Friday, May 6, 2011

The Hidden Treasure -- 1847 Macmillan-Forbes House No. 11 West 12th Street

A sidewalk bridge obstructs the facade under restoration in 2011.  An industrial garage door and non-descript appearance disguise the incredible interiors.
Nestled snugly behind the Forbes Building at 5th Avenue and West 12th Street is a flat-fronted red brick building with a black suburban garage door and little architectural interest. Within the ugly duckling of a house, however, is an unexpected swan.

No. 11 West 12th Street was built in 1847 as wealthy New Yorkers began constructing wide brownstone mansions along lower 5th Avenue above Washington Square. William Way had purchased a double lot the previous year from William E. Wilmerding and built two matching Greek Revival homes for himself, at No. 11, and his partner Samuel S. Barry at No. 13.

Barry & Way were successful merchants and the two fine residences in the newly-fashionable neighborhood would reflect their status.

Following the Civil War shipping magnate Peter I. Nevius, Jr. owned the house with his wife Matilda and daughter Annie. Following the death of his father, Peter took over the firm Peter I. Nevius & Son

By the 1890’s the well-to-do family of William T. Meredith had taken possession of No. 11. Meredith, who had been an officer in the Navy was a banker at 48 Wall Street. Here, in the parlor where the funeral for Matilda Nevius had been held in 1870, Mrs. Meredith hosted a debutante reception for her daughter Katherine Morris Meredith in 1893.

Although the neighborhood was highly upper-class, it was not always safe. In October of 1894, while his family was away in the country, Meredith was on his way home after having dined at the nearby Berkeley Hotel. When he was just a block from home, in front of First Presbyterian Church, he was attacked and beaten by a gang of thugs who stole his gold watch.

Following the Merediths, Dr. and Mrs. John Winters Brannan leased the house from Helen Talbot for many years. The forward-thinking pair was often at the forefront of social issues. Dr. Brannan, who was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Bellevue and Allied Hospitals wrote to President McKinley in 1898 about the “inhuman” way diseased and injured soldiers from the Spanish-American War were being transported – many of them suffering from malaria and typhoid poisoning. The somewhat feminist Mrs. Brannan was an active member of the Metropolitan Women’s Golf Association and hosted its meetings in the house for years.

The Brannans continued leasing the house after millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan purchased it, along with the adjoining property, in 1901.  John Brannan continued to promote his open-minded causes, including the then-radical concept of free dental clinics for school children, especially the poor. In the meantime, Mrs. Brannan became a major force in the Women’s Suffrage movement and, beginning in 1911, hosted meetings here.

In January 1912 The New York Times remarked that “Automobiles lined the Fifth Avenue end of West Twelfth Street yesterday afternoon, and society women crowded the parlors of Mrs. John Winters Brannan…to get a foreword from Mrs. Pankhurst, the English suffragist leader, of what she will say at her big American farewell meeting at Carnegie Hall to-night.”

The Macmillan Company purchased the house along with Ryan’s other real estate extending along Fifth Avenue in 1915 as the site of its new headquarters building. The house at No. 11 was spared, however, and as the gargantuan office building was completed a garage entrance was carved into the English basement with an entrance into the new building.

The interiors were re-done by Mario Buatta -- photo Brown Harris Stevens
The Macmillans, whose later relative Harold Macmillan would become Prime Minister of England, hired esteemed architect Thomas Hastings to do renovations. Hastings, who was a co-founder of the firm Carrere and Hastings, designed the richly paneled double drawing room.

In the early 1960s, after the Macmillan building became the Forbes building, Malcolm S. Forbes bought the house from the Macmillan family. In jarring contrast to the pseudo-modern brick façade, the splendid interiors were designed by Mulholland & Olsen and updated by Mario Buatta. Throughout both the Macmillan and Forbes periods it was the scene of dazzling entertainments, attended by names like David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher, the Reagans and Richard Nixon.

photo Brown Harris Stevens
In 2011 architect Leon Deller initiated exterior restoration when the house was offered for sale at $15.25 million.
photo Brown Harris Stevens
A hidden treasure, the house at No. 11 West 12th Street with its rich history successfully disguises its striking interiors behind a non-descript brick wall.

non-credited photographs taken by the auhor

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