Monday, May 13, 2019

The Lost Henri M. Braem House - 15 East 36th Street


A stylish brougham with its top-hatted driver awaits at the curb in 1892.  The Architectural Record October 1892 (copyright expired)

In 1892 The Architectural Record commented "To Geo. B. Post belongs the honor of having erected the first strictly architectural terra cotta building in the City of New York.  This is located on the north side of West Thirty-sixth street, near Madison avenue."  The description was a bit misleading; since overall the house was clad in red brick.  Nonetheless, Post had liberally used the innovative material for it's lavish decorations nearly fifteen years before the article was written.

On October 1, 1877 Henri Monad Braem and his wife, the former Emily M. F. Bridge, purchased the property at No. 15 East 36th Street from millionaire David King, Jr.  Midway between the city's two most fashionable thoroughfares, Fifth and Madison Avenues, the site would give rise to an architecturally striking structure.

The Braems contracted George B. Post to design their new home.  He had recently designed the 10-story Western Union Telegraph Building downtown, often cited as the first skyscraper in Manhattan.  For the Braems he turned to the newly-appearing Queen Anne style.  It and the generous use of terra cotta decoration would result in an architecturally trailblazing design.

On February 2, 1878 The American Architect & Building News reported "Mr. George B. Post has...a notable private residence in hand, to be built at 15 East Thirty-sixth Street, for Mr. H. M. Braem, the Danish consul.  It occupies an ordinary lot, but from the front a porch of North River blue-stone will project some feet and give opportunity for some careful carving.  Moulded brick of the Peerless Brick Co. is liberally used, while large panels of terra-cotta ornament will be inserted beneath the window openings."

As the house rose, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide deemed it "remarkable" on September 28, 1878.  The Architectural Record focused on the panels, saying "The terra cotta for this building was made in Chicago by the man who in 1870 had been advised not to attempt to induce New York architects to use the material."  (Post had the panels manufactured in Chicago simply because there were no New York factories manufacturing the material yet.)

Title to the completed 25-foot wide residence was placed in Emily's name.  It had cost $30,000 to build, just under $780,000 today.  Four stories tall above the basement level, it was a delight of angles and shapes, colors and materials.  The entrance was deeply inset within the sheltering porch.  The second and third floors featured an angled bay to one side.  It was here that the use of terra cotta was most noticeable.  The fourth floor took the shape of an elaborate mansard with a French-style oeil-de-boeuf window and a fantastic faceted tower from which tall dormers burst forth.
The design's finishing touch was the finial at the tip of the conical tower. Originally the vacant side yard led to the Braem carriage house at the rear.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Henri and Emily had been married on January 15, 1862.  Not only was Henri a member of his stepfather's firm, Edward Bech & Co., but was the Danish Consul.  (Coincidentally or not, Edward Bech's father had also held that position.)   Highly respected, he was a member of the exclusive Union and Knickerbocker Clubs, and a vestryman in Trinity Church.  

The Braems, who had two daughters, Pauline and Josephine, summered at their Lenox estate, Ethelwyn.  It was considered one of the most beautiful mansions in the resort community and it was there, more than in the townhouse, that the Braems most lavishly entertained.  Near the estate Henri also owned a large farm.  The Press said on August 31, 1890 "his famous herd of Jersey cattle is not surpassed by any in this country."


Ethelwyn cost Braem more than $2.8 million in today's dollars to built.  The Press, August 31, 1890 (copyright expired)
New York and Lenox society were unaware that Henri Braem harbored a dark secret.  He had become romantically obsessed with a woman within the top tier of society.  It would result in the demolition of his reputation.

In 1881 the massively wealthy August Belmont, a fellow Union Club member, received an anonymous letter written in a woman's handwriting which greatly unnerved him.  A few weeks later another arrived, and then another.   The New-York Tribune later said that the harassing letters "disturbed and distressed [the Belmont family] greatly."

After "having exhausted his own resources as a detective," explained the New-York Tribune on December 17, 1884, Belmont hired a professional investigator.  He had the letters analyzed by a handwriting expert, who confirmed they had been written by a woman, most likely a "copyist."  (Copyists were paid to make untidy correspondence more professional and free of misspellings and grammar errors.  Or, in this case, to disguise the identity of the author.)

It took the detective three years to track down the woman, who "freely professed herself the amanuensis in the case, but professed entire ignorance as to who her employer was."   She asserted that her anonymous employer arrived with letters, left with both the copies and originals, and paid cash.  The detective, therefore, staked out her house and waited for the culprit.  And it was Henri M. Braem who showed up.

Upon receiving the news the indignant and irate August Belmont stormed off to Braem's office in December 1884.  Trapped, Braem admitted that it was he who had composed the years of scurrilous letters.  Belmont chose not to air the scandalous details of the case, which apparently included extramarital dalliances with the unnamed woman by both men.  The New-York Tribune noted on December 17, "Those who are known to be friendly with Mr. Belmont assert that he has expressed a disinclination to push the matter any further."

Indeed, there was no need to.  Belmont's revenge cut even deeper than any punishment that could be accomplished in court.  As he stood before Braem's desk that day he demanded a written confession, and that Braem resign from his clubs, and from his position as a Trinity vestryman.  In a single stroke he had ruined Braem's reputation and social standing.

Newspapers city-wide reported on the scandal.  The refusal of neither Belmont nor Braem to disclose further details resulted in a single unanswered detail.  The World wrote "And so Henri M. Braem was driven out of New York, and all the town learned why--though it did not learn about the woman."


The World depicted the moment the copyist pointed out Henri Braem to the detective from her window.  February 18, 1900 (copyright expired)
The humiliated Braems put on a brave face and attempted valiantly to participate in New York and Lenox society.  The World would comment decades later, "The disgraced broker flattered himself that by putting on a bold front he and the family would find life endurable on his beautiful Lenox property."

On September 19, 1888, for instance, The World reported on "Gay Times at Lenox," and noted "Saturday Henry M. Braem, the Danish consul, gives an oyster supper."

Just one week later, on September 25, the city house was nearly lost.  At 10:00 that night a massive explosion occurred which was heard two blocks away.  The Evening World reported "when Policeman Gerrity went to the spot he found the house in darkness, all the window glass broken and gas pouring from every outlet.

"The heavy doors were blown off their hinges, the staircase was partly torn away, the chandelier lay in ruins on the floor and all the china and bric-a-brac was broken."

When the reporter arrived the following morning, workers were covering the furniture and undamaged paintings.  "All the pretty glass widows had disappeared and a carpenter was measuring the staircase for a new balustrade...Upon opening the door of the extension a pile of wreckage came into view."

Wealthy families rarely left their town homes unguarded during the summer months, and Edouard Ducas, "the steward," had been inside the residence.  The World said he "is recovering from his injuries, and will be all right again in a few days.  He has several ugly cuts about the face and hands."


The wooden make-shift ramp over the curb must have created a challenge for both the horses and carriage.  The Architectural Record October 1892 (copyright expired)
The repairs were made in time for the children's party "and Christmas tree" Emily held On December 31.

Although the Braems continued to be invited to important social affairs--they were present at Emily Vanderbilt Sloane's debut in 1893, for instance--they spent less and less time in America.  On April 21, 1895 The World reported that Emily and the girls had left for Europe "to renew their energies."  They would remain there, said the article, until late in the autumn."

Six months later, on October 7, The Evening Telegram announced "The marriage of Miss Josephine Braem, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henri M. Braem, who have one of the prettiest homes at Lenox, to Lieutenant Leo Paur von Budahegy, of the American Artillery, will be celebrated in Vienna on the 21st."

The following year, on October 4, 1896 The World reported "Mr. and Mrs. Henri M. Braem and family, of No. 15 East Thirty-sixth street, are among the New Yorkers who will be socially missed this season.  Their town house and Lenox house are leased for several years.  Mr. and Mrs. Braem went abroad in the early summer with the intention of remaining indefinitely."  The article noted "Mr. and Mrs. Braem prefer to live on the other side."

In 1897 the Braems knew they would not be returning to Lenox.  The New York Press reported in March "The beautiful country place of Henri M. Braem, Ethelwynde, has been purchased by Mrs. Robert Winthrop of New York for $70,000."  The sale price was around $2.2 million in today's money.

A cable arrived at the offices of the New-York Daily Tribune on April 25, 1899 from Vienna.  It notified New York society that Pauline had been married a week earlier to Georg von Nauendorff.  The subsequent article mentioned "Mr. and Mrs. Braem, with their daughter, have been living in Austria for the last three years."

It appears that the Braems were little heard of until the arrival of another telegram, this one to The New York Times on February 12, 1900.  The newspaper reported "A cable message was received in this city Monday announcing the death in Vienna of Henri M. Braem, for many years Danish Consul General in New York.  Mr. Braem had been in delicate health for several weeks, but his death, which resulted from pneumonia, was comparatively sudden."

Writing in The World, theatrical producer David Belasco was less kind and more dramatic.  "The cable tells us briefly that he died suddenly in Vienna the other day of pneumonia. But...this death is dramatically superfluous, since he died when August Belmont made him sign those letters sixteen years ago."

The following year, on May 1, Emily Braem sold the 36th Street house to inventor and manufacturer of printing machines, Robert Hoe.  The millionaire had helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Grolier Club, a society organized for lovers of books.  

At the time of the purchase the neighborhood was changing.  In 1905 Tiffany & Company erected its magnificent white marble store steps away at the corner of Fifth Avenue and the following year, one block to the south, the massive B. Altman Department Store was completed.  Hoe may have purchased the Braem house merely to protect the block; his 50-foot wide mansion sat two houses away at No. 11.

Robert Hoe died in London on September 22, 1909.  It took four days to auction off his private library of nearly 21,000 titles.   


In 1912 the headquarters of the china firm Haviland & Co. rose on the site of Robert Hoe's mansion.  Two houses away the Braem house is still intact.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.
Altered, the Braem house survived until 1940 when it and the properties on either side were demolished for an eight-story apartment house.


photo via streeteasy.com

1 comment:

  1. I love the delightful angles on this beautiful house. And a fascinating story. Mr. Braem may have had bad judgement but he had good taste! The house next door looks intriguing too.

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