In 1900 retired banker Arthur T. J. Rice had lived in the 20-foot wide brownstone rowhouse at No. 109 East 79th Street for several years. Rice had been associated with the Broadway National Bank for 45 years, having joined the institution as a clerk at the age of 18.
Retirement did not slow down Arthur Rice. The New York Times remarked on August 30, 1900 “Mr. Rice, who, although sixty-five years old, was fond of salt-water bathing and could swim quite well.” He had left the 79th Street house around 2:00 the previous afternoon “for the purpose of refreshing himself by an ocean bath.”
Hours later Frances Rice and their son, Arthur J. Rice, waited dinner for the banker. A knock on the door brought tragic news. At around 5:00 Arthur Rice had entered the ocean at Brighton Beach. He did not venture far out, staying within the life lines where the water was only about five feet deep.
But a rogue wave smashed into Rice, dislodging his false teeth. He was knocked under the water. Beachgoers saw him go under; but thought he was simply “taking a duck.” When he did not emerge, rescuers flew into action. Unfortunately, they were too late. Arthur Rice’s false teeth had become lodged in his throat and he choked to death.
Frances Rice remained in the aging house for about eight years. She sold it in December 1908 to Edith T. Martin; the Real Estate Record & Guide reporting “the buyer will erect an American basement dwelling on the lot.” Simultaneously, Edith’s sister, Alice Martin McCoon, purchased the identical house next door at No. 109.
Two years earlier, on December 9, 1906, James Henry McCoon had died “very suddenly” of pneumonia in his home at No. 45 West 48th Street. Now Alice Martin McCoon and Edith Martin laid plans for side-by-side residences.
The wealthy sisters commissioned architects Foster, Gade & Graham to design mirror-image mansions. Plans were filed in April 1909. Each house was projected to cost $40,000—just over $1 million in 2016 dollars. A few days later the New-York Tribune reported “The houses are to be of limestone, in the English Gothic style, finished with mullioned casement bays of Tudor pattern, and having dormers in the peaked roofs.”
The newspaper got the architectural style slightly wrong; it being in fact what today is accepted as French Renaissance.
|Wurts Bros. photographed the houses shortly after their completion. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Alice moved into No. 109 with daughters Edith, Alice and Carolyn Frances. An apparently modern woman, she drove a Stearns motorcar in 1914. As the girls grew up and their introductions to society neared, Alice took them abroad. She was obviously planning a summer trip in May 1920 when she leased the house furnished to jeweler Pierre Cartier for the season.
Edith Martin sometimes leased her home, as well. When millionaire Fulton Cutting, Jr. decided to relocate from Boston to New York City in 1919, he leased No. 111. A year later, on May 7, 1920, Edith renewed his lease.
The McCoon women were active socially. In addition to the dinners and dances in the house for their debutante celebrations, the girls were involved in philanthropic causes. In 1922, for instance, Edith was chairman of the junior auxiliary of the Manhattanville Nursery Association.
Living in the house with Alice and the girls were two servants. One of them, 33-year old butler Walter Carney, was not who he seemed. Arriving with unimpeachable references and a high-class demeanor, he was hired in 1925. But on May 2, 1926 The New York Times reported that he had made off with $900 in Alice’s jewelry. He had, it turned out, simply written the references himself.
1927 was an important year for the McCoon household when both Alice and Carolyn Frances became engaged. Following Carolyn’s wedding to Robert Thomas Stone in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue at 84th Street, on November 19, a wedding breakfast and reception followed in the 79th Street house.
Alice Martin McCoon died at No. 109 East 79th Street in 1930. Her $500,000 estate would top $7 million today. Six years later the McCoon house was converted to furnished rooms—as many as five per floor.
Edith T. Martin died in No. 111 East 79th Street on October 2, 1939. When the house was sold on October 1940 The New York Times got the history horribly wrong. “This house was constructed from plans by Stanford White at a reported cost of about $116,000,” the article said. The buyer, Marta Pedersen Rankin, announced she would occupy the mansion “after making improvements.”
Edith Martin’s home survived as a single-family residence until 1953, when it was converted to spacious apartments, two per floor. Three years later No. 109 was officially converted to apartments. In 1961 the Albert Landry Galleries moved into the lower floors of No. 111.
|The McCoon house (left) lost its fourth-floor balustrades, and throughout both is a mish-mash of replacement windows.|
During the apartment conversions, the shared stoop was lost and the entrances moved to below sidewalk level. Haunting, faded glory still shrouds the handsome townhouses where sisters lived side-by-side.
photographs by the author