Surrounded by modern mansions by the early 20th century, No. 12 refused to cede to change.
Charles Graham was the principal of C. Graham & Sons--one of the most active real estate development and construction firms in New York City in the late 19th century. His son, Thomas, who trained in the architectural office of Jardine & Thompson, designed a row of six upscale rowhouses at 10 through 20 East 78th Street for the firm in 1886. Completed the following year, the 20-foot wide, four-story and basement residences were designed in the Renaissance Revival style.
Like its neighbors, 12 East 78th Street was 20-feet wide and four stories high above an English basement. Its Renaissance Revival design was restrained in terms of decoration. Panels of delicately carved flowers and vines adorned the parlor level door and window. Each of the upper openings above sat within architrave frames on prominent sills supported by handsome brackets. Like the beefy stone stoop newels and railings, the sheet-metal cornice recalled the Italianate style.
In December 1886, shortly before construction was completed, Graham sold the 12-room house to Julius Sands for $48,000--about $1.35 million today. As was customary, title was put in the name of his wife, the former Esther H. Levy.
Sands was a wealthy dry goods merchant. Born in German in 1840, he had gone west to Montana upon arriving in America as a young man. There he opened a dry goods business. Fully recognizing the opportunities of the developing frontier, he later relocated to Denver where he opened a brewery, founded the Sands Land and Title Company, and the Sands Dry Goods Company. In 1873 he left the operation of the western businesses in control of his brother and moved to New York City.
He and Esther had three children, Rosa S., Minnie E., and Willard E. Rosa's debut into society was one of the first major entertainments in the house. On January 8, 1892 The Jewish Messenger reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Julius Sands and Miss Sands, 12 East 78th street, will receive their friends on the afternoon of the 14th inst.; the young folks are invited to a dance during the evening."
The Sands, like all other wealthy New Yorkers, routinely traveled to Europe. It presented a problem for valued servants who did not travel with the family and were not needed at home in their absence. Socialites often placed ads hoping to find them a job. On May 16, 1894 Esther announced, "A lady going to Europe wishes to obtain a situation for her cook; she is thoroughly competent and reliable; German."
At around 7:00 on the morning of January 20, 1896 a servant girl took a delivery of milk at the basement door. The Sun reported, "When the maid got the milk she walked out into the kitchen with it and laid the can down on the window sill. Then she dipped some of it out into a smaller can and started upstairs." She carelessly had forgotten to close the basement door which, apparently, was being watched.
While on an upper floor the maid busied herself with tidying up rooms. About 30 minutes later Esther heard the front door bang shut, but assumed it was the maid. That maid, however, also heard the bang and went to investigate. It was then that she found the basement door still open. The Sun reported, "Everything was in order in the parlor, but in the dining room the girl's suspicions were confirmed. All of the sideboard drawers were open, and every bit of silver had been taken from them."
The New-York Tribune said, "It was noticed that the thieves only took solid silver articles...The police say that one thief could not have carried off all the silverware stolen, and they are sure that two thieves did the job." The brazen burglars had made off with $12,600 worth of silver in today's money. This was not the first time the Sands had been robbed. Julius had regained his previously stolen property by paying a reward and once again offered a generous reward for the family silver. (One might assume that the maid was soon looking for a new job.)
The year 1903 was a traumatic one for the Esther. On June 10, the New York Herald reported, "Julius Sands died Monday at his home, No. 12 East Seventy-sixth street." He had been actively involved in Jewish social organizations and charities, including the Progress Club, the Hebrew Technical Institute, the Sanitarium for Hebrew Children and the West End Synagogue.
The grief-ridden widow left town shortly after the funeral. On June 23 The Sun announced, "Mrs. Julius Sands...is booked to sail on Thursday for Europe." Her stay was short and she was home in time to accept an invitation to the home of her sister, Maria, on August 24.
Maria, was married to Philip Kleeberg and the couple lived in an opulent mansion at 3 Riverside Drive. Things were possibly not going extremely smoothly in the relationship, with Philip maintaining a second house for his own purposes. It is possible that Esther and society in general were unaware of the domestic problems, since pretenses would have been rigorously maintained.
After dinner that evening the party took a drive along Riverside Drive, then returned to the terrace where they sat and chatted. At one point Maria excused herself. When she did not return, Esther became concerned and followed. The Sun reported, "She opened the door just as Mrs. Kleeberg put a bottle to her lips. Mrs. Sands knocked the bottle, which was filled with carbolic acid, to the floor."
Badly burned by the acid, Esther ran downstairs and instructed the servants to summon a doctor. By the time the ambulance arrived Maria Kleeberg was dead.
Esther soon left East 78th Street. An auction of the contents of the house was held on September 20, 1904. The catalogue listed items from the drawing room, including a "magnificent Louis XVI suite...fine solid bronzes and bronze groups, Louis XVI Ormolu clock sets [and] very large and rare pieces Capo di Monti Royal Worcester." There were a Weber white mahogany grand piano, silverware by Tiffany and Gorham, and "massive hand carved sideboard, table, chairs and cabinets."
(As an interesting side note, Julius Sands' estate was administered by broker Arthur S. Levy. He committed suicide in 1913 when it was discovered he had embezzled $500,000 from the estate, according to The Sun.)
By the time of the auction, Esther had already sold the residence to Sidney M. Sternbach. He was a member in the law firm of Popper & Sternbach. (Arthur William Popper was the brother of Sternbach's wife, Minnie.) The couple maintained a summer home in Deal, New Jersey.
When the house was sold in 1943, newspapers reported, "the buyer will occupy." But instead it was quickly renovated into apartments, one per floor. The large units were leased to well-to-do tenants whose names appeared in the society columns over the coming decades.
Dr Byron Smith purchased the house in 1981 and maintained his oculoplastic practice in the ground floor. According to his son, Lindsay, the family "renovated the entire house and kept the four apartments above. The tenants were all celebrities, Pia and Chantell Miller, John Bowes Lyon, Coco Blaffer, Linda Scott Pitts." The Smith's retained possession until 1992, when it was sold to an Italian-based firm. Another renovation completed in 1996 resulted in three apartments--two duplexes and a simplex.
The house was purchased in January 2008 for $13.5 million by Matthew and Marisa Brown. Brown was a managing director of his father-in-law's investment firm, the Fairfield Greenwich Group. In 1989 Bernie Madoff began overseeing that firm's investment decisions and by 2008 48 percent of its capital was tied to Madoff.
A year after purchasing the 7,800-square-foot house, the Browns were forced to sell after Madoff's scheme ruined Fairfield Greenwich Group. They listed it at $12 million, however one real estate agent said, according to The Observer, "make them an offer. They have to sell it. I told my guy he should offer them $8 million." That figure was not far off. The Browns accepted a $9.75 million offer--$3.75 million less than they had paid only months before.
A renovation to a single-family residence was begun in 2012. It included painting the brownstone facade. Despite its sitting within the Metropolitan Museum Historic District, the painting of the facade forged ahead. The outward appearance of the house was therefore altered for the first time in 125 years. The renovations were completed in 2013.
photographs by the author
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