Friday, August 19, 2016

The Henri Wertheim Mansion -- No. 4 East 67th Street



In 1881 the four high-end brownstone homes at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street architects were completed.  Designed by Lamb and Rich, The New York Times called them “the highest grade houses offered for sale on Fifth Avenue.”  Millionaire Herman O. Armour quickly purchased the corner house at No. 856 Fifth Avenue; while Wallace Corydon Andrews purchased No. 2 East 67th Street.

Andrews’s story was Horatio Alger-worthy.  Born on a farm in Vienna, Ohio, he “began life without a penny,” according to a Washington DC newspaper later.   He and his brother used their saved money to start out in the coal business in the Mahoning Valley.  They later moved on to railroads; and by the time Wallace moved to New York City he was associated with the Standard Oil Company.

By he purchased the 67th Street house he was the president of the Standard Gaslight Company and a director in at least six others.  Andrews had married the former Margaret Marsh St. John, and as the turn of the century neared they shared the mansion with Margaret’s brother, C. G. St. John and his family.

In the spring of 1899 C. G. St. John was on a business trip in Wilmington, Delaware.  At around 2:00 on the morning of April 6 there was a gas explosion in the basement of the Andrews mansion.  The following day the Evening Times of Washington DC succinctly reported “This magnificent palace proved a deathtrap.”

Two servants jumped to escape the inferno; but the fall proved fatal to both.  When the blaze was extinguished three hours later, the bodies of Wallace and Margaret were found “locked in each other’s arms.”  Firefighters found Georgia St. John “kneeling over her baby’s crib, dying,” reported the DC newspaper.  She was carefully taken through a window to a ladder, but “when the policemen reached the street they found that Mrs. St. John was dead.”

By dawn the bodies of the St. John children, 7-year old Austin, 3-year old Wallace and 13-month old Fred were recovered.  All 12 persons in the house, including the four other servants, perished. 

In October the following year developer W. W. Hall purchased the property for $108,500.  William and Thomas Hall were developers well-known for the speculative mansions they erected in the Fifth Avenue district.  They apparently changed their minds on this project, however, and on November 12, 1900 The Tammany Times reported “Mr. H. B. Wertheim will build another fine mansion on the site of the late Wallace C. Andrews’ ill-fated residence, 2 East Sixty-seventh Street.”

Henri B. Wertheim -- Prominent and Progressive Americans, 1902 (copyright expired)

Henri B. Wertheim’s architect John H. Duncan filed plans for a “five-story brick dwelling.”  But in actuality, the heavy use of limestone to embellish the façade was such that finding the beige brick in the completed edifice was a bit of a challenge.  Henri and his wife, Clara, moved into their new palace in 1902.  The total cost, including the plot, was nearly $200,000—about $5.7 million in 2016.

Duncan’s busy Beaux Arts design bustled with architectural activity.  At the base, headless pilasters with ornamented fluting were connected by planar blocks.  At the second story a full-width limestone balcony fronted French doors set within concave arches filled with dripping carved garlands.  Their keystones, adorned with flaming torches and vines, supported a smaller balcony at the third floor.  Massive stone urns sat upon the cornice, above which rose the mansard attic with its lush copper ocular windows and cresting.

The Architectural Record, June 1903 (copyright expired)

Architectural critic Herbert Croly was not especially pleased.  “The entrance,” he wrote, “is extremely forbidding and insignificant and does not count anywhere near as much as it should.  Neither can the architect be congratulated on the use of his materials.  The light colored brick that is employed has the advantage for this kind of a building of neither brick nor stone, and it is so smothered by the stone that it can barely be considered as in any telling sense a brick building, while on the other hand the stonework itself presents a patched and restless appearance.”

Born in Amsterdam in 1872 the son of a wealthy banker, Wertheim was a broker in the firm J. & W. Seligman.  In 1903, only a year after moving into their new home, Clara died in childbirth. 


That same year the daughter of Henry Seligman, Gladys, was introduced to society.  The prodigious girl had been the youngest student ever admitted to Byrn Mawr College—entering at the age of 15.  She had traveled worldwide with her parents and spoke French, Italian and German.  On February 14, 1904 The New York Times described her as a “very tall slight young girl, and carries herself well.  Her hair is very light brown with a golden tinge, and is worn on the top of her head in loose masses.  Her large dark-blue eyes are shaded by unusually long black lashes.  Her complexion is fair and delicate, with pink-tinted cheeks, and her nose is a decided retrousse.”

It was possibly Gladys’ turn-up nose that caught Henri Wertheim’s eye.  The two were married in the Seligman mansion in April 1905.  The first of the couple's daughters, Katherine, was born on March 26, 1906.

Considering the tragic history of No. 2 East 67th Street, it was perhaps fitting that on May 27, 1907 Henri P. Wertheim notified Fire Commissioner Lantry that he would give the Fire Department an annual gold medal for bravery.  The millionaire explained to the Commissioner “that there was no special reason for his making such an offer other than he thought the department an especially efficient body of men and that he might set a good example to other citizens and inspire them to show their appreciation of the men.”  The medal was awarded every September to the fire fighter who exhibited the most conspicuous record of bravery in the past 12 months.

Little by little the family spent more time in Paris and less in New York.  On July 22, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the 24-room house with its artwork and furnishings had been leased to Frederick Lewisohn.  A copper magnate, Lewisohn merged with H. H. Rogers and William Rockefeller to form the Amalgamated Copper Company.  He paid Wertheim $15,000 a year rent on the 67th Street mansion—a little more than $32,000 a month in 2016.

The Lewisohns were still here in 1914; but by 1917 the family of F. Grand D’Hauteville was leasing the house.  By now Henri Wertheim had legally changed his name by adding his mother’s maiden name to his.  In 1914 he became Henri P. Wertheim van Heukelom.

In October 1919 Gladys W. Ziegler moved into the mansion.  Her husband, William Ziegler was away on a hunting trip.  Ziegler, the son of a baking powder manufacturer, had inherited several million dollars from his father’s estate.  Henri Wertheim van Heukelom had not raised the rent since Frederick Lewisohn signed his lease in 1911.   Nevertheless, it would become a legal issue between Gladys and her landlord.  She moved out in January 1920 without paying her December rent.

Three months later Henri took Gladys Ziegler to court.  She told the judge she moved out before the end of the lease and refused to pay the rent “because the landlord failed to keep his agreement to install a certain kind of lighting fixture.”

The headaches of being a long-distance landlord may have proved too much; or possibly by now the Wertheim van Heukelom family realized they would never return to East 67th Street.  Either way, in February Henri, listing his permanent address as Paris, sold the house to Felix Isman, Inc.  In reporting on the sale the Record & Guide noted “The house contains a squash court.”

On March 15 an auction of the contents of the mansion was held in the Plaza Art Rooms.   The New-York Tribune announced “Among the objects to be exhibited are Renaissance and Flemish tapestries ecclesiastical vestments, Italian Renaissance refectory tables, Aubusson and needlework tapestry suits, satinwood consoles, desks and commodes of the French Renaissance period, rare china, bronze and crystal candelabra and several pieces of Louis XVI bedroom furniture.”

In July Felix Isman, Inc. resold the house to James C. Dunn for $205,000.  But he, too, resold it rather quickly.  It became home to the family of former New York Governor Nathan L. Miller in 1923.  While the mansion saw social entertainments like dinners, teas and receptions; it was also the scene of regular political meetings.

But despite the many political big-wigs who came and went, Nathan Miller lived in a decidedly feminine atmosphere.  Besides his wife and five daughters, Miller’s mother-in-law, Mrs. James Davern lived in the house.   The family maintained a summer estate, Norwich House, in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

The first to leave 67th Street was Margaret.  Her engagement to George Bogart Blakeley was announced on April 14, 1925 and the marriage took place the following summer.  It was a quiet ceremony, due to the death of her grandmother, Mrs. Davern, who died in the 67th Street house of pneumonia on March 10, 1926.

Two weeks before Marian Miller was married to Marcel Pierre Labourdette of Paris in Oyster Bay in July 1928, the engagement of her sister, Elizabeth, was announced.   A year filled with wedding plans and social entertainments was marred by a heated court battle.

Developer Michael E. Paterno, well-known for his construction of apartment buildings, had acquired the Fifth Avenue properties at the corner, abutting No. 2 East 67th Street.  His designed placed the entrance around the corner, rather than on the avenue.  With no 67th Street addresses available, he filed to the rights to take No. 2.  The former Governor fought back.

Paterno argued that, technically, his property engulfed four lots on the side street, entitling him to the address.  On September 23, 1928 the courts temporarily maintained “the right of former Governor Nathan I. Miller to keep as his residential address 2 East Sixty-seventh Street,” reported The Times.

That changed in February 1930 when Paterno finally obtained the rights to the address.  Manhattan Borough President Julius Miller announced that Nathan Miller had acquiesced.  He told reporters it was “through the kindness and courtesy of ex-Governor Miller in voluntarily giving his consent, that the number was changed.”

It was most likely neither kindness nor courtesy that prompted Miller to surrender his address.  He simply did not need it anymore.  With their daughters rapidly leaving, the Millers leased a 14-room apartment at No. 625 Park Avenue.  In March they sold the mansion to George E. Coleman and his wife, the former Henrietta Mataran.

Like the Millers, the country estate of the Colemans was on Long Island; theirs being in Millneck.  The couple had one son, George Jr.  With them in the 67th Street house was Coleman’s unmarried sister, Frances.  It was Frances Coleman who was most visible in social and charity events.  She was highly active in the Save-A-Life-Farm, a child shelter facility and camp in Nyack, New York.

Frances’s social prominence over her brother was such that when their sister, Mrs. Etienne de Hedry, arrived from Budapest in 1938 newspapers reported that she would “spend several weeks with her sister, Miss Frances Coleman.”

And the snub continued when their other sister, Emma, now the Viscountess d’Alte, was staying with the family in 1940.   That same year Mariska de Hedry arrived for an extended visit.  George and Henrietta were completely overlooked when on February 16 The New York Times announced “Tonight Miss Frances Coleman and her sister, Viscountess d’Alte, will give a dinner at their home, 4 East Sixty-seventh Street, for their niece, Miss Mariska de Hedry, daughter of the former Hungarian Ambassador to Belgium, and some of her young friends.

And so it went.  On April 21 The Times reported that Mariska “will give a tea on Tuesday at the home of her aunt, Miss Frances Coleman, for a group of younger members of society.”

Henrietta Coleman died in 1949, followed four years later by George on April 19, 1953.  Frances remained in the mansion, turning her charity focus to the American Women’s Unit for War Relief.  As president, she hosted teas and luncheons.  Her entertainments continued through the early 1960s.  She had moved to No. 104 East 68th Street by August 1967, when she died at the age of 86 in Bar Harbor, Maine.

By now the 67th Street mansion had sprouted a fire escape.  The residence next door at No. 6 had become the Cuban Mission to the United States.  In 1968 Cuban extremists planned a terrorist attack on the Mission.  On October 28 The New York Times revealed that 24-year old Carlos Fernandez “had agreed to enter the Cuban Mission…armed with a pistol equipped with a silencer.  There he was to have shot and killed all employes and officers and then removed records ‘and other property,’ the indictment said.”  That plot never played out; however a bomb was exploded on the fire escape of the former Coleman mansion.

In September 1973 the Japanese Government purchased the 30-foot wide mansion from George E. Coleman, Jr. for about $450,000.  It continues as the residence of the Japanese Consul General.  Other than the fabric canopy which protects visitors from the elements, and urns and lions added to the areaway wing walls, little has changed to the mansion that stands on the site of unspeakable tragedy.

photographs by the author

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