Monday, June 3, 2019

The Lost Elvira Brokaw McNair Mansion - 5-7 East 79th Street


The Architectural Record May 1917 (copyright expired)

Named after her mother, Elvira Brokaw lived amid sumptuous surroundings with brothers George, Howard and Irving in their family's French Renaissance style chateau on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.  The children of the massively wealthy Isaac Vail Brokaw, their home was among the most impressive in the city.

The mansion was the scene of Elvira's marriage on June 10, 1896.  It was a lavish affair, with a full choir and a throng of "fashionables" present.  The Sun noted "Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. Russell Sage, Mr. and Mrs. William Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. George J. Gould, and a host of others almost if not equally as well know."  The New York Times described the groom, attorney Carl Aage Vilhelm Fischer-Hansen, as a member of "an ancient and noble Danish family."  

Fischer-Hansen "delighted in trying criminal cases for poor defendants," said The Sun later.  So his father-in-law supported the newlyweds.  "The Brokaw family, it was understood, arranged his finances so that he did not have to worry much about fees," explained the newspaper.

But Elvira, reared in a family of spotless reputation, would soon suffer unfamiliar humiliation.  "It was not long before suits were brought against him by poor persons who alleged fraud," reported The Sun.  He weathered those suits, but in 1908 he was arrested, charged with bribing a witness, and extortion.  

As the high-profile trial was underway, Fisher-Hansen "signed some papers in the presence of his father-in-law and then pleaded guilty," said The Sun.  "It was said the papers consisted of evidence on which Mrs. Fischer-Hansen could get a divorce."  But Elvira, perhaps not wanting even more bad publicity brought about by a society divorce, gave her husband a second chance.  He opened a string of bakery shops in Harlem upon his release, and went bankrupt within the year.  

It was apparently the final straw and in 1911 Elvira traveled to Tonopah, Nevada where she obtained a divorce.  It came with an incentive for Fisher-Hansen, who told a reporter that "he had a written agreement with the Brokaw family by which they were to give him $15,000 in cash and $2,500 a year for life."

Three years later, on May 17, 1914, The Sun reported that Elvira "was married yesterday at her summer residence, Hawkaway House, Locust Valley, L. I., to William McNair, vice-president of the Unadilia Valley Railway Company."  The wedding came as a surprise even to the couple's friends.  "A desire to avoid publicity caused the wedding to be celebrated quietly, but announcements were sent out after it was over."

Isaac Vail Brokaw had died eight months earlier.  Among his bequests to Elvira were the vacant plots abutting the family mansion and $250,000 "to be used to erect her own residence."  Almost immediately after the wedding she hired architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle to design her new home.   He was perhaps best known to New Yorkers at the time for his designs of the Firemen's Memorial on Riverside Drive and the Maine Monument at the entrance to Central Park.

Elvira spent every dime of the allotted inheritance on the project.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported on July 18, 1914 "The building will be six stories in height, with a facade of Indiana limestone and marble.  Construction will be fireproof throughout.  The house will cost more than $250,000 to build."  That amount would be close to $6.5 million today.


photo by Philip G. Bartlett from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Magonigle's design could hardly have been more different that the ebullient Brokaw mansion next door.  Rather than six, as the Record & Guide had predicted, the house was five stories tall.  It was soberly restrained and sparsely decorated.  The arched second floor openings opened onto dainty Juliette balconies and a stone balustrade fronted the fifth floor set-back.  Otherwise the massive home was austerely somber.   

The Architectural Record approved.  "It shows all the remarkable handling of proportion, the fine taste and the highest standards in draughtsmanship and in modeling of details that Mr. Magonigle has always insisted upon in his work.  The more one studies it, the more interest becomes apparent beneath the veil of its simple classic proportions." 


The McNairs had directed Magonigle to make a surprising change in the accepted arrangement of interiors.  The top floor, routinely given over to the domestic staff, held the family's living quarters.  An elevator eliminated any inconvenience.  A living room, paneled in dark oak, opened onto the commodious private balcony.  Elvira's suite looked to the west and William's "apartment" at the rear consisted of "a bedroom, a bath and a study, well lighted by a large bay window," said The Architectural Record.


The living room faced the front of the top floor.  The Architectural Record May 1917 (copyright expired)

The bathrooms were clad in wainscot of Argentine glass about seven feet high.  The master bath boasted a vaulted ceiling with frescoed panels.

The suite of room for Elvira's daughter from her previous marriage, Elvira Juliane McNair, fronted the fourth floor.  Also on that floor were guest suites.  Architectural critic John Taylor Boyd, Jr. was impressed with the innovative arrangement, noting "These two top floors are rare, indeed, in their aspect of cheerfulness, homelike comfort and intimacy, which is due as much as anything to the isolation from the more public parts of the house near the ground floors."


He also appreciated the logic of the unconventional arrangement.  "But one of the chief advantages that results from placing the family apartments on the top floors lies in the situation of the maids' rooms, most of which are located on the third floor, midway in the structure."  That meant that the servants were always relatively nearby.  

And Boyd found the attention to the servants' comforts had been well thought out, as well.  He said that McNair need not worry about discontented staff, "for the rooms of his servants are unusually comfortable, well lighted and accessible by service stairs, thus eliminating the frequent passing and repassing through the living or entertainment portions of the house, which would be necessary were the located on the top floor of the house."


Both the dining room (above) and the formal reception room featured painted panels. The Architectural Record May 1917 (copyright expired)
Boyd was pleased with the lower floors as well.  "From the vestibule of Mr. McNair's house one enters a spacious hall, which forms a stair hall for the great winding stair that rises to the top floor."  On the first floor were the reception room, and "dressing rooms," where guests would stash their hats, muffs, canes, and coats.

The second floor held a larger reception room, "decorated with large wall paintings set in panels."  Magonigle had not only designed the interiors, but some of the furniture.  There was a breakfast room which served as an anteroom to the dining room.  "Its chief interest," according to Boyd, was the teakwood floor "of an unusual rich reddish color" trimmed with a six-inch boarder of black and gold marble.  In the breakfast room was a gray marble fountain and the gilded organ pipes.  The dining room was much more formal, "old paintings" filling the areas of the walls between fluted pilasters.

The mansion was completed in time for Elvira Juliane's debut.  She was known in society, possibly to avoid confusion, as Vera.  On December 30, 1916 the New York Herald announced "Mrs. William McNair gave an afternoon dance yesterday at her home, No. 5 East Seventy-ninth street, for her daughter Miss Vera McNair, who will be introduced to society next year.  The guests were her girl friends and the younger college men."


A tasseled tapestry fringe with a trailing drapery frames the marble staircase.  Magonigle was responsible for designing the iron and bronzework, like the railing and unusual standing lighting fixture.  The Architectural Record May 1917 (copyright expired)
The McNairs continued to summer at Elvira's 22-acre Long Island estate, Northway House, where they had married.  (As an interesting side note, its 23-room house was the focal point of the 1986 motion picture The Money Pit.)  Additionally they maintained a summer residence, Leeward, in Bar Harbor.

Cleaning the windows of the mansion required professional workers.  On March 22, 1917 a window-washer and his new helper arrived at the 79th Street house to begin the full-day project.  The New York Tribune reported that the head window washer was a trusted employee who "knew little" of his assistant.  Unknown to him or to his employer, the assistant, Harry Schumacher was an ex-con whose alias was Braun.

A few months earlier Schumacher had served time for a $500 robbery.  While in jail he met Henry von Kulik, sentenced for robbing a young girl.  When Von Kulik learned that Schumacher had once worked as a window cleaner, he came up with a plan.  He convinced Schumacher to return to that trade.  It would give him access to houses and their contents.

And so that March morning when Schumacher peered into Elvira Brokaw's bedroom window, he saw jewelry.  Raising the pane, he climbed in and removed $40,000 in jewels--nearly $785,000 today.  One item alone, a pearl necklace, was valued at $30,000.

When a maid spotted Schumacher in the rear yard he explained he had gone "to recover his cleaning cloth."  She directed him through the basement to the street."  Almost immediately he disappeared.

"When Mrs. McNair entered the house a few minutes later the maid told her of discovering the cleaner in the yard and of his sudden departure.  Mrs. McNair went straight to her boudoir.  Her gems were gone," said the Tribune.

In the end Elvira got her jewelry back and the thieves went to jail.  On April 3 The Sun reported that Schumacher, who had received only $300 from Henry Von Kulik, had been arrested.  Von Kulik was already in jail.  The article said "All except $6,000 of the jewels have been recovered and the police have learned from Schumacher where the rest are and will recover them before morning."


The second floor staircase hall.  The Architectural Record May 1917 (copyright expired)
As the year drew to a close Vera's debutante entertainments began.  On December 18 the New York Herald reported "Mrs. William McNair had a reception yesterday afternoon at her home, No. 5 East Seventy-ninth street, for her debutante daughter, Miss Vera McNair."  And on April 3, 1918 The New York Sun named her "Debutante of the Season."


Vera McNair was the Debutante of the 1918 Season - The New York Sun, April 3, 1918 (copyright expired)
Vera met Reginald Lovett Hutchinson in Bar Harbor on a holiday in 1918.  The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as being "well known as a football player at Yale."  The meeting blossomed into romance; however, according to that newspaper "Society had it rumored that Mrs. McNair did not look with favor on the young athlete."

Nonetheless, on February 1, 1919 the McNairs announced Vera's engagement to Huchinson at a luncheon in the 79th Street mansion.  With a month plans had been put together for a society wedding in St Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue.  Vera chose her cousins, Barbara and Julia Brokaw, as two of her six bridesmaids. The best man, Reginald's brother Daniel L. Hutchinson 3d, and his ushers, were all still deployed in Europe, but, said the New-York Tribune on March 19, "are expected to arrive in time for the wedding."  The article added "The ceremony will be followed by a reception at the home of the bride's parents, 5 East Seventy-ninth Street."

The last entertainment for Vera in her parents home was held on April 19.  The New York Herald reported "Mr. and Mrs. William McNair, parents of the bride, will give a supper and dance in their home, No 5 East Seventy-ninth street, for members of the bridal party and a few additional friends."

The New-York Tribune described the Easter Monday wedding on April 22 noting "the edifice was filled with prominent members of society."  The important military members of the party, however, were still in Europe.  As last minute replacements A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr. stood in as best man, and Vera's uncle, George T. Brokaw, and Robert Newton filled in for the other two.

Elvira McNair's misgivings about the marriage proved to have substance.  On June 16, 1925 The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the headline "Divorce Is Granted to Mrs. Hutchinson."  Although it seems it was Vera, not Reginald, who caused the breakup.  


The architect's deft handling of metal design is seen here in the entrance door grills and another free-standing floor fixture.  The Architectural Record May 1917 (copyright expired)
Two months later, on August 12, Vera married William S. Fairchild in Bar Harbor.  While they sailed for Europe on the S. S. Leviathan for their honeymoon, Vera's daughter, also named Elvira, moved into the 79th Street mansion with her grandparents.  Upon their return Vera and William, too, moved in.

Over the years the society columns followed the McNairs and the Fairchilds on their dizzying movements to resorts like Virginia Hot Springs, Atlantic City, Palm Beach, and their country estates.  Vera and William were sometimes a bit more exotic in their travels than the McNairs, it seems.  On June 12, 1929 the New York Evening Post reported "Mr. and Mrs. William McNair, of 5 East Seventy-ninth Street, have returned from a motor trip through Morocco and Algeria.  They will leave next week for Leeward, their place in Bar Harbor.

The year 1939 was Elvira Fairchild's debutante season.  Like her mother and grandmother had been, she was feted with luncheons, receptions and dances.   Her term as an eligible bachelorette heiress would be short-lived.  

Although her father had died only a few months before, on December 27, 1940 The New York Sun reported that her wedding to Jessie Spaulding 3d would take place in the East 79th Street mansion.  The East Hampton Star noted that only a few close friends and the immediate family were present "owing to mourning."  The Sun added that "On their return from a wedding trip the couple will live at 5 East Seventy-ninth street."


The increase in population from one family to three may have prompted the addition of a sixth floor.  photo

© Dec 2 2008 IEEE
William S. McNair died of a heart attack during his sleep while at Leeward on July 2, 1947.  The New York Times, in reporting his death, called him a "retired railroad and mine operator."  

Two years later, on February 10, 1949, the 79th Street mansion would be the scene of another family wedding.  Vera married the recently-divorced Vicomte Jacques de Sibour.  Her daughter was in the wedding party, now with a new married name, herself.  The Times reported "The bride was escorted by her stepson, de Lancy Fairchild, and attended by her daughter, Mrs. C. Whitney Carpenter 2d."  The article noted "The couple will reside in Mexico City after a wedding trip."

Three years earlier the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers had purchased the Isaac Vail Brokaw mansion on the corner.  In 1954 it added Nos. 5-7 to its holdings, and in 1961 purchased the mansion of Elvira's brother, Howard, at No. 984 Fifth Avenue, abutting the Brokaw chateau.

The combined properties were deliciously attractive to developer Anthony Campagna and his son in 1964.   Although the fledgling Landmarks Preservation Commission had given the corner Brokaw mansion landmark status, the group was impotent in defending landmarked structures.

On September 17 that year Thomas W. Ennis, writing in The New York Times announced that "A chateau at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street that had been designated by the city as a landmark is to be torn down along with two other mansions adjoining it to make way for a new commercial building."  The Landmarks Preservation Commission promised to protest, while admitting "it lacked the legal power to stop it."

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers had sold the Campagnas all the three of the mansions.   Pickets marched along Fifth Avenue and 79th Street protesting the ruthless demolition, but they were as unsuccessful as they had been a year earlier attempting to stop the destruction of Pennsylvania Station.   The Campagna Construction Corporation was as resolute as the preservationists and the three structures fell to be replaced by an apartment building known as 980 Fifth Avenue.


photo via observer.com

7 comments:

  1. I had not seen the interiors of this townhouse before today's post. While this travesty and the equally heartless destruction of Penn Station would eventually lead to one of the strongest Preservation Commissions in the U.S., the demolition of this townhouse grouping was simply gutless as it was done hastily over a weekend and was indiscriminate, the crew having been ordered to smash the architectural interiors, stained glass windows, marble railings, carved paneling, etc. to ensure total destruction and guarantee nothing would be able to stop the demolition progress come Monday morning. A turning point for preservation in NYC thanks to a cowardly developer. NYarch

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  2. The iron work on this house -- as on the other Brokaw houses I believe-- was by Samuel Yellin. Associated Wreckers, Inc. had the decency (or good sense) to save some of it. They donated the entrance doors and a few other items to the Met: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/9589. These are on view.

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    1. Architecture critic John Taylor Boyd, Jr. attributed the iron and bronze work in the McNair house to Magonigle in 1917. But perhaps he was in error.

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    2. Interesting - I think I trust the Met. Maybe Magonigle designed it and Yellin implemented it?

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    3. Looking at the Met's site, I see they attribute the articles to both Magonigle and Yellin. So I think you're right. Magonigle designed, Yellin created.

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  3. One correction: the patriarch in the corner house -- 1 East 79th St -- was Isaac Vail Brokaw, not Irving. His eldest surviving* son, Isaac Irving Brokaw, legally dropped the "Isaac" and lived as Irving Brokaw in 985 5th. (*his eldest son, Princeton student Frederick, drowned in Elberon while trying to rescue a servant girl.)

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    1. Right. That was an oversight. Both men were correctly identified elsewhere. Thanks.

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