Thursday, January 3, 2019

The George E. Underhill House - 135 East 36th Street




In 1852 Madison Road (later Madison Avenue) extended northward as far as 42nd Street.  Wealthy New Yorkers were abandoning the exclusive residential enclaves of a generation earlier--like the Bond Street and St. John's Park neighborhoods--and erecting fine homes further north.  That year John Jay Phelps, Isaac N. Phelps and William E. Dodge purchased the eastern block front on Madison between 36th and 37th Street and began construction of three impressive brownstone mansions with shared gardens and stables.

The homes helped sparked the rise of other upscale residences in Murray Hill district.  Around 1856 builder Thomas Kilpatrick erected a row of five high-end homes on the north side of East 36th Street between Lexington and Fourth (later Park) Avenues.  Born in Ireland and educated in England, Kilpatrick was a skilled architect.  For these houses he turned to the currently popular Italianate style.

No. 135 was the most desirable of the row, its corner location providing extra light and ventilation to the rooms inside.  Four stories tall above a rusticated English basement, it was 20-feet wide and stretched 75 feet down Lexington Avenue.  The side elevation was clad in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  Here a two-story faceted oriel clung to the parlor and second floors.

The commodious residence was purchased by James Uglow.   Born in 1828, the young doctor and his wife, the former Louise Ross, would have two children, William Ross and Kate.  When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Uglow was appointed Assistant Surgeon of the 43rd New York Volunteers.  On January 30, 1864 he was honorably discharged from that position after he accepted the appointment to Surgeon of the 26th U. S. Colored Troops.

The heroic physician would never return to New York City.  On March 27, 1865, 15 days before peace was declared, he died in Beaufort, South Carolina at the age of 37.

The family had left No. 135 several years earlier.  By 1863 it was home to the Huson Langstroth family.  Langstrong's wife was the former Abbey E. Wade.   Living with them was Abbey's brother, John R. L. Wade.

The couple was highly involved in civic and social work.  Huson was assistant superintendent of the Kips Bay School on East 37th Street between Second and Third Avenues, and both were life-members in the New York City Missionary Society (obtained by paying a one-time $20 fee).

Their five-year-old son, John, died in the house on June 9, 1863.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Only two months later, on August 3, John Wade died at the age of 44.  Once again a funeral was held in the house.

Maintaining a house the size of No. 135 required several servants.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on February 28, 1871 sought "Two colored girls; one to cook, wash and iron; the other as chambermaid and waitress."   The first position was open again three years later, but the want ad on October 5, 1874 was no longer race specific.  "Wanted--A girl to cook, wash and iron; must have good city reference."

It was most likely the Austin family who placed the advertisements.  L. W. Austin and his wife, Charlotte, owned the house by the late 1870's.  Following Charlotte's death the family sold it to real estate operator Charles P. Murray on December 24, 1880 for $20,000--about $495,000 today.

Murray leased the house to esteemed architect J. Morgan Slade and commissioned him to make upgrades.  The 1881 plans called for a three-story extension on Lexington Avenue and "interior alterations."

Slade would not occupy the residence for long.  He died on December 5, 1882 at just 29-years old.  Despite his young age he had made a mark on Manhattan architecture.  On December 9 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide said "he was one of the best known architects in this city being particularly identified with the erection of large buildings in the dry goods district."

Lexington Avenue, once lined with upscale homes, was quickly transforming into a commercial thoroughfare.  For decades J. P. Morgan would battle to keep his Murray Hill neighborhood quietly residential by buying up homes.  He then leased them to upscale families.  His increasingly vast holdings assured the houses would not be converted to business or broken up into apartments.

By 1892 Morgan had purchased No. 135.  He leased it to his good friend William Church Osborn and his wife, the former Alice Clinton Hoadley Dodge.  Alice was the daughter of William E. Dodge, Jr., whose father had erected one of the 1852 Madison Avenue houses, the northern most of which was now home to Morgan.  Born in 1862, Osborn was he son of railroad tycoon and philanthropist William Henry Osborn.

William Church Osborn was given his middle name to honor his father's close friend artist Frederic Edwin Church.  Two of Church's masterpieces, The Andes of Ecuador and The Aegean Sea were owned by William H. Osborn.

The younger Osborn was a "gentleman," a term used by wealthy citizens who did not need nor care to have a profession.  He focused instead on philanthropy and civic roles.   He served as the presidents of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the Children's Aid Society, and of the New York Society for the Relief of Ruptured and Orphaned.  He and Alice had two children, Aileen (who would marry Vanderbilt Webb, great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1912), and Frederick, who would make his mark in the area of eugenics.

The East 36th Street house was routinely the scene of Alice's entertainments.  During the winter season of 1892-1893 she held receptions about every two weeks.  In May the couple retreated to their summer estate in Garrison-on-Hudson, New York.

Morgan made renovations again in 1898.  He hired architect Paul Frost, Jr. to enlarge the rear extension and again remodel the interiors.   Shortly afterward he leased the house to another intimate friend, Susan Warren, the widow of J. Kearney Warren, who had died in 1895 at the age of 74.

Susan was the daughter of Dr. Edward G. and Mary Lewis Ludlow.  The guest list of her "small reception" on the afternoon of January 11, 1908, reflected her social status.  The gathering was a celebration of the 80th birthday of her brother-in-law, T. Robinson Warren.  The New York Times noted "The invitations were limited to the Warren and Ludlow families and relatives and a few intimate friends."

Among those intimate friend were Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Mrs. Morgan Dix, Mrs. E. J. Phelps, and Dr. and Mrs. Francis Kinnicutt.  Susan's sister, the widow of E. Sherman Gould, wrote a poem which was read by her son, Francis Lewis Gould.  Susan presented the guest of honor with a silver loving cup.  After Susan Ludlow Gould presented Mr. Warren 80 carnations, "the guests all drank from the loving cup and ate of the big birthday cake."

Susan was understandably distressed when her beloved pet disappeared two months later.  On March 5, 1908 The Sun reported "Mrs. J. Kearney Warren of 135 East Thirty-sixth street reported...last night the loss of a Chinese spaniel which Mr. and Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr., gave her last Christmas.  The dog's name is Kng-Khi, which nobody in the station house could pronounce."  It is unclear whether the socialite's pooch was ever recovered.

Following Susan Ludlow Gould's marriage to Aldrich Durant in Trinity Chapel on April 20, 1911, her aunt hosted the reception in the 36th Street house.

Whispers among society suggested that the relationship between Susan Ludlow Kearney and J. P. Morgan went further than that of landlord-tenant or close friends.  In his 2001 book Watching Television Come of Age Jack Gould mentioned his father's favorite aunt, admitting "For many years 'Aunt Susie' was the reputed mistress of J. P. Morgan, Sr."

Morgan died on March 31, 1913.  Susan Ludlow Kearney seems to have left No. 135 almost immediately afterward.  In June the following year the Record & Guide reported that "he was a larger owner [of real estate] than was generally known."  At the time of his death he owned around 48 Murray Hill properties.  He had left No. 135 East 36th Street to his son, J, P. Morgan, Jr. who installed an elevator in the house a few months following his father's death.  At the time the house was assessed at $60,000--or about $1.38 million today.

Morgan retained possession at least through 1925 when he had the bottom half of the Lexington Avenue oriel was altered by architect Louis E. Ordwein.   During the Depression years, however, the house was woefully altered.  The molded window surrounds were shaved flat and the stone and brick was painted.

The photograph taken on July 30, 1946 by Wurts Bros. shows the loss of the architectural details.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The house became home to Juliana Cutting and her widowed sister, Mrs. Russell A. Hibbs.  The daughters of Walter and Maria Center Pomeroy Cutting, The New York Times remarked that they "belonged to a family which for generations had been prominent in the social life of New York."  Their grandfather was Robert Livingston Cutting, co-founder of the Continental Bank of New York and a president of the New York Stock Exchange.

Juliana, by now, was considered the "unquestioned authority on the arrangements for dances, dinners, luncheons, teas, weddings, [and] charity benefits," according to The Times.  In May 1924 she had opened a social secretarial office in two small rented rooms with one assistant.  Her reputation among high society was such that within two weeks she had hired a second assistant and before the year's end had hired six more and moved into a larger office.

Socialites flocked to her office as their daughters approached the age of their debuts into society.  She was consulted on the appropriate means of addressing invitations, of handling funerals arrangements, on what to wear for what occasion, how to correctly host a formal dinner or dance.

World War II caused a serious reduction in elaborate entertaining and in June 1942 Juliana closed her office on Madison Avenue and conducted business from her home on East 36th Street.  Then in 1943 she closed it altogether.  She died in the house on June 11 the following year.

The change J. P. Morgan, Sr. had so defiantly fought against finally arrived at No. 135 in 1953 when the basement became an apartment; and again in 1961 when the house was converted to apartments, one per floor.


In the first years of the 1990's the Republic of Namibia purchased that house as its Permanent Mission to the United Nations.  Following a devastating fire in 2004; a remarkable restoration, completed in 2016, brought back the missing architectural elements.  A floor was added and a new entrance with a glass elevator was added in the rear on Lexington Avenue.  The project won the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association's annual Architectural Preservation Award in 2016.

photographs by the author

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