a $50,000, three story structure ended up costing $200,000, rising four floors, and stretching back more than 100 feet.
Completed in 1907, the 40-foot wide mansion was a Tudor Revival fantasy—as much castle as home. Faced in limestone, it relied as much on substance as it did decoration to create an imposing presence.
There were two massive arched entrances in the otherwise stark base—one accessed the mansion, the other disguised the garage. Stephen H. Brown’s vehicles would pull directly into the residence. The second and third floors were dominated by vast openings, united by common mullions and blind tracery in the spandrels. Each was capped by square-headed drip molding; and gracing the façade between them was an enormous carved crest. A cornice separated the third and fourth floors, above which paired sets of Tudor-arched openings sat below a dramatic crenelated parapet that gave the impression of a battlement.
The house quickly gained the nickname in realty circles “the medieval palace in the heart of New York,” a name it would carry for years to come. The New-York Tribune said “No Old World palace was torn down to surrender its ceilings or its iron grills, but the architect constructed it in the manner of the Italian Renaissance, and the furniture collected in all the countries where the Renaissance holds sway, carries out the spirit.
“The walls and the arched ceiling of the entrance are of stone. The arches are so low as to remind one of a crypt, the effect being heightened by a low stone altar at one side, carved in relief and bearing ancient alter candlesticks. Along the opposite walls is a Roman sarcophagus, flanked by two great wooden candlesticks.”
A curving stone staircase let to the principal rooms on the second floor. To accommodate the Browns’ substantial staff, of the 16 rooms, eight were for servants. The Tribune noted “The interior of the building is as warm as the exterior is cold.”
|photograph by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The Browns filled the mansion with an impressive collection of medieval furniture, tapestries, and artwork. Especially noteworthy was Stephen Brown’s collection of antique armor, collected from around the world, which lined the hallways. The exceptions to the period art were the many paintings by Arthur Quartley that hung on the walls, which had remained in his studio at the time of his death in 1886.
The year 1910 was a socially-important one for the Brown household. On November 5 the daughter of Stephen’s brother, Vernon, was married in the mansion. Attending Marie Vernon Brown was Stephen and Grace’s only daughter, Caro.
Only a month later, the entertainments to introduce Caro Quartley Brown to society would begin. They started on December 9 with an afternoon reception and climaxed on December 28 with a grand masked ball. The New York Times reported the following morning “The house, one of the largest of the lately erected private residence in town, was decorated throughout with Christmas greens, red flowers and holly.”
Grace Brown received the guests, “who were chiefly the debutantes and young dancing men,” at the top of the stone staircase. Normally the debutante would greet her guests as well; but Caro “slipped in among the guests unknown after the great part of them had arrived, and her identity was known to but few until the time of unmasking.”
The socially-connected young people—with names like Van Rensselaer, Burrill, Burton, Townsend, and Gould—danced from 11:00 to midnight, at which point they were unmasked, causing “considerable merriment over the revelations doffing the masks made.”
The Brown garage within the house was apparently no oil-stained, carton- and can-filled space. The Times reported that following the unmasking “the guests went down to the garage, which is built in at one side of the first floor of the house, for supper. The garage walls and ceiling were covered with sand studded with bright red Christmas decorations, bells in flowers, and small table were placed here, and also in the dining room.”
On December 29, 1912 the engagement of Caro to Franklin S. Richardson was announced. The following May the couple was married in the Brown mansion. Afterward was what The Sun described as “a large reception.”
|The Browns enjoy Palm Beach in 1916 -- The Sun, February 6, 1916 (copyright expired)|
Stephen and Grace spent that summer in Southampton; but they would never again return to East 70th Street. They moved into an apartment in the Plaza Hotel, and on October 10, 1913 the New-York Tribune reported that they had leased the house, fully furnished, to “a prominent Englishman” for $15,000 a year.
The Tribune pointed out “Many residents of this city have in the last decade rented famous palaces in England, but this is the first house in New York to be rented by a resident of London. He will have control of the premises for a number of years, and will occupy the house about three months in each year.” The newspaper thought it a good match for the Englishman, since “Inside and out it closely resembles an old palace.”
|A servant hoses down the sidewalk in front of the house recently leased by Fred Gordon -- New-York Tribune, October 26, 1913 (copyright expired)|
The “prominent Englishman” was Frederick W. Gordon. He leased the house until 1916, when the Browns leased the house to David and Clara Mannes, for their David Mannes Music School. Before the school opened on October 1, Stephen H. Brown suffered “a general physical breakdown,” as described by The Sun, and was placed in a private hospital.
On the evening of November 17, 1916 the school was the scene of a reception for Dr. Walter Damrosch and his wife, Margaret. The “Dean of American Conductors,” Damrosch was a composer, conductor and pianist. He began conducting at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1885 and later became conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. He formed the Damrosch Opera Company to stage Wagner compositions in 1895 and composed four operas.
On July 20, 1917 Stephen Brown died at the age of 53. In reporting on his death, The Sun could not resist mentioning, “Mr. Brown’s home…which he built about seven years ago, was known in real estate circles as 'the mediaeval palace in the heart of New York.'”
In May 1919 Grace sold the mansion to Maitland Fuller Griggs. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “This house…is one of the handsomest in New York City.”
The 47-year old Griggs was a wealthy attorney, educated at Yale and married to the former Carolyle Cowles Lee. The couple had three children, Dorothy, Maitland and Northam, and maintained a country estate, Barberries, at Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York.
Like the Browns, the Griggs were well-known collectors of art. Maitland Fuller Griggs served on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Purchasing and Greek and Roman Art Committees, was a trustee of The Frick Collection, and was a large benefactor of the Yale Gallery for Fine Arts. Among the artists represented on the walls of 154 East 70th Street were John Singleton Copley, Lippo Memmi, Maso di Banco, Guido di Pietro and della Robbia.
Daughter Dorothy was back in New York when her parents bought the 70th Street mansion. She had begun studies at Bryn Mawr College, but when war broke out she left to serve as a nurse. The war prevented her from being formally introduced to society, as well.
On September 4, 1920 her engagement to Francis King Murray was announced. Like Dorothy, he had left Leland Stanford University to serve with the American forces overseas. In reporting on the engagement, The New York Times added, “Miss Grigg’s mother was the former Carolyle Lee of the family who for several generations had their home at Forty-third Street and Fifth Avenue and also an old homestead in Hartford, Conn.”
The couple was married in Irvington, New York on September 18, after which the reception was held in the Griggs’ Ardsley-on-Hudson home.
The Griggs remained in the house until 1925 when it was sold to Suffragan Bishop Herbert Shipman of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Shipman had been bishop for four years, but he was perhaps better known for his military service.
In 1896 the young priest was made U.S. Army war chaplain, a position he held until 1905. He was the composer of the West Point anthem “The Corps.” During World War I he was Senior Chaplain of the First Army, serving in France.
|Herbert Shipman during WWI -- New-York Tribune, March 17, 1919 (copyright expired)|
While the 70th Street house was being prepared for the Right Rev. Herbert Shipman and his wife, the bishop was sent off to the Catskills. On December 8, 1925 Mrs. Shipman announced that the evening before, at the Tuxedo Park mansion of her parents, “My husband has suffered a nervous breakdown. His physicians told him he would either have to take six weeks off now or a year later on. They don’t want him to have anyone with him or to get any mail. They say he needs a rest cure.” The New York Times added that their new house “will be ready for occupancy on the Bishop’s return here.”
Along with the Shipmans in the 70th Street mansion were the bishop’s in-laws. Edson Bradley and his wife, Julia Williams Bradley, were well known in society. In addition to their Tuxedo Park home, they had a mansion in Washington, D. C. and a cottage, Seaview Terrace, in Newport.
Julia Bradley died in their Newport home on August 22, 1929. Seven months later, almost to the day, Bishop Shipman sat down to lunch with his wife and father-in-law, when he suddenly complained of feeling ill. “He had scarcely finished speaking when he collapsed,” reported The New York Times on March 24, 1930. When Dr. Samuel B. Moore arrived, he said that the 60-year old had died instantly.
More than 2,000 persons viewed Shipman’s body in St. John’s Cathedral. His burial at West Point took place on March 26.
It was the end of the line for the Brown mansion as a private residence. It was purchased by the Gardner School, an exclusive girls’ school. Following conversion to classrooms by the architectural firm McCrea & Sharpe, the school’s new home was formally opened with a house-warning on September 23, 1932. The school’s principal, Miss M. Elizabeth Masland, moved into an apartment on the top floor.
A series of schools would move in and out of the 70th Street mansion. In 1945 it was acquired by the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary & People’s University. In 1959 the interiors were altered for the Eron Preparatory School. By 1980 it was home to the coeducational Lenox School, and in 1993 it was sold to the Manhattan High School for Girls, after sitting vacant for three years.
Although the former garage opening has been transformed to a window, and the fencing of the rooftop playground disturbs the elegance of the crenelated parapet; little else has changed to the exterior of Stephen H. Brown’s remarkable “medieval palace in the heart of New York.”
photographs by the author