Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Henry J. Harper House -- No. 125 East 38th Street

photo via Google Streetview

In 1865 the two newly-completed houses at the northwest corner of 38th Street and Lexington Avenue reflected the comfortable financial conditions of Murray Hill residents.  No. 314 Lexington Avenue, the home of the L. A. Milbank family, was three stories tall above the basement level and boasted a stylish mansard roof like its abutting neighbors to the north.  Directly behind it was the home of Robert Porter and his family, at No. 125 East 38th Street; described by one newspaper as a "four-story high stoop brownstone dwelling."

The addresses continued to be home to socially-visible families throughout the 19th century.  Benjamin F. Watson and his wife lived at No. 314 Lexington for at least two decades, until around 1896.  Mrs. Watson was highly involved in charitable events, her name appearing regularly in the social columns.  No. 125 was owned by the wealthy widow of Prescott Hall Butler around the turn of the century (Butler died in 1901).

The configuration of the two houses would have been similar to these, one block to the north, although altered for business when this shot was taken.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

But the Lexington Avenue corner fell from favor for upscale families when the Independent Rapid Transit began excavation for its subway line.  Both houses saw a regular succession of renters; although neither appears to have been converted to a boarding house.

By 1915, when architect Chester H. Aldrich of the esteemed firm Delano & Aldrich, leased No. 125 East 38th Street from Mrs. Prescott Hall Butler, the house had lost its stoop; now described as a "five-story residence."

A more significant alteration was made five years later when the house was purchased by the British Government and converted to the British War Veterans' clubhouse.  It was officially opened by Sir Aukland Geddes, British Ambassador to the United States on Saturday, October 29, 1921.  The New York Herald noted "The clubhouse...has living quarters for the men in addition to recreation and reading rooms.  A club canteen is also a feature of the new clubhouse."

At its opening the club already had 950 members.  The Herald explained "The organization includes several veterans of the Boer war and the Indian fighting, as well as veterans of the world war."

In the meantime, publisher Henry Sleeper Harper was well-known in publishing and in New York society.  The grandson of one of the founders of Harper & Brothers, he lived a few blocks south at No. 133 East 21st Street.  As unsinkable as Molly Brown, he had survived the sinking of a ship which collided with an iceberg off the Grand Banks around 1902.   A decade later the incident would repeat itself in an unsettling case of deja vu.

Harper and his wife, Myra, toured Europe and Asia in 1911, taking along their Pekinese dog, San Yat-Sen.  While they visited Cairo, Harper hired an interpreter-guide named Hammad Hassab.  Obviously pleased with their Egyptian helper, Henry Harper hired him as a full-time servant.

In April 1912 the trio headed back to New York City.  They boarded the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France.  (Myra's pet did not get a free passage--the Pekinese dog had ticket number 869.)

Exactly as had happened ten years earlier, Harper was jolted by the collision of the Titanic with an iceberg early on the morning of April 15.  Instructed to put on warm clothing, Henry put an overcoat over his dinner clothes and Myra donned a black fur over her dinner gown.

The couple, along with Hammad Hassab, boarded Lifeboat 3, along with little San Yat-Sen.  They were rescued by the Carpathia around 6:00 that morning.  Later, after Harper was asked about the dog being brought onto the lifeboat, he replied "There seemed to be lots of room and nobody made any objection."

By the time the British War Veterans opened their 38th Street clubhouse, Myra's health was poor.  After a prolonged illness, she died on November 14, 1923.  Less then eight months later, on July 8, 1924, the 60-year old Harper quietly married Anne W. Hopson.

Despite the Lexington Avenue subway and the increasing commercialization of the avenue, the Murray Hill neighborhood retained its affluent reputation.  In 1926, the same year a son was born to the the couple, Harper commissioned architect Herbert Lucas to convert the two vintage houses on the corner of 38th Street to a single, lavish mansion.

Completed the following year, the structure was a marriage of neo-Classical and Art Deco styles.  An ambitious entryway on 38th Street flaunted a broken pediment, fluted pilasters and a somewhat over-sized cartouche.  Jazzy geometric lintels graced the upper openings.  The old carriage house was incorporated into the design as an extension.

The former carriage house was incorporated into the new mansion.  photo via Google Streetview

The Lexington Avenue entrance was preserved, no doubt, as the service entrance.  However, surprisingly in November 1928 when Henry Harper signed a petition objecting to incursion of business on Lexington Avenue within the restricted Murray Hill district, he used No. 314 Lexington Avenue as his address.

Henry Jr. studied at Phillips Exeter Academy and then, at the age of 18, he enrolled in Cornell University where, according to The New York Times, he "is undergoing naval training."  His father had been ill for about two years at the time.  On March 1, 1944 Henry Sleeper Harper died at the age of 79 in the 38th Street house.

Anne remained in the mansion for another six years.  Henry Jr. had served in the Navy during World War II and was now employed by the Federal Government in Washington DC.  In January 1951 Henry's engagement to Elizabeth Clay was announced.  Following the wedding, Anne Harper moved into the couple's home in Alexandria, Virginia.

photo by Carl Forster, 2001, courtesy the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association

The following year, on September 22, The American Institute of Management announced it had purchased the Harper mansion, "and plans to use it for its national headquarters."  The group was a non-profit organization founded in 1948 "to help solve the problem of raising management efficiently by the process of comparative analysis," according to The Times.

The Institute converted the interiors to offices, with a duplex apartment on the third and fourth floors.  Department of Buildings permits noted "The apartment is to be occupied by an officer of the American Institute of Management."

By 2013 the house had become home to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations.   Sometime after 2000 the mansard roof was removed and the top floor extended to full height.   The Harper house survives mostly intact since its 1927 make-over; a a delightful and unexpected surprise.

Apologies for the poor quality photographs in this post.  The Harper House has been obstructed by sidewalk scaffolding for an extended period at the time of this writing.


  1. Perhaps Harper's iceberg encounters were 20 years apart, instead of 10?