The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating.
Thursday, December 5, 2019
The Edith Kane and Meta Bell Houses - 48 and 50 East 64th Street
On the morning of March 7, 1883 fire broke out in the five-story apartment house called the Cambridge. Located at Nos. 48 and 50 East 64th Street, the upscale building was owned by Thomas Reid, who had spent the equivalent of $1.7 million today on its construction in 1877. The New-York Tribune described it as having "an ornamental brown-stone front and being supplied with modern conveniences within." The newspaper added, "There had been no attempt to make the house fire-proof." Nine of the ten families along with their servants managed to escape; but Mary H. and Rosamond B. Wakeman, the wife and daughter respectively of Abram Wakeman, former Surveyor of the Port, were killed. When the inferno was extinguished, the Cambridge had been gutted. Within five months Reid hired the prolific architect John G. Prague to design two private homes to replace the Cambridge. Just 15-feet wide each, the matching residences would cost $20,000 each to build; or just over half a million each today. Completed in 1884, their brownstone facades were designed in the latest neo-Grec style. Their high stone stoops led to double-doored entrances with commodious transoms within porticoes crowned by triangular pediments. Prague's repetition of vertical elements at this level--the long, thin parlor windows; the engaged columns of the porticoes, and the tall, fluted piers upholding the second story bays--emphasized the narrowness of the houses and created a somewhat squashed appearance. Sharply angled bays with carved panels and architrave-framed windows with pediments embellished the second floor; while the openings of the upper two floors wore dentiled cornices. Handsome carved panels separated the windows of the two floors. Separate but identical iron cornices crowned the design. On November 21, 1884 Thomas Reid sold the houses to two widows, Edith Brevoort Kane and Meta Kane Bell. Edith purchased No. 50 and her daughter No. 48. They paid $30,000 each for the homes, or about $792,000 today. Edith was the youngest of the eight children of Henry Brevoort, Jr. and his wife, Laura. She married Pierre Corné Kane in 1853 and the couple had four children: Meta, Elizabeth, William and Henry Brevoort Kane. Pierre died in 1870. Meta was quite possibly named after her mother's sister, Marguerite "Meta" Claudia Brevoort, who made history as a pioneering female mountain climber. Her husband, wealthy attorney Walton P. Bell, had died three years before she purchased the house on January 23, 1881. The couple had two children, John Grenville Kane Bell and Edith Brevoort Bell. Before the decade was out Meta had remarried, but her choice of spouses was a bad one. Blanche Cruger had divorced millionaire Eugene Guido Cruger in 1887. He then married Meta Bell in London. Meta left him immediately after the honeymoon, in 1891, but not before a daughter, Angele, had been conceived. Meta and the children returned to East 64th Street and Eugene remaining in Europe. On November 2, 1891 Edith died in No. 50. The Kane estate retained ownership, leasing it soon after her death to Dr. William Horatio Bates. He was a recognized authority and wrote medical papers such as "Notes on the Therapeutic Uses of the Suprarenal Gland," published by the Medical Record on October 8, 1898. The Bates family remained in the house until 1903. In the meantime, Meta suffered tribulation next door. While in Paris during the summer of 1892, her daughter, Edith, died. Meta divorced Cruger, The New York Press saying "Another popular New York woman, Mrs. Meta Kane Bell, was brave enough to become Mrs. Cruger No. 2 and the divorce courts again cut the marriage ties of this union." Meta would have to fight for a slice of her ex-husband's estate for their daughter following his death in 1900. The Elmira Gazette reported that Cruger "led a roving life, but spent the last year of his life at Fontainbleu with Miss [Olga S.] Hertz," whom the newspaper called "the Russian peasant." Olga was technically a servant of Cruger, but his will left most of his estate to her. Meta managed to obtain $30,000 for the girl, or about $914,000 today. The Bates family was replaced in No. 50 by John Bradley Cumings and his wife, the former Florence B. Thayer, by October 1903. The couple, who had moved to New York from Boston around 1900, had two children, six-year old John, Jr., and four-year old Wells Bradley. John was a member of the brokerage firm of Cumings & Marckwald at 36 Wall Street. Soon after moving in, on March 16, 1904, another son, Thayer, was born. At the time the family had four-live in servants, all Irish women. Often mentioned in society columns, their residency at No. 50 would come to a tragic conclusion. In January 1912 John and Florence sailed for Europe for six-week vacation. Three months later they were headed home on aboard the R.M.S. Titanic. At 11:40 on the night of April 14 the ship hit an iceberg. A group of first-class passengers, including John and Florence, were led to A-Deck to board lifeboats. Florence initially refused to board without her husband, allowing Lifeboat 4 to fill and be lowered. John, who was 30-years-old at the time, promised her he would follow in a later boat. Florence and the other survivors in her lifeboat were picked up by the R.M.S. Carpathia. On April 22, 1912 the New York Evening Journal reported "A pathetic case growing out of the Titanic disaster is that of Mrs. J. Bradley Cumings, of No. 50 East Sixty-fourth Street...Mrs. Cumings, confined in her bed since her arrival on the Carpathia, clings to-day to the hope that her husband still lives. Although suffering from the exposure and shock she persists in rising from her pillow to say: 'My husband is alive; you will find him somewhere.'" Florence insisted to relatives that she saw a schooner near the wreck shortly after the Titanic sank and she believed John had been rescued by it. By the end of May, however, all hope had faded. On May 30 Madeline Astor, the widow of John Jacob Astor who also perished on the ship, invited Florence and another socialite survivor and widow, Mrs. John B. Thayler, to a quiet luncheon to show their appreciation to Captain Arthur Henry Rostron, the captain of the Carpathia, and its ship's surgeon, Dr. Frank E. McGee. Florence and the children left East 64th Street within the month and Grenville Kane leased the house to David Bennett King. Meta Kane Bell Kruger married again in 1900. Her new husband was Raoul Mourichon, a chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France. She moved to Paris, but retained ownership of the 64th Street house until 1919 when she sold it at auction. No. 48 was sold again in 1921, purchased by William Allen Butler as the home of his newly-wed son, Dr. Charles Terry Butler, and his bride the former Dorothy P. Black. Later that year, on November 17, the New York Evening Post wrote "Congratulations are being extended to Dr. and Mrs. Charles Terry Butler on the birth of a daughter on November 7, at 48 East Sixty-fourth Street." The Butlers sold No. 48 to Dr. Samuel W. Thurber just two years later in April 1923. The family took possession in time for daughter Louise Wood Thurber's marriage to William Van Loan Taggart in the house on December 15. Like the Butlers, the Thurbers would not retain ownership long. They sold it to another physician, Dr. Rufus E. Stetson in 1926. No. 50 had been home to doctors as well. In the 1920's ophthalmologist Charles A. Thompson was here, and in the late 1930's and early '40's it was owned by Dr. Egon Neustadt. He sold it to modernist architect Edward Durell Stone in 1945, who had just been discharged from the Army. The architect announced that he would “remodel the four-story house to provide for his offices on the two lower floors and his residence on the upper floors.” Stone restarted his practice in the house. It was here that he designed the 300-room El Panama Hotel in Panama City, Panama, which was featured in a January 1952 article in Life magazine. Stone left No. 50 in 1956 to move a few blocks away to No. 130 East 64th Street; a similar house erected in 1878 which he remodeled with a patently Edward D. Stone Modernist facade. At the time No. 50 was home to Tony Award-winning Broadway director Albert Marre and his actor wife, Joan Diener. Diener starred in "Kismet" in 1953 and in "Man of La Mancha" in 1965. They would remain until 2013. In 2015 the interiors No. 48 were renovated by Pete Pelsinski of SPAN Architecture. The removal of all the 19th century elements prompted a real estate listing to call it "reinvented."
From the sidewalk the houses, once owned by a socially prominent widow and her equally prominent widowed daughter, have changed little since 1884. photographs by the author