Friday, March 27, 2020

The Palacio - 55-57 East 65th Street

20th century fire escapes obscure the detailing.
Developer Thomas McLaughlin embarked on a chancy real estate endeavor in 1892 when he hired the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson to design a flat house on the north side of East 65th Street, just west of Park Avenue.  Apartment living was still viewed with skepticism by well-to-do Upper East Side residents and The Palacio would sit markedly on a block lined with upscale private homes.

Completed within the year, the building contained thirteen sprawling suites of seven or eight rooms.  Thom & Wilson had created a seven-story blend of Romanesque and Renaissance Revival styles.  Its asymmetrical design included a two-story rusticated brownstone base where the centered entrance was flanked by tightly clustered Romanesque columns.  The window directly above it was fronted by a charming Juliette balcony.  The upper floors were clad in tan brick generously trimmed in brownstone, the carved designs of which drew inspiration from the Renaissance period.  Because the building hugged the property line, several feet forward from the facades of the high-stooped houses around it, the architects were able to gently curve the western corner to create an eye catching design element.

The delightful half-round balcony above the entrance can be seen in this 1938 photograph. The double house in the center of the frame was originally home to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin's mother, Sarah.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
An advertisement in the New-York Tribune in April 1899 touted the modern amenities of The Palacio, including "hall service; elevator; electric light."  The term "hall service" referred to the "hall boys" on staff--normally teen-aged boys who ran errands, delivered packages, took mail to and from apartments and handled other helpful tasks.  Prospective tenants would pay $1,800 per year for an eight-room apartment, or about $4,700 a month rent in today's money.

The moneyed residents appeared often in society columns.  On May 28, 1899, for instance, the New-York Tribune announced that "Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Van Lennep and family, of No. 55 East Sixty-fifth-st., have arranged to sail for Europe on the steamship Kaiser Friedrich on June 20.  They will remain abroad until September or October."

Among the most socially prominent families in The Palacio was that of Stephen Van Rensselaer whose ancestor Kiliean van Rensselaer was one of the founders and directors of the Dutch West India Company and of New Amsterdam.  The original Van Rensselaer manor engulfed all of what today are Albany and Rensselaer counties upstate.  On January 14, 1900 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that Mrs. Rensselaer had given her second reception of that winter season.

More newsworthy, however, was the socially important wedding that took place in Boston on December 12, 1900 when the Van Rensselaers' son, Charles Augustus, married Caroline Elizabeth Fitzgerald.  Newspapers noted "Mr. and Mrs. Van Rensselaer will reside at 55 East Sixty-fifth Street, New York."

The family of esteemed physician George B. McAuliffe lived here at the time.  Born in New York City on September 20, 1864, he had graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1888.  He was now the Adjunct Professor of Otology at New York Polyclinic, throat surgeon at the Metropolitan Throat Hospital, oculist at Harlem Hospital, the Mothers' Home Hospital and the Red Cross Hospital, as well as other positions throughout the city.

The family suffered tragedy on March 19, 1899 when five-year old George G. McAuliffe died.  Following her period of mourning, Mrs. McAuliffe resumed her social routine.  Originally from the South, she was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy.  A reception for "a large number of Southerners resident in New-York," as described by the New-York Tribune, on May 7, 1901 would raise eyebrows today.

For the most part the event was little different than any other afternoon social function; but at least one detail intended to provide Southern flavor could only be called racist today.  "The rooms were decorated with pink and white roses, and a negro banjoist and mandolinist played 'darky' melodies softly all through the reception."

Like all socialites, Mrs. McAuliffe was involved in charitable causes.  Her greatest focus was on the Northwestern Dispensary to which, according to The Evening Telegram on March 15, 1904, she devoted much of her time.

The building had been sold in 1903 and renamed The Sussex.   Nothing else changed for the tenants, including the rent which was exactly the same as it had been on opening day.

New-York Tribune, August 30, 1903 (copyright expired)

As it did throughout the country, World War I changed the lives of residents in The Sussex.  None were more affected than attorney and U. S. Commissioner of Patents Frederick Innes Allen and his wife, the former Cornelia Seward.   The couple had impressive family backgrounds--Cornelia's father, William H. Seward, had been Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick's first American ancestor, George Allen, arrived in Massachusetts in 1636.

In 1917 all three of their sons enlisted--32-year old William Seward Allen enrolled in the U. S. Naval Reserves; Ralph S. Allen enlisted in the Army (happily, no doubt for his mother, assigned to a clerical position); and 28-year old Lloyd Seward Allen joined the Army Air Corps.

Lloyd's choice of branches was obvious.  After graduating from Yale he had gone into the construction of airplanes and "the invention of flying devices," according to the New York Herald.  After training at Dallas, Texas, he was transferred to the Wilbur Wright Aviation Field in Dayton, Ohio.  But he would never see action overseas.

New York Herald, May 2, 1918 (copyright expired)

On May 2, 1918 the New York Herald reported that Lloyd, "a cadet flyer at the Wilbur Wright Aviation Field, met instant death to-day when his machine became unmanageable while he was making a practice flight, and crashed into one of the school buildings on the ground."

R. Grover Hutchins had left his position as president of the National Bank of Commerce to head the Home and Hospital Division of the American Red Cross in Paris.  His wife's anxiety was increased when their daughter, Margaret, left her studies at Bryn Mawr College and volunteered with the Signal Corps, also in Paris.  There she did "telephone duty," according to the New York Herald.  Four months after the end of the war, on February 8, 1919, father and daughter arrived home on the same ship.  The banker had attained the rank of major.

The conflict greatly affected another resident, Josiah Kingsley Ohl, in a different way.  Ohl was editor The New York Herald, a position he assumed in 1913.  With the outbreak of war was appointed head of the Washington Bureau.  The New York Times later explained the dual responsibilities "caused him physical hardship, as well, because of the necessity for frequent trips to Washington."

The editor's work was recognized internationally.  The Times said he "came in close contact with representatives of foreign Governments, and at various times received the decorations of Commander of the Crown of Italy, Chevalier of the Order of King George III of Greece, Chevalier of the Order of Leopold of Belgium, and Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France."

Ohl and his wife, the former Maude Annulet Andrews, had one daughter, Joan Kingsley Ohl.  On August 19, 1919 they announced her engagement to David Frank Webster.  The wedding took place on September 3 at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

Ten months later, on June 27, 1920, Josiah Kingsley Ohl died in the 65th Street apartment after having suffered a nervous breakdown followed by a short illness and then a heart attack.  The Times reported that his heart condition "had been aggravated by strain under which he labored during the World War."  He was only 57 years old.

Maude left The Sussex soon after.  On October 18 The New York Herald announced she "has given up her home at 55 East Sixty-fifth street, and will pass the winter in Summerville, S. C.   She expects to remain there a year."

The Sussex was, by now, a cooperative building.  Although the first cooperative apartment house, The Gramercy, was opened in 1883, the concept was still relatively unusual.

New-York Tribune, June 20, 1920 (copyright expired)
The Allen family were still in residence.  Cornelia died on October 5, 1921 after a length illness.  The following year, on April 16, William Seward Allen's engagement to Dorothy Wilmot was announced.  The wedding took place that June; and Ralph was married to Elizabeth Bailey in April 1923.

Frederick Allen remained in The Sussex, now alone.  He retired in 1928, but continued his hobby of mineralogy.  The New York Times noted that "He maintained in his home, in which he had lived since 1908, a laboratory for the chemical analysis of minerals and had an extensive mineralogical collection."  Allen died of a heart attack in his apartment at the age of 79 on May 18, 1938.

In the summer of 1948 Phorwall Petersen was hired as an elevator operator.  The 51-year old was a retired merchant marine sea captain who had served in World War I.  His years of training in emergency situations came into play on January 9, 1949.

Petersen was sitting in the lobby at around 7:15 that night when he smelled smoke.  He took the elevator downstairs where he found the basement in flames.  After notifying the building superintendent, he "embarked on what the tenants he serves described as a one-man rescue mission," according to The New York Times.

He made a total of seven trips up and down in the elevator, knocking on every door and warning the residents to evacuate.  When there was no response, he used his passkey to rescue pets whose owners were not home.  After his last trip, he collapsed on the lobby floor and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where he was treated for smoke poisoning.

Luckily, although the entire building filled with smoke, the major damage was confined to the basement level and the two doctor's offices on the ground floor.

While many late Victorian apartment buildings suffered decline by mid-century, The Sussex retained its upscale tone.  

One resident discarded an old oil painting in July 1997--one which caught the eye of a passerby.  John W. Nichols picked up the discarded portrait "sticking out of a pile of trash bags," as reported by The New York Times on July 3, despite some damage.

It turned out to be a portrait of Andrew Foster, Esq., painted in 1848 by William Jewett and Samuel Lovett Waldo.  The pair shared a studio and cooperatively worked on portraits, Waldo doing the face and hands, Jewett the clothing and backgrounds.  Examples of their works hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Upon investigation, Nichols discovered that Andrew Foster was the great-grandfather of Henry Francis duPont.

Most likely the transoms of the first and second floor windows once held colorful stained glass.
Other than replacement doors and the unsightly fire escape that veils much of the detailing of the facade, The Sussex is relatively unchanged after more than 125 years.

photographs by the author

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