James R. Breen and Alfred G. Nason started their partnership as "carpenters." By the early 1870s they had become full-fledged contractors who sometimes, although rarely, acted as their own developers and architects. Both men became wealthy and influential--Nason was a friend of Presidents Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. Among the structures built by Breen & Nason would be Grant's Tomb.
In 1879 they began construction on six rowhouses in the rapidly-developing Upper East Side just off Central Park. Four were on the south side of 66th Street, and two on the north side of 61st Street, all between Fifth and Madison Avenues.
When the plans were filed for the two 61st Street structures, The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide erroneously listed the owners as "Parsons & Breen." It may be that single error that sparked the misconception widely continued today that developer William B. Parsons, not Breen & Nason, owned the properties.
The following year, on March 6, 1880, the Record & Guide corrected its mistake. The journal sent a writer to the completed houses to investigate their quality. He was not disappointed.
"He found the basements all furnished in hardwood the first floor in mahogany, walnut and oak, the second floors also in hardwood and the third and fourth floors in pine." No. 15 East 61st Street, like its next door neighbor, was a luxurious 25-feet wide. The reported noted that they "have their entrances beautified with massive brown stone columns. The effect of this additional ornamentation adds enormously to the imposing and stylish appearance of these houses."
Upscale Victorian houses boasted lavish interior architectural elements including nearly floor-to-ceiling trumeau mirrors (or pier mirrors) in the parlor level. Breen & Mason had outdone themselves in this area.
"The parlors, rear parlors and extensive dining rooms, with their grand mirrors as well as the beautiful marble tiling of the halls, show that inside as well as outside, not only the design, but the effect, has been to construct first-class residences. In fact, it is but seldom that the display of mirrors, for instance, seen in these houses, is anywhere equaled, even in these times of building activity, where so many builders endeavor to overtop their competitors in the finish of their work."
The Record & Guide pointed out that Breen & Nason manufactured all the hardwood elements, including those mantels not made of marble. And "ample staircases" had been included to ensure that the servants and the "family proper" were sufficiently separated. The completed dwellings were offered for sale at $55,000--about $1.32 million today.
No. 15 East 61st Street became home to Susan Dyckman. The only child of William N. and Eliza A. Dyckman, hers was one of the oldest families in the city. Historian J. Thomas Scharf, in his 1886 History of Westchester County, New York, noted "The ancestor of this family was William Dyckman, who came from Holland in the early days of New Amsterdam."
Susan's mother died in April 1871, followed by her father five months later. Susan inherited the family's country house near Hastings, New York.
Another venerable New York family were the Requas, whose original French surname was Equerie. The first to arrive was Claude Equerie who arrived in 1682 alone at the age of 12. Both parents had died on the voyage.
During the Revolutionary War members of the Requa and Dyckman fought side by side. The two families maintained a close relationship which still survived. Susan Dyckman was intimate friends with Catherine Requa and her immediate family.
Perhaps to provide companionship, Catherine along with her husband and son, moved into the 61st Street house. Henry Milton Requa, who was born in Tarrytown and was a successful produce merchant.
Four years after moving into the house Henry, Jr., who went by Harry, entered Columbia University. Henry, Catherine and Susan (whom society columns referred to merely as "Miss Dyckman") came and went as a family. They arrived at summer resorts together and appear to have moved among society almost always as a trio.
In 1891 Susan commissioned architect P. J. Ryan to do minor interior renovations to the house--costing only $175, not much more than $4,500 today.
|Harry Requa graduated from Columbia University in 1887. By 1892 he seemed to have it all. Yearbook--Association of the Bar of the City of New York, 1896 (copyright expired)|
Things could not have looked better for Harry Requa in 1892. He had been admitted to the Association of the Bar three years earlier. At noon on May 21, he was married to Annie E. Sheldon, daughter of millionaire Isaac Sheldon, in St. Bartholomew's Church. The couple moved into No. 17 West 50th Street, just a block from the triple Vanderbilt mansions.
Then, at the age of 30, Harry died suddenly on July 28, 1896. Three years later, possibly as a tribute, Susan established the Susan Dyckman Scholarship in Zoology at his alma mater.
The door of No. 15 East 61st Street was hung in black crepe on the afternoon of Monday, November 20, 1899. Four days earlier Henry Requa suffered a fatal heart attack in the house at the age of 68. His funeral was held in the parlors the following Monday.
Susan and Catherine lived on together with Susan's staff of servants. After Catherine's mourning period of one year, the New-York Tribune noted that she and Susan had arrived at the Hotel Champlain near Plattsburgh, New York on July 13, 1901. The readers might have assumed that the two aging women watched rather than participated in the activities. "Of course," said the Tribune, "the diversion most popular even here, where a glorious sheet of water invites to row and sail and bathe and fish, is golf."
|Susan and Catherine spent the summer of 1901 at the swank Hotel Champlain.|
Susan Dyckman died in the 61st Street house "at more than eighty" according to The Sun, on February 5, 1901. She bequeathed about $30,000 in total to charities and various gifts of from $5,000 to $50,000 to "numerous friends." The bulk of her real estate and personal property, valued at more than $500,000 (or around $17.3 million today), went to Catherine.
The Sun reported "Miss Dyckman bequeathed her residence and its valuable contents, at 15 East Sixty-first street, to her companion and friend Catherine A. Requa for her life." Included was the Hastings country estate, "said to be worth $100,000."
The newspaper pointed out that Susan had no immediate family. "The nearest relatives of Miss Dyckman, besides her grandniece and grandnephew, are a number of cousins, scattered throughout the country."
That grandniece and grandnephew, Helen and William Dyckman, gave immediate notice that they would fight the will. Helen claimed that Susan "was unduly influenced in disposing of her estate." The Surrogate's Court disagreed and upheld the will.
That was not enough to keep a third cousin, Mary C. Bevers, from suing to overturn the will. In January 1905 she began proceedings that alleged "fraud and undue influence." Within months Susan's vast real estate holdings were ordered to be auctioned off.
No. 15 East 61st Street was owned by Harriet A. Buys when America's military left to fight in Europe. On July 2, 1917 a group headed by Mrs. William H. Hamilton opened the Navy Club at No. 409 Fifth Avenue. Two years later The Recruiters' Bulletin called it "the first club for enlisted men of the Navy and Marine Corps in the metropolis." The Bulletin added, "In the Autumn of the same year the house at 15 East 61st Street was donated to be used for dormitories."
Susan Dyckman's elegant rooms provided temporary housing for returning sailors, many of them on crutches or canes, who returned from the front. Between 90 and 100 men bunked there every night and, according to one sailor found it "the nearest thing to a home" since enlisting.
But six months after the war ended it all came to an end.
On April 6, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported "A large moving van yesterday afternoon stood in front of the house at 15 East Sixty-first Street while a couple of gobs leaned dejectedly against the doorway watching the removal of cots and chairs, ash stands and tables which had made the place home for the last year and a half."
'Gosh, where'll we go to-night?' asked one, hitching his trousers a peg higher."
Harriet A. Buys had sold the property at the worst possible time. The Tribune pointed out "Need for another house, for a period of six months at least, is imperative. The fleet is due in about a week, and hundreds of those men who helped get the army across will be looking for a place to go for the night."
Harriet had accepted an attractive offer from developers Worthington & Whitehouse who were eyeing the property as the site of an apartment house. The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide said that "Fifth avenue owners were interested in the announcement," pointing out that "in the immediate neighborhood are the homes of New York's wealthiest and most socially prominent residents."
Those prominent residents may have been responsible for the developers' changing their minds. Worthington & Whitehouse quickly resold the Dyckman house to Henry L. Batterman for $100,000 (about $1.37 million today). The Guide reported on May 17 that he "will alter it for his own occupancy."
Henry Lewis Batterman's father, also named Henry, had opened a dry goods store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn around the time of the Civil War. In 1881 he erected a large department store which grew to become on of the largest of its kind. In the 1890s he took his son into the business as vice president and general manager. The elder Batterman died in 1912.
Before moving into the 61st Street house Henry and his wife, the former Edith Whitney, hired architect Mott B. Schmidt to transform it into a modern residence. (Within a few years Schmidt would remodel a group of dingy brownstones on the far East Side into neo-Georgian mansions--the beginnings of what would become Sutton Place.)
For the Battermans he turned to a different but equally elegant historic style: English Regency. The five-story American basement mansion was glad in limestone. Its tripartite design was defined by a slightly projecting band above the ground floor and a cornice above the third. The austerely-sophisticated facade was dominated by the entrance, flanked in banded piers and crowned by an enthusiastic broken pediment.
|In 1922 the block was lined with equally handsome mansions. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Beatrice's debut came in December 1921. Her parents gave a ball at the Ritz-Carlton on December 26. Two years later her engagement to Robert Archibald Scott was announced. By the time Marian's engagement was announced in 1930 the family had been gone from the 61st Street mansion for five years.
The house was sold in April 1925 for $240,000 in what The New York Times said was "an all cash transaction." The purchasers were surprising. The second child of J. Theus Munds and his wife, the former Elsie Saltus, had been born only a few weeks earlier and they had only recently renovated their former home at No. 121 East 64th Street.
|Elsie and five-year old J. Theus, Jr. in 1925, the year they moved into the house. Edgar Saltus: the Man, by Marie Saltus, 1925|
The summer season in Newport was going well for Elsie that season. In July she was voted "to be the handsomest woman in the Summer colony," as reported by The Times. But trouble came days later when the son of millionaire Craig Biddle, George Drexel Biddle, was driving her automobile along Bellevue Avenue on the night of July 9.
Drunk, Biddle smashed into the rear of the Morton A. Weaver automobile. Both Weaver and his passenger, Marian Colinan, were seriously injured. Biddle was fined $500 and court costs for reckless driving, driving while intoxicated and driving without a license. Elsie fared far worse.
She was slapped with two suits totaling $70,000, nearly $950,000 today. Surprisingly, in 1926 The New York Times reported that the suit came to a "rather abrupt and unexpected end" when Marian Colinan withdrew her claim.
Elsie entertained often in the 61st Street house. Her teas and receptions often were connected with committee work, such as the Junior Committee of the South Women's Education Alliance on November 15, 1926. The women were involved in the afternoon performed of The Jewels of the Madonna at the Metropolitan Opera House to benefit that group.
On February 27, 1929 The New York Times reported that J. Theus Munds's aunt, Mrs. Robert Griggs Reese, had rushed to New York from her cottage in Augusta, Georgia. The newspaper said she came "to be at the bedside of Mr. and Mrs. Munds's 9-year old son, Theus Munds, Jr., who was operated on for appendicitis last Saturday."
Complications had set in and the boy's condition was considered "desperate." The article gave a glimmer of hope, however, saying that it was learned that "during the afternoon he took a turn for the better." That prognosis proved premature, however. The boy's condition worsened to pneumonia and he died on March 6.
Elsie traveled to Switzerland the following year to obtain a divorce from her husband. She married Henry de Gaspe Domville in her apartment at No. 784 Park Avenue on January 16, 1933. Interestingly, The Times noted that included among the guests was "the bride's former husband, J. Theus Munds."
Elsie retained ownership of the 61st Street house for more than a decade. In the meantime she divorced Domville on March 25, 1937 and married Gosta Tollius of Stockholm, Sweden in a Reno ceremony the following week.
Months after J. Theus and Elsie were divorced their mansion was renovated for Moriarty's restaurant. The Times described it as "a fashionable club...in a remodeled five-story white stone building." But the Prohibition era restaurant served more than caviar and lobster.
On April 17, 1931 the newspaper reported that Moriarty's had been raided. Fifty or sixty "patrons all in evening dress...dashed for the doors and windows and milled about excitedly." The article said "Many of the patrons fled into the Hotel Pierre which is directly opposite." Twelve employees and the manager were arrested and agents confiscated a quantity of liquor. The building was locked and sealed.
The restaurant became the Mansion House in October that year, another upscale club. The proprietors had learned nothing from the fate of Moriarty's. On February 8, 1932 agents raided the "alleged speakeasy" for the second time since its opening. Fourteen employees were arrested, charged with "maintaining a nuisance." Behind the bar agents had found whiskey and rum in gallon jugs.
|An understated coat check ticket from Marlborough House. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
By the end of Prohibition No. 16 East 61st Street had become the Marlborough House, yet another high-end nightclub. Patrons could now sip champagne and gin with no danger of being whisked off to jail.
|Waiters in white tie attend Marlborough House patrons in 1933. photo via gettyimages|
The period of nightclubs in the mansion ended in 1937 when a doctor's office and one apartment were installed on the ground floor, and the upper floors were converted to apartments. One of the tenants in 1950 was concert baritone Conrad Thibault who prompted a newspaper headline on July 5 that year that read "Too Hot for His Comfort."
With the outside temperature around 79 degrees, Thibault returned to his apartment at around 7:00 on Independence Day to find his radiators hissing with escaping steam. With the superintendent gone for the holiday, he turned to the police department.
Two emergency squad officers arrived and forced open the basement door. The boiler's automatic heating system, which was malfunctioning, was shut off. A newspaper noted "They estimated that the temperature in Mr. Thibault's apartment had reached 100 degrees."
In the early 1960s Joseph I. Lubin purchased the house next door at No. 11 East 61st Street as a gift to Syracuse University. When No. 15 became available in 1966 the university purchased it with the prospects of future expansion.
That expansion would not be pretty. On December 7, 1987 New York Magazine reported "The tenants at 15 East 61st Street, a townhouse across from the Pierre, are locked in a battle with Syracuse University officials. Tenants say the university is trying to evict them illegally from their rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments."
University spokesman Dan Forbush insisted "Rent-control laws allow the school to take over the property for educational purposes." The tenants' attorney, Hal Brodie, countered "A private upstate university shouldn't be allowed to evict longtime tenants so it can expand recruitment and fund-raising facilities in New York City."
The uncomfortable battle lasted until 1992 when the last of the tenants was removed. The school's website claims the building lacked "period charm and interesting details." The architectural firm of Swanke, Hayden and Connell was hired to rebuilt the interiors--removing the floors to sync them with No. 11, and joining the former houses internally.
While Mott B. Schmidt's neo-English Regency facade serves essentially as a front to a new structure; its presence is an elegant reminder of the time with millionaires populated the block.
photographs by the author