Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The John Iselin House -- No. 59 East 79th Street

By the end of the 1870s the northern side of the 79th Street block between Madison and Park Avenues was lined with middle-class homes between just 13 and 14 feet wide.  But as the century drew to a close the neighborhood changed as Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens moved northward.

While many old brownstones were being razed or renovated in the first years of the 20th century; the houses on 79th Street posed a problem.  They were too narrow to accommodate the upscale residences appropriate for lavish entertaining and luxurious lifestyles of moneyed homeowners.  The solution was simple—side-by-side houses were purchased, demolished, and commodious mansions erected on their combined sites.

Among these were Nos. 59 and 61 East 79th Street—each 14 feet wide.  They were purchased and demolished by John Iselin and his wife, Caroline, in 1908.  In August that year architects Foster, Gade & Graham filed plans for a five-story “brick and stone dwelling” with a projected cost of $45,000 (in the neighborhood of $1.2 million today).

The New York Times reported on August 4 “It is to be of the Colonial type, with small paned windows, keystone arch, and a mansard roof, and will be of ornamental brick with trimmings of decorated stone.  It will have a central hall, a library, a children’s playroom, and a sun parlor on the roof.”

Despite newspaper’s prediction, the architectural style of the mansion, completed in 1909, could hardly be called “Colonial.”  Foster, Gade & Graham had married the French Classic and Northern Renaissance styles to create an interesting and opulent hybrid.  The firm’s choice of grayish-buff brick, which nearly matched the limestone trim, produced the initial impression of a stone-faced structure.

The entrance, above a short set of stone steps, was balanced by a window of the same proportions.  The service entrance was discretely placed below the stoop.  The combination of styles was nowhere more evident than at the second floor, where robust stone balconies with Renaissance carvings fronted elegant French windows with delicate French Classic panels of fruity swags.

As was customary, the title of the mansion was placed in Caroline’s name.  John H. Iselin was a prominent lawyer who had formerly been Assistant District Attorney in New York County.  Caroline was highly involved in charities of the Episcopal church and the house was frequently the scene of meetings of the Fresh Air Fund of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Cathedral Sewing Class.

Wealthy New Yorkers closed their Manhattan homes during the oppresive summer months as they sought the relief of country estates and fashionable resorts.  The Iselins were, of course, no different.  Only four years after the 79th Street house was completed, repairs were needed.  And there was no better time to have noisy and obtrusive repairs done than when the house was vacant.

With only a diminished household staff in the mansion, the workmen easily moved from room to room.   Among them was a stone mason helper, 18-year old Albert Beegklin.  The temptation of being surrounded by unprotected valuables was too much for the teen.

On Monday evening, August 4, 1913 John Iselin returned to the city for a business meeting.  The New York Times reported “When he went to his bedroom he found that a gold watch, a gold cigar lighter, and a gold match box had been stolen.”

Lieutenant Detective Tiche questioned the domestic staff and the workmen one-by-one.  Finally, said The Times, “his suspicions fell on Beegklin who, the detective says, is at present on suspended sentence for stealing a $250 diamond ring from a Brooklyn doctor last May.”

Tiche and Beegklin went to the boy’s home in Brooklyn where the stolen items were found hidden in the bathroom.  Although Beegklin had managed to smuggle out the expensive items; he left much behind.  “Mr. Iselin said the thief overlooked $10,000 worth of jewelry in a jewel box in the same bureau,” reported the newspaper.

As the United States entered World War I socialites turned their attention to war relief and some millionaires donated vehicles and supplies.  John H. Iselin went a step further.  On September 24, 1918 the New-York Tribune announced that he had been accepted as a candidate to attend the Field Artillery Central Officers’ Training School at Camp Zachary Taylor, Kentucky.  His valiant gesture proved unnecessary as peace was declared less than two months later, on November 11.

In September the following year the Iselins moved to No. 1042 Madison Avenue, selling the 79th Street house to Norman Hezekiah Davis and his wife, the former McPherson (known as Mackie) Paschall.  The couple had eight children, all of whom shared the same middle name of Paschall.

Davis had amassed millions of dollars as a banker in Cuba and held the position of president of the Trust Company of Cuba, from 1902 through 1917.  He returned to the states during World War I when he was appointed financial adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury on foreign loans.  When the Davis family moved into No. 59 East 79th Street he had just returned from Europe; having been sent there as Foreign Emissary.

Within a few months he would be back again, traveling to the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919 with President Woodrow Wilson as the President’s financial advisor.  Davis would continue to serve Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Under-Secretary of State and Acting Secretary of State.

In the meantime Mackie and the children carried on the lifestyles expected of Manhattan’s elite.  The family’s summer estate was in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and two years after moving into the 79th Street house the first of the several debutante entertainments began here. 

Norman and McPherson (Mackie) Davis -- photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

On December 27, 1921 Mackie gave a reception for Martha, who was home from Vassar for the holidays.  While the announcement in the New-York Tribune gave the event little notice, the New York Herald noted that about “a thousand friends paid their compliments” over the course of the afternoon.

Over the next two decades the home would be the scene of repeated debutante entertainments and wedding receptions as one-by-one the Davis children reached adulthood and married.  Typical of these was the dance held in the house on December 18, 1928 for daughter Mary, who had been introduced at a reception earlier in the week.  Among the more than 300 guests were family friends Charles Dana Gibson and his wife, John D. Rockefeller III, and Nelson A. Rockefeller; and among the “young people” were names like Maria Sloan Auchincloss, Cornelia Van Rensselaer, and August Belmont, Jr.

Although some of the Davis weddings took place in fashionable St. George’s Church (in April 1930 The Times said that the church was “transformed to represent a garden of yellow springs flowers” for Mary’s wedding to John Clarkson Potter); some, like Martha’s in 1931 and Sarah’s in 1936, were held in the 79th Street house.

In the meantime, Norman Davis continued to be invaluable to United States Presidents, serving Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt.  He earned the unique title of Ambassador at Large “with a roving assignment in Europe”in 1936 under President Franklin Roosevelt, as described by the New York Times.

The schedule of entertainments, political meetings and society receptions was interrupted in April 1935 for a much different meeting in the house.  Neighbors appointed Norman H. Davis chairman of a committee to fight the intrusion of a motion picture theater on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 79th Street.   Well-heeled homeowners gathered in the Davis house to plot their attack.  The New York Times reported on April 24 “Militantly organized against what they term ‘an unwarranted invasion of one of the few remaining strictly high-class residential sections of the city,’ they will voice their objections.”

The newspaper noted “Members of the committee said construction of a picture theatre ‘with consequent noise, garish lighting and continuing come and go of the taxicabs’ would ‘at once disastrously change the quiet tone of the neighborhood.’”

In addition to his many other responsibilities, on April 12, 1938 President Roosevelt appointed Davis to the post of Chairman of the American Red Cross.  The President said at the time he “saw no reason any Mr. Davis’s duty with that organization should interfere with his duties as Special Ambassador at Large and adviser to the State House on European affairs.”

What it did mean, however, was that living in New York shortly was no longer feasible.  While they retained their Stockbridge summer home, the Davises moved to Alexandria, Virginia in 1941.  Only a few months later Mackie died there, on March 7, 1942.

With the Davises gone, the fate of the Manhattan mansion was sealed.  That same year the 79th Street house was converted to apartments.  Later a doctor’s office was installed on the ground floor.   Although it could stand a serious cleaning; the Iselin mansion is little changed on the exterior.  It survives among a row of other homes of wealthy New Yorkers who demolished pairs of middle-class houses to erect lavish residences.

photographs by the author


  1. Thank you, your detailed history and the way you laid it out made me feel that i was traveling back in a time machine. I agree the building is beautifully done.