Monday, February 22, 2016

The Lost Geo. Q. Palmer Mansion -- No. 1 East 73rd Street

Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
During the Civil War the Eastman family lived in a comfortable brownstone home at No. 1 East 73rd Street, just off the corner of Fifth Avenue.  Central Park was still being constructed, the neighborhood was only sparsely developed, and young Joseph Eastman traveled daily downtown where he attended freshman classes in New York City College.

As the turn of the century neared, the neighborhood around the old Eastman home had filled with imposing mansions on Fifth Avenue and commodious rowhouses along the side streets.    Between the Eastman house and Central Park sat the home of millionaire Nicholas Fish Palmer, on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue.

In 1896 that house was abuzz as plans were being laid for a socially-important wedding.  On April 5 The New York Times reported that “Several hundred invitations have been issued for the marriage of Miss Edna Earl Johnson, the eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Hibbard Johnson, to George Quintard Palmer, a son of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Fish Palmer of 922 Fifth Avenue.” 

The couple was married by George Palmer’s uncle, Bishop Quintard of Tennessee, in St. Agnes Chapel on West 92nd Street.  The Times predicted beforehand that “It is probably that there will be a fine choral service in connection with the marriage ceremony.”  Afterward, the reception was held in Edna’s parents’ mansion at No. 601 Madison Avenue.  One journal noted that some of the guests “came across the continent for the ceremony.”

Shortly before their wedding, developer W. H. Hall had completed a row of four-story brownstone homes on East 76th Street.  The newlyweds would settle into one of them.  Following their three-month honeymoon in Europe, they moved No. 9 East 76th Street; a wedding gift from Edna’s mother.

George Quintard Palmer was ambitious and aggressive.  He would become President of the Alberger Pump Co.; Presdient of the Newburgh Ice Machine & Engine Co.; and Vice President and Director of the Alberger Condenser Company.  Conveniently for Palmer, the headquarters for all three corporations were located at No. 140 Cedar Street.

In March 1900 Palmer sold the 76th Street house for $80,000.  He purchased the old Eastman house directly behind his childhood home.  It would be the scene of a glittering wedding reception eight months later.

Edna’s sister, Lillian Adele Johnson married Walter Stiles Hoyt on November 6 in St. James’s Church on Madison Avenue.  The fusion of two such socially prominent families filled the church, and Edna’s drawing rooms, with the cream of Manhattan society.

The old brownstones like No. 1 East 73rd Street were architecturally out of favor by the time the Palmers moved in.  They were rapidly being demolished or remodeled into up-to-date homes.  Next door to Nicholas Palmer, for instance, Randolph Guggenheimer had just completed his white marble neo-Classical style mansion—a stark statement of modernity against the brownstone Palmer houses.

The Nicholas Palmer mansion at No. 922 Fifth Avenue where George grew up, was the last surviving brownstone on the block when this photograph was taken.  No. 1 E 73rd is, unseen, directly behind.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Architectural Record explained, “the high-stoop brownstone dwellings are now in the way of being extremely unfashionable, both in design and plan; and a movement has set in which is gradually gathering momentum toward the substitution of reconstructed American basement dwellings for the old brownstone fronts.”  The American basement plan did away with the stoops and brought the entrance down to sidewalk level.

In 1902 George Q. Palmer demolished No. 1 East 73rd Street and commissioned his cousin, George Carnegie Palmer of the architectural firm Palmer & Hornbostel, to design a modern residence.  The mansion, completed in 1903, was indeed the latest in residential taste.

Designed in the currently popular Beaux Arts style, the four-story limestone-clad mansion held its own with the palaces of Fifth Avenue.   It boasted all the bells and whistles of a Parisian town home.  The double-doored entrance, sitting above a shallow stoop of four stone steps, was crowned with full-relief stone swags falling from a carved wreath.   Two metal French-style bays bowed slightly out from the façade at the second floor, and grand dormers with round openings burst through the mansard roof.

The Architectural Record was pleased with Palmer & Hornbostel’s solution to what it considered a “narrow stone dwelling.”   The journal remarked in 1903 “This house is so arranged that room has been made for only two windows, and as these are merely repeated on each floor instead of being grouped together, and carried up through the façade as a dominant motive, the building gets a double-barreled look, the two halves being just alike except that one of them includes the entrance while the other does not.”

The Palmer house was admired by tourists, as well.  It was included in the Palatial Homes in the City of New York and Dwellers Therein—a sort of mansion map like the Homes of the Stars brochures available in Hollywood today.

The Palmers’ entertainments were always of note; but their 20th anniversary celebration on April 23, 1912 was especially so, and seemed to be never-ending.  It started with a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton.  Guests then were treated to a theater party at the Winter Garden.  After that it was on to Sherry’s for supper and dancing.

The Palmers' country estate, Arden Farm, was in Port Chester, New York.  It shared 500 acres of land with the summer estates of his parents and of his brother, Francis.  The New-York Tribune called it “one of the show places of King Street.”

Francis F. Palmer and his family had gone to the White Mountains in August of 1915, leaving their country estate “The Alden,” in charge of the butler, August Miller, and two watchmen--one at night and another during the daytime hours.

On August 16 August Miller traveled to Manhattan with a suitcase.  He entered a pawn shop on Second Avenue and presented silverware and cut glass items.  The pawnbroker noticed that most of the articles were engraved F.F.P. and became suspicious.  He detained Miller while he secretly notified detectives. 

Confronted, Miller at first insisted he had been instructed to sell the valuables; but finally confessed.  “I wanted to get a little ready money on account of the illness and death of my wife,” he explained.   He said his wife had died 10 days earlier and that creditors were pressing him for money.  He only “borrowed” the items, which he would reclaim when he received his wife’s insurance money.

In Miller’s pockets were checks for eight trunks; and he admitted he had begun pawning stolen items since August 7, right after the family had left.  Because they could not reach Francis Palmer, reporters reached out to George.  The Times reported that he “was unwilling to believe that Miller could have been the robber until he had made an investigation at the home of his brother.” 

George Palmer could not find the watchmen who were supposed to be guarding the estate.  “I suppose Miller went in and helped himself to whatever he could find most conveniently,” he said.  “I cannot tell what has been taken.”

He also denounced the butler’s excuse.  “It is foolish for Miller to say he needed money because of the death of his wife.  My brother paid the expenses of Mrs. Miller in the hospital, and also, I believe, paid her burial expenses.”

Nearby, on the Post Road, was the country seat of Henry B. Davis.  On the evening of November 27, 1915 Davis’s teen-aged children, 17-year old Daniel and 19-year old Helen, were walking on the Post Road in thick fog.  George Quintard Palmer’s limousine was on the same road and his chauffeur was struggling to see.

The New York Times reported that the Davis teens “were walking home on the Post Road and were in front of their father’s estate when the Palmer car, driven by John Rupineck, a chauffeur, came up from behind them.”  Henry was in the middle of the road and his sister was slightly to the side.  In the dense fog, Rupineck was unable to see them until it was too late.

“Davis was knocked down with great force,” reported The Times.  Helen was brushed by the limo which spun her to the side of the road.  The heavy automobile passed over Daniel.

“Rupineck said he thought he had struck a wagon.  He found Miss Davis holding her brother’s head.”  The chauffeur took both teens to the nearest hospital; but Daniel died there later that night.

Less than a month after the tragedy, the first of the debutante entertainments for the Palmer’s daughter, Lillian took place.  Her grandmother, Mrs. Nicholas F. Palmer hosted a tea in the Fifth Avenue mansion on December 11, 1915.  It was followed by a dinner and theater party with additional guests.

The events continued on Christmas Eve when Lillian’s mother gave a dance at Sherry’s.  It was no small affair, prompting The New York Times to deem it “one of the largest dances of the Winter.”  Both ballroom floors were taken up for the event and two orchestras played.  Social functions at the time went until the early morning hours, and at 1:00 a.m. a seated supper was served.

Two days later Lillian’s engagement to Henry Coster Steers was announced.  The wedding took place on September 2, 1916 in Rye, New York.  Private train cars had been arranged to bring guests from Manhattan.  “The reception held at Alden Farm was a large one and tables for refreshments were placed on the verandas and lawn, and later there was dancing,” reported The Times.  The social status of the Palmers and Steers was evidenced by the guest list.  On the lawns of Alden Farm that afternoon were the Irving Brokaws, the Oliver Harrimans, Mrs. Whitelaw Reid, the Alford Schermerhorns, Mrs. Henry Havemeyer, the William Rockefellers and Percy Rockefeller, Mrs. William T. Sloan, Mr. and Mrs. Morton Plant, the James Harrimans and Mrs. Ansel Phelps, among others.

The East 73rd Street address where Lillian Hoyt’s wedding reception was held became the scene of a debutante affair for her daughter.  Edna Palmer hosted the event for Edna Hoyt on January 8, 1920.  Twenty guests were invited to dinner and another 50 arrived later for dancing.

Edna Hoyt looks surprisingly baleful the year of her debut -- The Evening World, Friday January 9, 1920 (copyright expired)
About the time of Lillian’s debut, George Quintard Palmer stepped down from his various business enterprises.   But the move had nothing to do with retirement.  On January 19, 1921 the New-York Tribune reported the he “was formally elected president of the United States Food Products Corporation yesterday.”

Crime again visited the Port Chester estates later that year.  In November George Palmer opened “a wall safe which was adroitly hidden in his room by silken panels in the decorations,” according to the New-York Tribune.  He removed a pearl cravat pin; but almost immediately felt something was wrong.  The valuable pin was insured for $4,000—in the neighborhood of $53,000 today.

George took the pin to a jeweler who confirmed that the pearl had been removed and replaced with “a poor imitation.”  The contents of the safe were examined and one of Edna’s necklaces which had held 105 diamonds was discovered to be now set with pieces of glass.

The police were sure it was an inside job and all the servants were questioned.  Palmer, however, vouched for their honesty.

The mystery deepened three months later when detectives found the jeweler who had removed the stones.   Seemingly innocent, he said that jewelry dealer Harry Hirsch had brought in the items to be altered.  They then found Hirsch, who said he had got the necklace and pin from another dealer, Alex Rinaldo.

The trail continued to Rinaldo’s business.  He explained than an old customer of his, a woman, often came in to have her jewels replaced.  “This lady doesn’t like to take her jewelry about with her, so she has the real stones replaced in the settings with imitation stones.”  He gave them the customer’s address.

The Tribune reported “When the police went to the address that Rinaldo gave as that of the woman, they found a vacant lot.”

So it was back to Rinaldo.  The detectives arranged for him to visit the Palmer mansion under the guise of a guest so he could discern if any of the servants was the culprit.  He did not recognize any of them.

On April 22, 1922 the New-York Tribune noted “And there is rests, as much of a mystery as ever.”  George Quintard Palmer was upset with investigators and the dead-end case.  Eventually the Federal Insurance Company paid him the $29,000 covering the losses.

During the 1920s many of the grand mansions in the neighborhood were being razed for modern apartment buildings.  In 1930 George Palmer purchased No. 3 East 73rd Street from Elizabeth G. Ballard, who lived across the street in No. 4.   The purchase was an effort to forestall such development on the block.  On August 21 The New York Times explained “They have mutually agreed that the premises at 1 and 3 East Seventy-third Street shall be restricted for a period of fifty years against the erection of a building thereon to a greater height than sixty feet above the curb level.”

George’s holdings increased in November 1931 when his widowed mother died in her Port Chester country estate.  The Times noted “She maintained a city house at 922 Fifth Avenue, New York, which she leaves to her son, George Quintard Palmer, if he wants it.”

On May 3, 1933 George Q. Palmer died at Alden Farm at the age of 59 of pneumonia.  Two years later, on April 10, 1935 Edna died there, also aged 59.  The future of the mansions at 73rd Street and Fifth Avenue were suddenly in jeopardy.

In 1945 the Tischman Realty began accumulating properties.  Despite the private agreement between Palmer and Elizabeth Ballard, their fears were about to become reality.  In January 1946 they had assembled the site for an apartment building, which it sold as a package to developers.

George Palmers childhood home at No 922 Fifth Avenue, the Guggenheimer house next door, and the five-story mansion at No. 924 Fifth Avenue were included; as were Nos. 1 and 3 East 73rd Street.  Construction on the 21-story white brick mid-century apartment designed by Sylvan Bien was started in 1949 and completed a year later.

photo City Realty

1 comment:

  1. What a sad little corner of NY that site has become. Bland and forgettable times ten.