Born in Liptovský Mikuláš in today's Slovakia in 1868, Martin Beck had a humble start. At the age of 18 he came to America where he joined a group of actors. Unsuccessful on the stage, he landed a job as a waiter in a Chicago biergarten. The New York Times later wrote that the proprietor "let him put on a show on an improvised stage. When this made a hit he transferred it to a large music hall, where he earned the stake that took him to San Francisco."
He opened his first theater, the Orpheum Concert Hall, in 1889. He grew it into the Orpheum circuit of 60 or more theaters. Returning to New York City in 1907 he made his mark by introducing audiences to future stars like Ed Wynn, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini. The New York Times later said "Other headliners included the Four Marx Brothers, Gallagher & Shean, Douglas Fairbanks, Nazimova, Beatrice Lillie, the sisters Ponselle, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers and Elsie Janis."
By 1920 Beck was an extremely wealthy man. That spring he purchased two Upper East Side properties. On April 23 The Sun reported that he had purchased the old Abraham Strauss residence at No. 13 East 67th Street. And two weeks later the Record & Guide entitled an article "House as Wedding Gift" and reported that he had purchased the four-story house at No. 18 East 54th Street "as a wedding gift for his daughter Helen, who was recently married to James Howard Hoffman."
The 67th Street property was for himself. But Beck would not be moving into the outdated Strauss brownstone. He demolished it and on October 8, 1920 architect Harry Allan Jacobs filed plans for a four-story dwelling to cost $150,000--or just under $2 million today. The result was a striking 23-foot wide limestone-clad mansion in the English neo-Classical style which prompted the architecture critic Paul Goldberger in his 1979 The City Observed to call it "a grand homage to Palladio (or, to be more precise, to the Palladian foller Serlio)."
Goldberger referred, of course, to the dramatic windows of the second floor, or piano nobile. Despite their grandeur, Jacobs did not allow them to overpower the overall design. The third floor featured a stone balustraded balcony fronting a grouping of three openings. The understated fourth floor sat back from the roofline, shyly peaking out from above the cornice.
Beck was highly involved in the interior design of the house. Writing in The New York Times in 1998, Tracie Rozhon said he "asked the architect to design the first two floors of the town house to imitate a miniature Broadway theater, with a formal reception room on the first floor." On the second, the ceiling of the 40-foot "studio living room" (so called because of the soaring windows) rose 21-feet. Also on this level was the 21 by 30 foot dining room. It was paneled in antique woodwork which cost $574,000 by today's dollars and included a platform, or stage, for performances. The New York Evening Post noted "The pipe organ is one of the finest in the city." On the roof was a 23 by 40 foot terrace and in the basement was a lap pool.
|The organ maker, Welte-Mignon Corp., illustrated the Beck organ in its 1923 catalog, noting it was located "in provided pit behind stair landing." (copyright expired)|
A central light court provided ventilation and sunlight to the interior rooms of the upper floors. There were two guest rooms on the fourth floor along with a wood-paneled squash court with an 18-foot ceiling and nickel-lined shower. The third floor master bedroom was 17 by 22 feet.
Helen's marriage to James H. Hoffman did not last especially long. She divorced him in December 1925 and shortly afterward, on January 13, 1926, Variety reported that her marriage to Paul Ladin would take place in the Beck mansion the following day.
Only seven years after building his residence, Martin Beck sold it in May 1928 and moved into a new mansion at No. 166 East 64th Street. The 67th Street house became home of Robert Muirhead Byrnes. Byrnes was a member of the Camaguey Sugar Company. He and his wife, the former Adelaide Bottsford, had four children, Robert, Jr., Barbara, Elizabeth and Malcolm.
By 1938 the Byrnes family was gone. Oddly enough, given the exclusive tenor of the block, by that fall the dining room which Martin Beck had outfitted with a stage was briefly known as the Renaissance Room where concerts were held. On October 29, for instance, the New York Post reported that the Music Society of New York "will present Marguerita Salvi, soprano, and Frederico Longas, pianist, in an evening of Spanish music in the Renaissance Room, 13 East Sixty-seventh Street, next Tuesday, November 1." And on December 6 The New York Times announced that soprano Goeta Ljungberg, pianist Walter Bricht and violinist Guido Brand would perform that evening.
The house was home to the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1951 and '52, followed by the Arts Equity Gallery in 1953. Somewhat surprisingly, none of the groups altered the interiors (other than the coat of orange paint which Arts Equity applied to the first floor walls).
While New York Society of Craftsmen was staging its Golden Jubilee Show at the Arts Equity Gallery in April 1955, Winthrop Rockefeller and his colorful second wife, Barbara Paul Sears Rockefeller, were going through well-publicized post-divorce negotiations. Newspapers made much of Barbara's modest roots. Known familiarly as Bobo, on August 4, 1954 the Buffalo Evening News called her "a coal miner's daughter." She had won a $5.5 million settlement and custody of their five-year old son, Winthrop Paul (known as Winnie.)"
In 1955 Barbara purchased No. 13 East 67th Street, painted over the orange first floor walls and moved in with Winnie. She spent about a year redecorating. The New York Times described it as being "furnished grandly, with tapestries, murals, gilded mirrors and down-filled Louis XV sofas." Her bedroom contained an 18th century Chippendale carved canopy bed which Bobo explained was "known as a state bed--in grand country houses, they were reserved for visiting royalty."
But her battle with her former husband had not yet ended. On September 15, 1955 journalist Cynthia Lowry commented in the Buffalo Courier-Express that Bobo "for the past six or seven years has been making almost a full-time career of jousting with Rockefellers...Hundreds of headlines and thousands of words have related the martial marital adventures of this good-looking, 39-year-old former model and actress since her surprise marriage in 1948 to Winthrop Rockefeller, fourth son of John D. Jr. and then just about the most elusive and attractive bachelor of the nation."
|Construction paraphernalia congests the street as renovations go on inside the mansion in 2020.|
In the meantime, Bobo entertained in the 67th Street house and her Paris apartment. Perhaps her most memorable event in No. 13 was her Red-and-White Ball. Years later she told a reporter "I invited everyone in Europe, and I carried out the trick of asking everyone to wear red and white. I had the orchestra downstairs, and I had it catered, with 12 waiters. It was labeled a success before it even took place; people heard about it and came in red and white, trying to crash."
|Barbara arrives at the theater with the noticeably younger James Webster for the debut of Anastasia in 1956. Photo by United Press|
After four decades in the house, Bobo Rockefeller placed it on the market in 1998. She explained to Tracie Rozhon of The New York Times, "I've got a Paris flat and I've stayed here too long. I miss my friends. The people here are not too interesting. Most of my real friends here have died off. I get a little bored. My Paris flat is within walking distance of the President's palace and all my friends." The 82-year old added "I'm going to whip around and have some fun!"
In 2009 artist Jeff Koons purchased the mansion along with the abutting No. 11 East 67th Street. He applied for permission to join the two houses internally to "create a mansion with a pool, gym and maids quarters," according to the New York Post. The newspaper added "that request was denied." But in April 2014 a revised plan to combine the houses was approved. The New York Post estimated the renovation cost at $4.85 million.
|The two mansions are currently being merged. photo via Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts|
photographs by the author