Saturday, January 1, 2011

The House that Minnie Young Built - 19 East 54th Street

19 East 54th Street on September 1, 1900

When Albert and Minnie young married around 1875, things looked good for the couple. Albert was a successful stockbroker and Minnie had amassed a fortune of her own in Virginia after the Civil War. Together they raised three sons and a daughter in a succession of fine homes.

Tragedy struck when in 1895 Albert died and then, only four years later, son Albert M., aged 25 years old, passed away unexpectedly.

The year that her son died, 1899, plans for filed for a new house at 19 East 54th Street. Minnie commissioned Hiss & Weekes to design her home. Possibly owing to her status of a mourning widow and mother, she dispensed with the architectural ornament currently stylish in grand residences of the neighborhood.  Rather than marble or limestone, Mrs. Young’s mansion was granite. The Italian Renaissance palazzo, overall, was dignified rather than exuberant.

Minnie Young’s home spoke restraint.

The interior was less so. Coffered ceilings, oak paneled stairways and a stained glass conservatory reflected the wealth of the owner. In 1900 Minnie moved in with her sister, Johanna “Jennie” Arents, and her son, George. Nine servants also lived in the house including a “hallman” named Pleasant Read. Other help included the cook, kitchen maid, parlor maid, laundress, and butler.

Minnie owned thoroughbred racing horses and a year after moving into No. 19 won four ribbons in the Millbrook Horse Show. Seven years later in 1907, her daughter, Mrs. A. E. Dieterich, caused scandal by running off to Paris with Harry Benchley, Alfred Vanderbilt’s horse buyer. Minnie steamed off to France with her son, George Louis, booking rooms at the Hotel Ritz and going almost immediately to her daughter’s rooms in “a hotel little frequented by Americans.”

The New York Times reported that “When she left the Hotel Ritz…it was with the expressed determination of bringing her daughter back with her.”

Minnie’s expressed determination was to no avail and a year later she steamed back into New York harbor without her daughter.

Later that year Minnie and her sister lost over $1 million when the investment firm of A.O. Brown & Co., of which Minnie’s son Lewis Ginter Young, was a partner, failed. The women, whom The Times said “had been liberally provided for by their father, who was prominent in the American Tobacco Company,” were “apparently not in the least ruffled by the ordeal.”

By the time World War I was over, the neighborhood where Minnie lived was no longer home to Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. The chateaux and palazzos of the great 5th Avenue families were being demolished or converted to retail space as their owners fled uptown. In 1920 Minnie Young followed suit. Moving to Park Avenue, Minnie leased her home to Lady Duff Gordon who did business as "Lucille." Lucille was a dressmaker to the wealthy and famous. It took Lucille a year to complete her renovations, including installing show windows in the first floor.  She opened in 1921, paying Minnie a monthly rent on the 21-year lease of around $50,000.

It wasn’t a good move for Lucille.

The next year, on March 21, 1922, The Times announced that Lucille was in receivership after an involuntary bankruptcy. Lucille’s attorney, Harry Bandler explained that the “embarrassment of the company” had been caused in part because “the company was obliged to move to its new quarters at 19 East Fifty-fourth Street during the year, which required the tieing up of a considerable amount of its capital in the improvements which were made in the new quarters.”

Adventure-loving antiques trader Arthur S. Vernay took over the house and it was from here that he sold to William Randolph Hearst the historic Elizabethan great chamber of Gilling Castle from Yorkshire, England. On April 6, 1933 Vernay bought the house, selling and exhibiting both the wonderful and the rare until he closed his gallery on October 20, 1940.

Minnie Young’s house was next home to the English-Speaking Union for several decades. A non-political organization it was conceived to foster global friendship and understanding among English-speaking peoples.

In 1962 the house became the salon of a celebrity hairdresser. Like Lucille, Kenneth used only one name. Here clients like Jacqueline Kennedy came to be beautified and here on May 16, 1989 fire ravaged the back portion of the house. The house sat, its interiors soot covered and rubble-filled, for over a year before renovation began.

Today Minnie Young’s dignified home at No. 19 East 54th Street is home to Interaudi Bank. While the exterior is pristine and preserved, the elegant interiors, except for traces here and there that managed to survive modernization and commercialization, are essentially gone.

photo Interaudi Bank

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